SAN DIEGO—Capitalizing on the age-old “get fit quick myth,” Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) advertisements have become a mainstay of late night television, the Internet and many in-flight magazines. Most promise “rock solid abs” and firmer thighs and buttocks—all without breaking a sweat. However, according to a new American Council on Exercise (ACE) study, published in its magazine, ACE FitnessMatters, this type of EMS is ineffective, time consuming and—at times—even painful.
A common and effective physical therapy procedure, EMS is used to stimulate specific muscles by channeling electrical impulses into the body via wire connections and rubber pads. Although EMS is used successfully in the rehab environment, ACE enlisted exercise scientist Dr. John Porcari to investigate the advertised weight loss and strength-related claims of the in-home EMS units.
Porcari and his team from the Human Performance Lab at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse recruited 29 college-aged volunteers to test the effectiveness of EMS in promoting weight and fat loss, increasing strength and improving overall appearance. Prior to beginning the study, subjects’ weight, body fat, body size and strength were measured. Participants were also photographed, reviewed and graded for firmness and tone using a 10-point scale.
Five Body Shapers International EMS units (Model BM1012BI) were purchased for use in the study. Priced at $519.00, the Body Shapers machine was chosen to represent average in-home EMS units. Dr. Porcari asserts that the purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of in-home EMS itself, not simply this particular brand of stimulator.
Seventeen subjects were placed in the EMS group, 12 in the control group. Subjects in both groups underwent electrical stimulation three times per week for eight weeks following the manufacturer’s recommendations. The machines used by the control group were altered so as not to deliver any electrical current. Stimulation targeted the triceps, quadriceps, bilateral biceps, hamstrings and abdominal muscles.
“Applying the electrodes proved to be difficult and time-consuming,” reports Dr. Porcari. “In the time it took to attach the electrodes and do the stimulation, the subjects could have easily completed an effective cardio or strength training workout.”
After eight weeks of EMS "training,” subjects experienced no significant changes in weight, body-fat percentage, strength or overall appearance. Some subjects also reported that the EMS sessions were painful when high levels of stimulation were used.
“In-home EMS has little practical significance or carryover benefit,” adds Dr. Porcari. “People need to realize that these units are going to provide very little health benefit as compared to aerobic exercise or a regular resistance-training program.”
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of physical activity and protecting consumers against unsafe and ineffective fitness products and instruction. As the nation’s “workout watchdog,” ACE conducts university-based research and testing that targets fitness products and trends. ACE sets standards for fitness professionals and is the world’s largest nonprofit fitness certifying organization. For more information on ACE and its programs, call (800) 825-3636 or log onto the ACE Web site at www.acefitness.org.
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