As Seen On TV Fitness Products: Are They Worth It?

As Seen on TV fitness products reign free over late-night television, and millions show up at doors each year. But are they really worth picking up the phone?

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A recent break up left you heartbroken. You haven’t seen the inside of a gym for a few months, and you’re not sleeping well. Instead of tossing in bed, you click on the television and flip to a late-night infomercial. It showcases trim, upbeat supermodels working out with some kind of enticing fitness contraption. They look happy. Minutes later, you pop out your credit card to buy what they’re selling. During the call, the customer service representative starts an upsell speech, and suddenly, you agree to buy two of these products. But, they come with free shipping and a DVD—so it’s totally worth it. In your mind, you know you do not need these products; but in your heart, you do need these products. How is it possible to feel polar opposite ways at the same time?

Mind Games

This tension between real and emotional need arises when basic body dissatisfaction overwhelms your mind. Research has shown that when people, particularly women, see images of models, anxiety about their own self-image escalates. In a review published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers wrote that women frequently make appearance-related social comparisons, which can lead to body dissatisfaction, and they continue to make these comparisons even with “detrimental consequences.” In short, if you see an image that makes you feel bad about your body, you’ll keep looking at it. Naturally, you’ll do what it takes to look like the image. The producers of the fitness product commercials capitalize on this. “Humans are hardwired to avoid anxiety,” says Eamonn Leaver, registered psychologist and writer at fitness resource The Home Fit Freak. “Attractive models are using the very product—Shake Weight, ab shaker, et cetera—that can help people get that ideal body and alleviate the anxiety they’re experiencing. As such, they feel compelled to purchase it.” In addition, trendy fitness products appear to solve the major excuses people list for eschewing exercise. Consider two examples:

  1. I have no time to work out. That common thought, Weaver says, is exactly why As Seen on TV products claim to work very quickly.
  2. Exercising is hard. It’s a chore. “That is why those attractive models with the desirable physiques always have smiles on their faces when demonstrating the product,” says Leaver. This perception that a product will bring you joy compels you to bring out your credit card.

Ultimately, explains Leaver, As Seen On TV products create unrealistic expectations in consumers’ minds. “The advertisements make them seem like they definitely will work.”

But will As Seen On TV products work outside of the shiny studio?

Well, sometimes. As a standalone replacement of a workout routine, very seldom do they work, says Jon Santangelo, a former personal trainer. He does not recommend most of these products as a gym replacement; some, however, are worth it in a bind. He advises staying selective in what you choose: “Do not go for the fad products. Go for simplicity and functionality.” Lynda Lippin, a Pilates instructor and ACE-certified personal trainer, expresses positive feelings toward most of the products. “In my opinion, anything that gets a previously immobile person moving, and is pretty safe, is a success.” But she does say some are downright dangerous. Do your homework.

Ready to go shopping?

If you’re going to purchase a fitness product in the middle a midnight stupor, you should at least be an educated consumer. To help, knowledgeable health and fitness professionals will provide their thoughts on popular TV fitness products.

Say no to spot reducers.

The fitness product that spurred an infomercial phenomenon, the ThighMaster was hawked by television star Suzanne Somers to shape and tone your inner thighs. She began as its spokesperson back in 1990, and she said she stopped counting how many were sold after 10 million units, according to NBC News.

The ThighMaster is touted as an exercise you can do while watching television—all you need to do is simply put the mechanism between your thighs and squeeze. But Jeff Deal, a certified corrective exercise specialist and owner of iDEAL Fitness, says products that focus on training a body part to make it smaller do not work. “This concept of spot reduction is impossible. In fact, if someone were to change nothing else in their life, with the exception of one of these products, they would more likely increase the size of the body part.” In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers investigated the effects of abdominal exercises on abdominal fat. Results showed no significant effects of such spot-reduction/toning exercises on body weight, body fat percentage, and abdominal circumference. Spot reduction, it seems, is a myth. Dieting and exercise will burn fat, but not in targeted areas.

Like the ThighMaster, the Ab Roller is based on spot reduction. Invented in 1994, the ab contraption promised to “sculpt abdominals faster than you’ve ever dreamed possible.” Trainers have been shaking their heads ever since. “All Pilates and fitness pros are on board with the need for people to learn to stabilize their spines, and this product works against that,” says Lippin. “I had one male client give himself some hernias with the Ab Roller.”

Don’t replace your meal just yet.

Meal replacement shakes populate late-night television and dominate nutrition store shelves. You always see your coworker bring one for lunch. But should you really drink your meal instead of eat it?

Research in the journal Diabetes Spectrum says that meal replacement shakes do offer benefits in weight management: They provide individuals with pre-measured amounts of food with known amounts of nutrients. But to maintain healthy weight loss, meal replacement therapy must be responsible and sustained. It’s imperative that you speak with a health care professional to determine whether these shakes, and which shakes, can serve as a useful weight management tool. Donna Benjamin, owner and head coach at Crossfit Homeward, says she’s heard plenty of weight loss success stories surrounding meal replacement shakes. But she also says that this bland, ultra-regimented type of nutrition isn’t sustainable. “Shakes might help an athlete get started on the path to a healthier lifestyle,” she says, “but the joy of gathering at a table and eating a flavorful meal will motivate the athlete to stay on track.”

Weigh the benefits of the Shake Weight.

Taking the infomercial timeslot by storm in mid-2009, the Shake Weight promised to tone your upper body using daily, six-minute workouts—for only $19.95! One ad for the product claimed that it increased muscle activation by 300 percent.

The direction of response of a body function to any agent depends to a large degree on the initial level of that function.

Such an illustrious claim had people running to the phone to buy; by August 2010, Shake Weight’s manufacturer was $40 million richer. By December of the following year, they’d sold 4.5 million units. Due to its wonky motion, the Shake Weight went viral, with everyone from YouTubers to the folks at Saturday Night Live parodying it—buying a Shake Weight to do so, of course.

To find out if the Shake Weight was truly worth its hype, the American Council on Exercise conducted a study evaluating the degree of muscle activation in Shake Weight exercises versus identical exercises with an equally weighted dumbbell. The women’s dumbbell was 2.5 pounds, and the men’s was 5 pounds. The results showed that the average muscle activation was 66 percent greater for the Shake Weight exercises compared to the dumbbell exercises. Not quite 300 percent, but still an increase. The low weight of the dumbbells, though, made some question the practical uses of the Shake Weight for more experienced lifters: “For a person who has experience with resistance training … it’s probably going to have, at most, a modest effect,” said Cedric X. Bryant, ACE’s chief science officer, in a roundup of the 2011 study. More in the doubt category: A 2012 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found no significant increase in muscle activation for Shake Weight exercises compared to normal weights. That said, the Shake Weight could be a good way for a “previously immobile person,” as Lippin said, to get moving. Bryant cited Wilder’s law of initial value: “the direction of response of a body function to any agent depends to a large degree on the initial level of that function.” “If you put forth effort,” Bryant said, “the Shake Weight, because it provides some level of resistance will produce an exercise response, particularly for individuals at the low end of the fitness spectrum.”

Take a hack at the Ab Carver.

The ab wheel, dressed up below as the Ab Carver, is a wheel connected to two handles for you to roll out your body into a plank position. Its popularity lies in its simplistic design, low price, and small size. You can slip it under your bed or throw it in your luggage.

“The ab wheel is actually a pretty cool device,” says Rui Li, a NASM-certified personal trainer and CEO of New York Personal Training. “It works essentially like a plank, except instead of staying in the same position, you roll your way out into the plank position.” Li finds the ab wheel effective in building strength in the rectus abdominis, the muscles that you can see on people with washboard abs. “These muscles are important because they allow you to sit up easily and push heavy weight over your head,” she says.

A Fitness Shopper’s First Step

Don’t just take these experts’ words for it, either. If you decide to move forward with buying one of these fitness products, Danielle Girdano, president of D’fine Sculpting & Nutrition, recommends speaking to a professional first. Any of these fitness products should be discussed with a health care professional who uses them, personally or in their practice. “Also, remember that online reviews can be skewed or even advertisements in disguise, so be sure that any information gathered comes from a trusted, unbiased source,” she says. In addition, you should always seek the approval of a medical professional before starting any fitness program, especially if you have not worked out for a long period of time. Now that you understand how infomercials play off of poor self-image, this might help you make wiser choices at 2 a.m. You can still purchase these products, as we can see they are not all a waste of money—just be sure you really know what you’re getting.