I was just about to step out my front door on the way to a meeting when the mailman arrived with my latest copy of ACE Fitness Matters. On the cover were the "before" and "after" pictures of a bare-chested man. However, unlike the before-and-after pictures shown in the ads for weight loss supplements and gimmicks, there seemed to be no difference in the man's body "before" or "after". Intrigued, I promptly decided that reading the magazine in the car on my way to my appointment was worth the risk of a headache.
ACE stands for American Council on Exercise, a non-profit organization that is considered by many to be the "watchdog" of the fitness industry because it commissions reputable universities to do research studies on the latest fitness trends and equipment. The organization publishes the results of such studies in their magazine. This month's issue was on "Electrical Muscle Stimulation: Highly Charged Workout or Hair-raising Experience?"
EMS is a "passive exercise" method that claims to give you results (fat loss and muscle toning) without any effort on your part. All you have to do, EMS proponents say, is attach electrodes on the desired body parts, lie back, and let the machine do the work by delivering the right amount of electrical stimulation to make your muscles contract.
These machines are available for sale over the Internet, in magazines and in various home shopping channels. It is not uncommon to see ads claiming that one session of EMS is equivalent to hundreds of sit-ups. Needless to say, many consumers, desperate to get in shape without having to sweat, fall for the promise of results without any hard work. .
History of EMS machines
According to ACE, EMS machines were originally designed to prevent a bed-ridden individual's muscles from shrinking any more than necessary. It is used in the field of physical therapy to rehabilitate muscles that have become immobile from surgery or injury.
ACE claims that the machines became popular when word spread that Russian athletes were using them together with their strength training techniques to grow massive muscles.
In the 60's, an EMS machine marketed under the name "Relax-A-Cisor" was widely promoted as an enjoyable and easy way to reduce. As a little girl, I remember seeing my mother hooked up to such a machine.
In the book, The Health Robbers, author Stephen Barrett claims it took years of investigation and a five-month court battle to put this profitable product out of business.
He writes that forty witnesses testified that the Relax-A-Cisor could be hazardous in a wide range of conditions including gastrointestinal, orthopedic, muscular, neurological, vascular, skin, kidney and female disorders. The judge found it could even cause miscarriages.
How they did the experiment
ACE commissioned a research team at the University of Wisconsin to determine whether claims about weight loss or fat loss due to EMS were true. Head researcher Dr. John Porcari divided 29 college students into two groups.
Both groups underwent electrical stimulation (the control group was attached to machines that had been altered not to deliver electrical current) three times a week for eight weeks. The electrodes were attached to the front and back of the arms and thighs and abdominals.
The researchers followed the instructions given by the manufacturer of the EMS machine to increase the frequency and length of the contractions over the eight-week period.
To have an objective means to judge whether EMS really works, the researchers measured the participants' weight, body fat, body measurements and strength before and after the experiment. The participants were also photographed from the front, side, and back while using swimsuits.
The old saying "a picture speaks a thousand words" were never more true than the pictures ACE chose for the cover of its magazine. There was no significant difference in the way the man looked before or after the eight weeks of EMS. According to ACE, the other participants experienced the same results - "no significant changes in weight, body-fat percentage, strength or overall appearance".
Painful side effects
Additionally, some participants complained that the sessions were painful. ACE explained that this was because, to get the necessary stimulus, the machines had to be turned up to a level that most people cannot tolerate. ACE said that to imagine what this feels like, "think hand in light socket while standing in water"! ACE reported other "disturbing side-effects" like a woman who could not put her arms down every time she received the electrical stimulation.
Liz Neporent, author of Weight Training for Dummies, also claims that EMS can be a painful experience. She recounts in her book that she developed deep red splotches on her thigh when she tried an EMS device for the first time.
It was ironic that instead of saving time, the sessions wasted time, said ACE. Not only did each session have to last 45 minutes but much time was also wasted attaching the electrodes. ACE said that the researchers found attaching the electrodes so cumbersome that they had to sew custom-made lycra sleeves to fit the upper arm and thigh areas of the participants.
The ACE-commissioned study is not the only one to find that EMS does not help people lose weight or fat. A Utah State University study that was presented at the 1997 American College of Sports Medicine conference found that there were no significant changes in the weight, body fat or measurements of the participants although the abdominal and hip strength improved considerably in the EMS group compared to the control group.
The Utah researchers stated that "EMS may strengthen muscles to a point, but probably will not help individuals lose weight, lose fat or change their basic body dimensions".
ACE quotes Dr. Porcari of the Wisconsin study as saying that "Any potential strength benefits are likely to be isometric and, therefore, probably have little practical significance or carryover benefit in the real world. People need to realize these units are going to provide very little health benefits as compared to aerobic exercise or a regular resistance training program".
ACE concluded its EMS article with this statement: "Electrical muscle stimulation, which is used to stimulate specific muscles by channeling electrical impulses into the body via wire connections and rubber pads, has proven effective in helping to speed the rehabilitation process and to reduce atrophy in individuals confined to a bed. However, to date, there is no research to suggest that it will help people lose weight or reduce body fat."
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