2018-01-24 / News

Fitness gadgets and gimmicks – how they stack up


Bath gloves that scrub away fatty deposits. Chewing gum that causes five pounds of weight loss a week. Vibrating belt machines that vow to jiggle you into shape.

America’s history is flush with purported miracle products like these – low-effort innovations promising to achieve a fitter, sleeker you. Some are fleeting fads, while others, like vibrating belt machines, have origins from before the American Civil War. The first belt exercisers – which pulsated and worked a piece of cloth back and forth around the user’s midsection – date back to the 1850s, and were meant to mimic a massage, toning muscle and removing toxins from the body.

Looking back, many of these inventions seem ridiculous – at best misinformed experiments, at worst obvious scams to wring money out of consumers desperate for a shortcut to slimness and improved health. Have we really come that far, though? Flick through the channels on your TV and you’ll find any number of fitness devices that promise instant results or your money back. But do any of them actually work?

To assess the actual benefits of a few popular fad products, the Observer contacted two health professionals to get their input. Their consensus? Targeting one muscle may achieve toning, but major weight loss requires more well-rounded workouts, including aerobic exercise.

“It’s generally accepted that there’s no such thing as burning fat within a specific region of the body,” says R. Lee Franco, assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. “You can always target specific muscles, but you can’t always target fat burning in that area.”

Kyle Stull, a faculty instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine in Arizona, agrees.

“There’s no such thing as spot reducing,” says Stull, adding that he’s tried many of the mass-marketed popular devices. “I want a six-pack just like everyone else wants a six-pack.”

From the ThighMaster to the Shake Weight, these products aren’t always the best way to achieve our health goals. Still, it would be incorrect to say they’re without their benefits.

Here’s a look at how they stack up.

The ThighMaster

Perhaps best known for its TV infomercials in the early 1990s with actress Suzanne Somers, the ThighMaster features two pieces of bent metal tubing connected by a hinge. Users are supposed to place the ThighMaster between their knees and squeeze, exercising the hip abductors.

According to Somers, the device was originally a Swedish product meant to exercise the upper body. Somehow, the device made its way to a Malibu ashram and was taken up by a group of investors. While its origin story might sound a little kooky, don’t discount its benefits out of hand.

“I think it works,” Franco says.

While far from the only way to work out your legs, the ThighMaster does seem to work toward its stated goal of creating “shapely hips and thighs.”

“I don’t think there is anything out there that encourages movement that is not effective,” says Franco. “It’s an effective piece of equipment that works in the area it’s intended.”

Shake Weight

Essentially an altered dumbbell that undulates, the Shake Weight was the subject of mockery when it debuted in 2009 for its sexually suggestive movement.

Everyone from “South Park” to Ellen DeGeneres made fun of the device, which, when held, stimulates the arms, chest and back muscles by rapidly shaking back and forth. While Consumer Reports found that using the Shake Weight wasn’t as effective as traditional weightlifting, Franco says its better than doing nothing.

“It’s going to help improve muscle tone, depending how long you do it for, and for the intensity that you do it for with your arms,” Franco says. “It’s not going to lead to specific fat loss within that region. It may help with muscle endurance.”

Toning shoes

Popularized by a steamy Super Bowl ad featuring Kim Kardashian, shoe company Skechers thought they had a win with their line of curved-sole sneakers they claimed created toned legs, abs and glutes.

The only problem? The claims weren’t true, and the Federal Trade Commission charged Skechers with deceiving customers about the health benefits of the shoes. Skechers agreed to pay $40 million to settle the charges.

Though Skechers’ shoes may not have delivered what was advertised, Stull says balance training does have health benefits. LeBron James, for instance, often balances on two inflatable plastic bubbles during warm-ups before games.

“It alone won’t create significant changes that people are hoping for,” he says, adding that it can especially help older adults with issues of balance and falling. “If used correctly, [balance exercises are] incredibly effective, but they don’t reduce a lot of body fat.”

Ab belt

With a multitude of such products on the market, no list of fad exercise equipment would be complete without the ab belt.

Ab belts are worn around the abdomen and use electrical stimulation to cause muscles to contract. The belts feature small electrodes that send electrical pulses through a wearer’s bare skin. Electrical belts date back to the 19th century with models that looked more like torture devices than fitness equipment. Marketing such belts as medical treatment, some early advertisements promised to charge the wearer’s body with “reviving voltage,” contracting and strengthening muscles and curing whatever ails you, be that asthma, kidney troubles, constipation, paralysis or “lost manhood.”

Modern-day ab belts are more modest in their claims, and are marketed as ab toners. While they may help promote abdominal strength, they don’t reduce fat or provide other health benefits.

Stull has first-hand experience with the belts.

“My abs get really sore, but I also get a few little burns on my skin,” he says. “In the long run, that does nothing to burn extra calories. We could shock them all day, every day, but until we exercise enough, until we burn more calories than we’re taking in, we’re not going to see those results.”


The current exercise product darling incorporates technology more advanced than electric pulses and vibrations, and has the benefit of encouraging aerobic exercise. With its ability to track the number of steps you take, calories burned, distance traveled, how well you sleep, and other health data, wearable fitness devices like the Fitbit have become hugely popular in recent years.

More than 13 million fitness trackers – including the Fitbit, the Apple Watch, and Jawbone – were sold in 2015. These devices alert you when daily health goals are achieved and can pair with other people’s devices for competition, taking some of the mental effort out of exercise and making it a game of sorts.

Stull, who owns a Fitbit, says he enjoys using the device, and that wearable fitness technology can be a great motivator to get into shape. Although, some have questioned the accuracy of the calorie counter.

The Fitbit can help stoke interest in fitness, but Stull says it isn’t a solution by itself.

“It gets [users] motivated,” says Stull, “but it’s not the thing that’s going to keep them motivated.” ¦

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