Sunday, February 24, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Belly aches: Belts hurt, don't work, experts say

Chicago Tribune

'Exercise belts' through history

To say that electrical muscle stimulators are "new" or "revolutionary" isn't exactly accurate, said Bob McCoy, owner of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.

"These things have been around for more than 100 years," McCoy said. "They've been out before, and they've been pulled off the market before."

One version, the Heidelberg Alternating Current Electric Belt, appeared in a Sears catalog in 1900.

Now, an urban legend's going around that NASA astronauts use these machines. Not true, says a NASA spokesperson.

— Chicago Tribune

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TV is humming with infomercials pushing electrical muscle stimulators, gadgets such as Fast Abs, Abtronic and Ab Energizer, that purport to help tone, tighten and strengthen the body without "exercise."

The thought of developing rock-hard abs without doing sit-ups, crunches or the dreaded 30 minutes of cardio workouts three times a week is downright seductive.

But many doctors and exercise professionals say there's a problem with these devices: They may not work.

A study to be released in May in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reportedly will confirm that EMS machines have little to no effect on firming abdominal muscles of healthy people.

"It's more of a gimmick than anything else," said Tommy Boone, professor and chairman of the department of exercise physiology at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn., where he also is director of the school's Exercise Physiology Laboratories. "Some people would take issue with that, but those people probably have stock in the business."

Manufacturers of non-prescription, non-medical EMS machines often claim a scientific basis for product effectiveness. The devices are said to contract muscles by passing electrical currents through electrodes that are in contact with the body. The current for most of the products is felt only once a gel or cream is applied to the electrode and to the skin. Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that EMS machines can cause electrical shocks and burns when used incorrectly.

Even if used correctly, there can be pain.

Vickie Knight bought one of the machines in December. "The advertising said that one 10-minute session was equivalent to doing 600 sit-ups. That sounded great to me because I could keep it on while I was at work, at home, wherever.

"But when I put it on, particularly on my side, it was really painful," Knight said. "It hurts less when I put it on my stomach, so I keep it there when I use it. I've gotten used to the pain."

Knight said she has been using her product for five weeks and has yet to see any change.

A lot of skepticism

Dr. Venu Akuthota of the Center for Spine and Sports at the Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago, which uses medical EMS machines, explained why these machines might be painful. At lower intensities, Akuthota said, EMS would not build muscle. He doubts that they would at higher intensities, either.

"The research that I've seen indicates that continuous pulses above 20 beats per second would be effective in building muscle strength for people who may have spinal-cord injuries or who are in a cast, but this usage is not practical because it would hurt too much."

Knight acknowledged using her machine on 10, its highest frequency. But because the product has not been subjected to FDA scrutiny, no one knows for sure the actual frequency at which the unit operates.

This is one of many questionable factors about EMS stimulators. The potential to cause cardiac arrhythmia should concern users, experts say.

In addition, because these machines stimulate the flow of blood to the surrounding tissue, they say, the devices should not be used by people with pacemakers, epilepsy, heart conditions, multiple sclerosis, inflamed veins or tissue inflamed from a recent injury. They also should be avoided by pregnant women or those who have recently given birth and by women during heavy menstruation.

The machines also should not be used around the eyes, because they may damage optic nerves, said Jennifer Gilbertson, clinical supervisor of adult outpatients at University of Chicago Hospitals.

A few legitimate uses

Although their effectiveness as muscle-building, body-toning devices has not been proved, EMS machines do have legitimate medical uses.

"The only benefit of EMS machines is for people with dysfunction, paralysis or loss of muscle use in the lower extremities as a result of an accident," Boone said. "It is impossible for these machines to give you that look you see on TV. You cannot burn fat without aerobic exercise, and these machines don't provide a mechanism for burning fat. If you don't get rid of the fat, you won't see the muscles."

Those who decide to order one will soon discover that these gadgets, which emphasize "passive" exercise, also require other more traditional means such as sensible eating and cardio work in order to reap benefits.

With the current buzz about these machines, those in the fitness field question what the FDA is doing about the matter.

"We've had a broad history on these kinds of products," said Sharon Snider, an FDA spokeswoman. "There has recently been a plethora of infomercials on these, and we are looking into it right now."


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