Do exercise gadgets really work?

The new generation of weird and wonderful exercise gadgets promises maximum gain for minimum pain. But how effective are they? We challenged our team of faint-hearted fitness fledglings to spend a month toning up and slimming down
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Indy Lifestyle Online

THE POWER PLATE by John Walsh

What is it?

It's a metal platform with a tall metal stalk and handlebars that vibrates like a spin drier. The device shudders in ecstasy and sends what seems like 10,000 volts through your body. Every time you tense a muscle on the vibrating plate for 30 seconds, it's like tensing it in a gym for five minutes.

What do the makers claim for it?

Eight effects: "Increases the fat-burning process. Reduces cellulite. Causes fast muscle build-up. Increases flexibility. Activates blood circulation. Improves co-ordination. Increases bone density."

What it's like

The manual says limit workouts to 15 minutes, three times a week. But as you get more into it, this'll become 20 or 25 minutes. Each exercise should last 30 seconds, but this becomes 45 seconds or a minute.

Do you have to adopt weird and inelegant postures?

Yes. Start with squats. Move to lunges, then push-ups. Then a triceps dip, with your back to the machine. Then stuff involving ropes that you pull, doing wonders for your biceps. Then stretches and finally some massage or relaxation.

You'd think it would be knackering, but because the vibration does all the work, all you're doing is adopting a position and moving gently in and out of it. After 20 minutes, you're not out of breath and you've barely broken sweat. It's the closest thing to exercising without taking exercise.

The downside is pain. The first time you use the machine and stand upright, your head feels like it's going to explode. You soon learn to keep your knees bent, and your body crouched. Abdominal crunches (sit-ups) are agony when lying on the plate.

All this vibrating - is there a sexual component? Certainly not. Although if you adopt the "Back Relaxer" position (sit on edge of plate, lean forward, head between knees) the sensation is not unlike being rogered by a throbbing drainpipe.

Does it work?

I was 14 stone 5lbs when I started and 14 stone 7lbs after four weeks. But it was just before Christmas. However, my muscles felt better after only a week - especially my back, shoulders, arms and calves. I felt more physical and more coordinated and slept better.

This would suit anyone who is in need of a general tune-up but is too busy (or too easily bored) to go to a gym. Elderly people and osteoporosis patients would get as much out of it as athletes.

The Personal Power-Plate is £2,599 from Power-Plate UK, Harrods, John Lewis and Selfridges ( www.power-plateuk.com). Also available in gyms nationwide including Fitness First, JJB, Holmes Place and David Lloyd. For availability call 020-7224 0090

NORDIC WALKING STICKS by Laura Tennant

What are they?

Two light but sturdy poles used to push oneself along while walking. Nordic walking began in Finland as a summer exercise for cross-country skiers in the 1900s, but became more popular for general fitness about 10 years ago.

What it claims

Nordic walking uses 90 per cent of skeletal muscles, and thus offers a complete body workout. It is said to burn up to 46 per cent more calories than ordinary walking, and strengthens and releases tension in your back, chest, shoulders and arms.

What it's like

The Nordic-walking technique, as shown to me by my instructor Martin, is rapidly acquired (right leg forward, left pole back, and so on), and as we headed off on to the wilds of Blackheath, poles attached to wrists with Velcro, I began to feel an exhilarating sense of moving much faster than normal walking speed. Soon I was also getting a telltale ache in the backs of my arms.

I'd started running in the summer and then had to stop because of a foot injury; Nordic walking seemed ideal for building up my fitness again. The pace is great, as Martin pointed out, for oldsters, anyone with arthritis or joint problems, and those who like to chat while exercising.

However, the first time I set off on my own, I couldn't do it. I just felt ridiculous. What I love about running is that you don't need equipment; now, apparently, I couldn't walk down the street without a pair of poles (costing £80).

To overcome my embarrassment, the next time I went with a friend. Martin suggested exercising almost daily, for 15-30 minutes, at a comfortable to moderate intensity (50-60 per cent maximum heart rate). That wasn't possible, but we managed five decent sessions.

The poles come with rubber tips for pavements, but waiting until we got to the heath felt easier. Once engrossed in conversation, we stopped noticing the curious looks we were getting, and soon found that Nordic walking gave us the endorphin high of exercise without the pain. I could also feel my core stability improving (there's a tummy-tightening effect with every step).

Does it work?

I haven't dared set foot on the scales since Christmas, and I doubt if I've lost weight yet. But Nordic walking delivers in spades when it comes to well-being.

Martin Christie, Nordic Walking UK ( www.nordicwalking.co.uk; 020-8211 3512/07989 967459)

THE FLEXIBAR by Sarah Harris

What is it?

A 4 1/2ft aluminum and rubber pole, originally developed in Germany as a piece of physio equipment.

What it claims

Its manufacturers say that the swinging action engages the deep muscles of the back and pelvis, improving strength, posture and co-ordination.

What it's like

The Flexi-bar will not work on me, I explain to Ben, the demigod and personal trainer at The Laboratory Spa & Health Club in London. I have a very stubborn stomach.

The Flexi-bar was designed by German physiotherapists for injury rehabilitation, says Ben. The swinging of the bar sends vibrations into the body, forcing your core muscles to contract at up to 270 times a minute, thereby flattening your stomach.

Ben tells me to hold the bar lightly and shake it gently while focusing on my inner core. I plant my feet shoulder-width apart, grit my teeth and slovenly abdominals and start shaking.

After 10 minutes of flapping arms, elbows and pelvis ("I'm doing it!" I exclaim to Ben), my belly button has cleverly tucked itself into my spine, with my arms strong and still, and the rubber ends of the bar swinging rapidly back and forth on either side.

After a month of spinning and wobbling at another gym, the mysteries of the curious instrument were finally revealed to me in something of a Flexi-bar epiphany. Every week we learnt to shake in unison, standing, lying, squatting and legs raised, like a vibrating Swan Lake. I began to feel a reassuring burn spread through my inner abdominals.

Did it work?

I may not have a lean washboard midriff, but I feel stronger and more in control of my waistline.

A standard Flexi-bar costs £69.99 and via the website ( www.flexi-bar.co.uk) and The Laboratory Spa & Health Club ( www.labspa.co.uk; 020-8482 3000)

MBT TRAINERS by Rebecca Armstrong

What are they?

MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) trainers are posture-improving shoes that can be used as an exercise tool. With thick, curved soles that transform hard, flat surfaces into soft, uneven ones, MBT shoes are meant to mimic the effect of walking barefoot on sand. Ten minutes in MBTs is said to be equivalent to a half-hour walk in normal shoes. MBT shoes are available as trainers (for men, women or unisex), "smart" shoes (for men and women), sandals and boots.

What they claim

MBT shoes were created in Switzerland for back and joint problems, but the makers claim they strengthen and tone the legs, buttocks and stomach muscles, encourage weight loss and diminish cellulite. The shoes achieve this by using a negative heel angle to unbalance your feet and make your muscles do more work.

The shoes are recommended by doctors to help sufferers of back pain. Fans of MBTs include Jemima Khan and Cherie Blair.

What they are like

I had to be taught how to walk in my MBT trainers as it's not as simple as strapping them on and striding around. To feel the benefits, wearers have to be shown what to do by a MBT expert or the DVD that is provided. Wearers have to elongate their stride, tread firmly on their heels and then bring their feet down in a rocking motion.

MBT shoes look like platform-soled trainers. Wearing them with skinny jeans made me look like a clown. I discovered that I had only one pair of trousers long enough to camouflage them, so I've been wearing them constantly.

Do they work?

I wore the trainers twice a day, to and from work, as well as for longer walks and shopping, for a month. I also tried to eat more sensibly. I lost seven pounds. While MBT trainers aren't cheap, they are a good way to get the most out of walking if , like me, you're too lazy to go for a run or if high-impact exercise is beyond your fitness level.

MBT footwear costs between £119 and £134, depending on the style. For stockists call 020-7684 4633 or visit www.mbt-uk.com.

THE TRIKKE by Chris Maume

What is it?

Essentially, a three-wheeled scooter that converts the side-to-side motion of the steering column into rapid forward movement. Jennifer Aniston has allegedly been sighted on one.

What it claims

No claims are made about physical benefits. Easy to assemble, it's sensibly presented as something fun rather than as part of any fitness regime.

What it's like

I never quite mastered the required rocking rhythm, though that's more a case of old dogs and new Trikkes. I also found weight distribution tricky, and found myself liable to fall backwards in a wholly unintentional wheelie.

Does it work?

As keep-fit kit it succeeds only if, like me, you're useless on it. My weight, for the record, dropped from 11st 3lb to 10st 11lb, though that was down to the flu. Did I feel any fitter? Not really. Did I feel a bit of a berk? At 47, just a little, though that probably says more about me than I care to discuss right now. So, Trikke treat? For fitness, no. For fun, definitely - if you're happy slaloming round on a three-wheel scooter in the tracks of someone who used to be in Friends.

Available from w ww.amazon.co.uk

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