Can you get flat abs in no time by using the Ab Rocker just five minutes a day? Experts bust some famous fitness myths.
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updated 12/23/2003 12:06:11 PM ET 2003-12-23T17:06:11

“Lose a pound a day!” “Look better naked!”

We’ve all heard the breathless come-ons from the makers of all types of exercise products and weight-loss programs.

They promise if you buy their "scientifically designed," low-priced devices, you'll lose fat and inches in almost no time with little effort. Some products like the Ab Energizer even claim to firm up flabby bellies by zapping them with electrical currents. No exercising necessary.

Well, who wouldn’t want to carve out a rippling stomach while sitting on the couch munching Doritos? The problem is, not all fitness products and weight-loss programs are obvious phonies. Some seem like they might actually work.

So how can someone shape up without getting burned?

The advice isn't as simple as saying you should avoid buying anything you see advertised on television. Plenty of products promoted on TV and in magazines do the job they promise. Many pitches for exercise products mix in enough truth with the hype that it’s not always easy to spot a fraud, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist and vice president of the American Council on Exercise.

“People fall for the notion of effortless exercise or getting dramatic results in a quick time,” he says. “But you have to look at those products with a jaundiced eye."

In a fashion age of the exposed navel, many of the claims promise consumers a flat stomach in a short period of time.

But when a product’s advertising says you can get astonishing results without a lot of hard work, don’t fall for it, says the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency which monitors advertising for false claims.

The FTC has been pursuing bogus fitness and weight-loss marketers since the 1920s when a product called “McGowan’s Reducing Cream” promised to dissolve away excess fat quickly and permanently.

Sound familiar? The old scams weren’t that different from what we hear today.

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More recently the FTC has gone after a weight-loss program advertised on TV called Body Flex. For $41, Body Flex promised consumers that they could drop four to 14 inches across six body areas in a week by exercising 20 minutes a day. Sitting down, no less.

No magic bullet
“There’s always somebody else coming up with some newfangled idea,” says Robin Spector, an attorney with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We try to get consumers not to fall for these claims.”

It's not just fitness gadgets that don't work. There are scores of overblown dieting or weight-loss systems.

The FTC found that over half of all weight-loss ads contained false or unsupported claims.

The agency says a red warning flag should be raised if a product promises you can lose two pounds or more a week or lose weight by blocking calorie or fat absorption, lose weight by wearing a product or that the program helps everybody who tries it to lose weight.

“People want to believe there’s a magic bullet,” says Spector. “It’s understandable. But in all the research that’s been done, there isn’t one.”

Even so, there may be some hopeful or desperate souls out there still wondering, "Can I get washboard stomach in 14 days?"

Not likely, say fitness experts.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” says Bryant. "People have tried so many different things [to get in shape], they're at a point of desperation. But in order to get results, people have to invest in sweat."

Bryant says consumers should watch out for systems that rely on gimmicks or claim to work by isolating muscle groups.

"The [marketers] try to confuse people with high-tech mumbo jumbo or take advantage of buzzwords in fitness, like resistance training," he says.

In reality, most products that promise dramatic results fall far short of their claims.

The January issue of Consumer Reports compares a dozen infomercial exercise machines ranging in price from $80 for the Bun and Thigh Max up to $2,000 for the TreadClimber by Nautilus.

Not surprisingly, the magazine finds that many aren’t worth the money, although some such as the Bowflex, Crossbow, Total Gym and the TreadClimber come close.

Consumer Reports editors faulted a number of products for not being adjustable to fit various body sizes. Others required very low-calorie diets that would be difficult to follow. Some of the abdominal machines performed no better than doing crunches on the floor free of charge.

In general, the magazine found that the more expensive the machine, the better its quality and effectiveness.

For example, costing nearly $1,600, the "Total Gym XL" is "a viable strength-training alternative," according to the magazine.

Consumers interested in buying a new workout system or trying a weight-loss program should take the time to investigate how the product works and what the total financial investment will be, says Bryant. Ask for advice about an exercise gadget from the trainers at a health club or local college, he adds.

Ultimately, it comes down to common sense. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably won't do any more for your abs than a bag of Doritos.

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