For your sake, I hope you like your living-room. Because it looks as though you'll be spending rather a lot of time in it in 2009. Staying in, as you no doubt already know, is officially the new going out. A year ago, of course, things were different: during those halcyon days BC (Before Crunch), most of us didn't think twice about swanning off to a restaurant for a meal or to the cinema for a movie. But in harder times, we are now throwing dinner parties and renting DVDs to spend as much time as possible at the hottest, not to mention the cheapest, new venue in town – chez nous.
Post-New Year, however, and guilt is slowly setting in. Slumping on the sofa every night may be gratis, but it's not doing us any favours when it comes to our pasty winter complexions or the inevitable seasonal weight gain. Heck, at least dining out involved sitting up straight for a few hours. It's fortunate, then, that in laboratories around the world some kindly science types have been focusing their skills on what must surely be one of the most important issues of our time. Forget energy-efficient fuels and cures for infectious disease, what we really, really want is a magical short cut to a slimmer, firmer, fitter and – of course – younger-looking version of ourselves.
Previously, the sticking point was the amount of effort involved in achieving these lofty ambitions. Cash-rich (well, relatively) and time-poor, many of us were prepared to throw a reasonable sum of money at regular in-salon beauty treatments, personal-training sessions or expensive gym subscriptions (because everyone knew that just looking at your posh membership card from time to time made you fitter) in the hope of a quick and easy fix. If there was any obstacle to a better body or face, it was, quite simply, our own laziness. But fast-forward to 2009 and our priorities have necessarily changed – now, on top of everything else, it needs to be cheap.
And that is precisely where the new wave of beauty and fitness gadgets comes in. Designed for use in the comfort of your own home, these handy devices promise a lifetime of good looks for a one-off outlay, with no appointment and no schlepping across town to get there required. They range from mini versions of the equipment you would ordinarily have to part with a monthly fee for the pleasure of using at your gym, such as the Reviber "body vibration trainer" (very similar to a Power Plate), to weird and wonderful cutting-edge gear not even available in salons, such as the electronic Safetox unit, marketed as a wrinkle-busting alternative to Botox.
For anyone who dreads sweating it out in public at the gym or baring one's cellulite to an imperious beauty therapist, it's all a bit too good to be true. But before you reach for your wallet, remember that now is a time for thinking "investment" – that's good investment, by the way – in all the things we purchase. These goodies will only save you money if a) they do what they say on the box and b) you stand a chance of ever actually using them. Beware the classic 1990s example of the exercise-bike-cum-clotheshorse.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a catch-22 situation. How can you know that you shouldn't buy a laser skin resurfacer because it's too much hassle to use without buying it to find out? Well, in this instance, by reading the following guide to the hottest new gadgets on the market, faithfully trialled and rated by health and beauty aficionado and self-confessed in-salon treatment junkie, yours truly, Dr F. Choose your weapon accordingly and by the time you have beavered away at home long enough to transform yourself into a devastating example of physical human perfection, who knows, perhaps the recession will have lifted and you will actually be able to go out and show off the hot new you.
The wobble buster: Wellbox self-massager
The word on the red carpet is that those A-listers who've never resorted to surgery owe their toned bodies and smooth complexions to this do-it-all massage machine and its five appliances, which promise to reduce cellulite, firm skin and smooth wrinkles. Promising results from the first time you use it, the firming appliance seems like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a paint roller which, as you move it back and forth across your thighs, stomach or upper arms, rhythmically rolls your flesh. The idea is that the action stimulates the circulatory and lymph systems to improve skin tone, drain excess fluid and break down cellulite.
It's simple enough to use and actually feels remarkably low-tech. Consequently, Dr F wasn't expecting to see much of a result after a mere six minutes of hoovering her stomach five times a week. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that, after just a week, things were already getting a bit firmer.
Prescription Dr F was severely sceptical about this one, but it really seems to work. If you have a grand to splash on a beauty appliance, however, the premise of this feature is probably utterly irrelevant to you and you may as well carry on paying someone else to deal with your wobbly bits. ' Around £1,000, www.wellbox.com
The wrinkle remover: Safetox electrode patches
Launched amid much hype at Selfridges towards the end of last year, this device is marketed as a safer, non-invasive alternative to Botox injections. In the same way that Botox paralyses the facial muscles responsible for frowning (and, indeed, any other kind of facial expression of emotion – cf blankness personified, aka Dannii Minogue), Safetox targets the procerus muscle just above the bridge of the nose, generating electrical impulses to inhibit the nerves that cause the muscle to contract. The accompanying blurb claims that the procerus needs to be kept relaxed to produce
an "open", wrinkle-free face, and by using the Safetox unit daily for several months it is possible to retrain the muscles in the face for permanent line reduction.
Of all the gadgets in this trial, this produced the most hilarity in Dr F's household. When positioned as instructed on the forehead, your looks are indeed instantly transformed – although you won't resemble your 18-year-old self so much as an extra from Star Trek. But however weird it may look, that's nothing on how it feels. With three intensity settings, the uninitiated are advised to build up their tolerance gradually until you can stand two five-minute sessions of the highest level twice a day. Several weeks in, however, and Dr F is struggling. The first level feels like a strange tingle all over your forehead – odd, but not exactly unpleasant. Crank it up to the second level and things get a bit more serious, as waves of electricity seem to surge through your forehead, causing it to become numb (apparently this means it is working). Finally, the third setting is just pretty darn painful, although the trick at all levels is to relax and go with the sensation, which some of Dr F's able assistants claimed to find quite soothing.
Immediately after using the headset your forehead feels tighter and habitual frown lines are slightly diminished, although that wears off pretty quickly. After three weeks' use Dr F's forehead feels ever so slightly smoother, although she is still more than capable of a pretty severe frown.
Prescription If you have ever hankered after Botox, try this first – it's far less scary and considerably cheaper. Beware the hidden costs here, though: you have to shell out to replace the electrode patches that attach the device to your skin, and at £17 for 12 (one patch will last you a few sessions if you are careful), it still adds up.
The muscle toner: Reviber Plus vibration trainer
Madonna's fiercely toned limbs are said to come courtesy of regular sessions on a Power Plate – a vibrating exercise machine that you stand on to give muscles an intensive work-out by forcing them to relax and contract at high speed. The Reviber vibration trainer works on much the same principle, claiming that short periods of regular use will hone muscle tone, improve core strength and increase circulation and metabolism.
As a devotee of the minimum effort/maximum result school of exercise, Dr F was pretty excited about this machine and, while it doesn't feel as hi-tech as the Power Plate devices she has used before (at £20 a pop, mind you), it did deliver impressive results. The simplest way to use the Reviber is simply to crank up it up to a speed you feel comfortable with (it has 15 settings, although they recommend you don't use it above 10 if you are unsupervised) and just stand on it with your knees slightly bent and your core muscles tensed for up to 10 minutes. If you want to give your upper body a work-out, you can attach the resistance bands to each side for arm curls and torso twists.
If it all sounds a bit easy, that's because it is. Your muscles do feel as if they are working pretty hard to maintain your balance and you will feel it the next day, but it's still preferable to doing innumerable squats and lunges. One of Dr F's assistants even reckons that, regardless of the Reviber's toning capabilities, the trauma of feeling every ounce of flesh on your body wobble at high speed is enough to steer you off the pudding menu for life.
After only three weeks' use, Dr F found that her core abdominal muscles (which had really gone to seed after she pulled the plug on her own personal-training sessions) were tighter and her knees were starting to look ever so slightly less like Cornish pasties. Result!
Prescription Effective, easy to use and excellent value for money. Throw in a few cardio sessions of your own making (jogging, cycling, dancing, whatever) and you have yourself a nice little regime sans monthly gym payments.
The skin regenerator: NV Perricone light renewal therapy
Dr Nicholas Perricone is something of a star in the glossy world of American dermatology, and his innovative skincare range and diet plans have won him a cult following that includes Heidi Klum and Kim Cattrall. So naturally when Dr F heard he was putting his name to this gadget she was at the front of the queue to get her hands on one of the first batch in the UK.
The first of its kind to be designed for home use, this device uses infra-red and visible red light to speed up the normal cellular processes that allow skin to regenerate itself, improving fine lines and increasing radiance. Results are promised after between three and seven weeks, during which time you will need to use the hand-held unit for 20-30 minutes four times a week, alternating the side of the face you wish to treat and the light setting.
Although the provision of some attractive black goggles initially makes this a bit scary, it's actually a piece of cake. Skin reddens slightly afterwards, but fades in an hour or two, and forcing oneself to sit still and zone out for 20 minutes a day is pleasantly therapeutic in itself.
However, if, like Dr F, you have already developed an expensive in-salon treatment habit, you may find the effects of this gadget a little underwhelming. Unlike a glycolic or in-salon laser treatments, there is no immediate wow-factor here, so you really will have to be patient. But with just over a month of use, Dr F reckons the treated areas of skin on her cheeks are clearer and the pores slightly more refined.
Prescription If you have serious anti-ageing or general skin concerns, Dr F reckons at least one trip to the medispa might be your best bet, if only for advice on what's available. But if you just have a few fine lines and want a boost for the overall appearance of your skin, this is more effective than any cream Dr F has tried.
The running companion: Samsung Adidas MiCoach phone
As someone who has never even accessed the internet using a mobile phone, even the idea of a fully integrated personal-trainer function had Dr F feeling a little tired. Coming complete with a heart-rate monitor, pedometer, headphones and a software CD, the Samsung SGH-110 looked like more of a mental than a physical work-out and it took a good two months before she plucked up the courage to use it (ridiculous given the fact that she was going running – OK, jogging – already).
Once you're wired up, however, it's pretty straightforward. First up is an assessment run, so you just do your usual thing while the various monitors send the info to your phone via Bluetooth to be uploaded on to your computer when you get back. Once all the data is in, you can use the MiCoach website to build a training regime, working towards goals from a 5k run to a full marathon. The relevant training commentary can then be uploaded on to your phone, telling you when to run hard and when to ease off, for example. Or you can simply enjoy the FM radio player and pre-loaded music (lots of 1990s garage tunes for some reason).
For a novice such as Dr F, this all seemed rather fabulous, but more experienced friends were unimpressed by the bitty-ness of all the sensors and unconvinced that the pedometer was accurate. Dr F's only problem with it, meanwhile, was the Adidas logo on the otherwise nicely designed handset (sorry, but chavvy is the only word). That said, she hasn't really managed to stick to the plan as yet – mainly due to the fact that Dr F only runs with friends and somehow it always seems so much more pleasant to ditch the headphones and have a (somewhat breathless) chinwag.
Prescription Running is probably the cheapest form of exercise out there, but it's hard to know where to start if you're new to it. If that's the case, Dr F highly recommends this system. Willpower is required, but even if you only manage to run for the bus with it, it's still an excellent mobile phone.
Around £160, varies by network, www.micoach.com