Workout Devices Get Rated

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Experts Argue Pros, Cons of the Latest Exercise Equipment

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Kangoo Jumps. The Bowflex. The Body Dome. The Ab Away. You've seen them on TV. You've heard the promises -- tight abs, sculpted arms, supercharged metabolism, burn calories like a furnace. But do these products really deliver?

For feedback, WebMD turned to two experts, both with the American Council on Exercise (ACE): Cedric Bryant, PhD, ACE's chief exercise physiologist, and Sal Fishara, MS, exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer with Forza Fitness in Manhattan.

Here's their advice on several "As Seen On TV" products: the Ab Away, the Body Dome, Body Flex, Bowflex, the Gazelle, inversion/gravity tables, Kangoo Jumps, spinning bikes, the Total Gym, and trampolines (mini).

The Ab Away

Bryant: "This is an abdominal 'training' product that focuses on the lowering action of a sit-up. That's fine, it's an important aspect of exercise, but there's nothing magical about it in terms of sculpting. The ads say the product is safe because of the cushioned back support. But given the dimensions of the device, it would seem that for individuals of average height or taller, it will be too short to provide any real support for the back."

Fishara: "The problem is, you are seated almost upright during the movements. I don't think that's necessarily good. In order to activate abs, you need to bend from the mid torso. If you bend at the hips like old-fashioned sit-ups, you're going to use hip flexors, not abdominals. You could do a full range of ab exercises using just your own muscles, with no machine, and get more results."

The Body Dome

Bryant: "This is a 'stability ball' but with a stable base, which allows you to do push-ups and other exercises. This kind of apparatus can be used effectively for muscle conditioning exercises. However, the infomercials hype that it can do everything -- like converting fat to muscle. That's impossible; those are two distinct tissues. Also, it claims to supercharge metabolism, which may lead people to believe they will burn calories like a furnace. That would be nice, but it won't happen."

Fishara: "It's a good product, but limited. You can't do a whole-body workout on the Body Dome. It's good for squats and crunches, but it's not at all a full-body exercise tool. It's one tool to be added to a series of others."

Body Flex

Bryant: The inventor of this program "alleges that so-called aerobic breathing is key to weight loss -- that it speeds up metabolism, allows you to burn more calories. That's really nonsensical. She says that performing 15-minute exercises is the key to stoking metabolism, which has no scientific basis."

Fishara: "Just looking at this program, it looks limited at best. I'd have to try it to see if it really did anything."


Bryant: "This is a system that involves resistance rods or bands. It's been around awhile and is good for resistance training. It's reasonably compact and can be used to do a variety of exercises. More experienced users might be more critical -- they won't experience what they get in a gym. But for the average user, it would be good for resistance training."

Fishara: "The Bowflex is a superb strength-training machine. When you use those cables, it forces you to challenge primary muscles in the shoulder, chest, and triceps as well as support muscles. The machine itself provides smooth range of motion and is the most versatile machine around. I highly recommend it."

A word of caution: Grabbing cables from behind could mean a pulled muscle. "But if you have a workout partner, he can pull the cable in front of you to get you started," Fishara tells WebMD.

The Gazelle

Bryant: "The Gazelle really tries to provide low-impact exercise, but the swinging movement is not necessarily great because it can be quite uncomfortable. The advertisements really play up the successively wide range of motion you can get. But it could be difficult -- even problematic -- if you do it repeatedly. They also tend to over-hype what you can expect to achieve."

Fishara: "This [As Seen on TV product] is advertised as a low-impact exercise machine, but what you get is almost no impact. It does provide very smooth range of motion. The problem is, your body performs actions that are not natural. They can potentially be dangerous because of extra stress they put on hips, knees, ankles, and lower back. Also, it's not made for very tall people."

Inversion/Gravity Tables

Bryant: These have been marketed to people with back problems and for exercise. When the body is inverted, or turned over, the spine supposedly gets some relief from stress of gravity. People perform abdominal exercises and others from the inverted position. His concern: "The blood pressure in your eyes and blood vessels in the head and neck area are increased, which could be dangerous for individuals with heart disease, stroke, or glaucoma risk factors."

Fishara: "I was advised never to exercise in the inverted position. Inversion puts a lot of pressure on the lower back. Men especially have this problem because they hold their weight in the lower region. For a certain percentage of the population, this could be very hazardous. There are other ways to strengthen the spinal muscles."

Kangoo Jumps

Bryant: "These aren't shoes, they're devices you wear on your feet. The intent is to lessen impact associated with weight-bearing exercise. Some preliminary research conducted at a couple of universities has shown they may be right. But one concern might be that it alters a person's gait, which could cause other orthopedic problems."

Fishara: "It looks like these are good for softening high impact, but it would not generate results an athlete is training for. It also looks like it would throw your posture off and potentially create an injury. When you land, it's not guaranteed you will land properly. I'm not sure it's safe for older or heavier people."

Spinning Bikes

Bryant: "Spinning bikes are pretty effective -- they can be adjusted to match individual body dimensions. The speed can also be adjusted. However, most people don't know exactly how to adjust these bikes. There are bike-fitting and ride-along videos to teach you. One of the best out there is Le Mans Webmaster -- it helps keep you motivated."

Fishara: "Spinning bikes provide a very smooth form of low-impact exercise. But I don't think they have the variability in resistance that a standard bike has. Also, in classes you are pushed way beyond your comfort zone. To get results, you have to feel some degree of discomfort or burn. I can't see someone doing it in their own home."

The Total Gym

Bryant: "This has been around for quite some time. It allows you to perform functional exercise movements like pull-ups. People can get a reasonable dose of resistance exercise. It's not for people who have trained at a high level in a gym. But for a home device, it does give a minimal dose of exercise."

Fishara: "I've only seen this in a video, but it looks like a good piece of apparatus, particularly for beginners. My question is, does it provide enough resistance? There's a time when the body reaches adaptation, and you have to increase resistance to get benefit. It doesn't look like you can get much more with this system. Also, I'm concerned that some of the exercise motions could put too much stress on ankles, knees, and the lower back."

Trampolines (Mini)

Bryant: "This is another effort to minimize impact from weight-bearing exercises, just like the Kangoo Jumps. Theoretically, you can get a good aerobic workout if you move at an aggressive enough speed. But it's hard to sustain that high rate. It also would be hard to get much calorie burn. There is a free-flowing nature to your movements, which could help in managing stress. It has a soothing effect. But that's largely theory."

Fishara: "Mini trampolines are great; they can allow an aerobic workout that is non-impact. As opposed to jogging outside, you can jog in place. There's a good amount of calorie burn, because you challenge your leg muscles and, indirectly, your abs. You also get a decent cardio workout. It's safe, fun, different."

Fishara's mother is a prime example of staying fit with minimum equipment: "She's 71 years old, and she uses her mini trampoline two or three times a week. When she can't go out for long walks, she gets her trampoline out. She also plays in four bowling leagues. Plays handball twice a week. In fact, she beats women a third her age at handball."

Some "As Seen On TV" products live up to their hype. But buyer beware. "I'd want to try it first, see what it felt like, if it were me," Fishara tells WebMD.

Published Aug. 11, 2003

SOURCES: Cedric Bryant, PhD, ACE's chief exercise physiologist. Sal Fishara, MS, exercise physiologist, and certified personal trainer, Forza Fitness, New York.

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