May 8, 2002 -- It was a couch potato's dream — a device to produce a flat, muscular stomach without exercise. But today, the Federal Trade Commission issued a wake-up call.
FTC Chairman Timothy Muris said the Commission is taking court action against the companies that market three brands of abdominal exercise belts: Ab Energizer, Abtronic and Fast Abs. The companies are accused of "false and deceptive advertising," according to Muris.
Americans have spent more than $100 million on the three ab machines targeted. The FTC hopes to get at least some of that money back for consumers.
The devices use electrical impulses to make muscles contract. The belts promise to make a person slim and trim, and to firm up flabby abdomens.
That's the pitch heard in television commercials and infomercials. "Just 10 minutes with fast abs is the equivalent of up to 600 sit ups," says one of the ads.
FTC: 'Claims Are False'
But the FTC wants the claims stopped. "These claims are false," said Muris. "They are deceptive. You simply cannot lose weight. You cannot lose inches. [The devices] are not as good as exercise."
Tim Setzer, 44, is like many Americans. He wants to stay in shape, but doesn't really want to exercise. So the Houston construction project coordinator turned to a product he saw advertised on television — the Abtronic. Now, he's a believer.
"It was like doing the sit-ups," said Setzer. " You could feel the burn happening. I am doing sit-ups, but not having to do the exercise part. I noticed the change, the feeling of my body, within the first month. I could feel the ab muscles contracting, come back into shape."
University of Wisconsin/La Crosse professor John Porcari has his doubts. "If you want to increase the endurance or strength or appearance of muscles, you have to work them and these machines just don't work muscles intensely enough," he said.
Porcari tested electronic muscle stimulation on more than a dozen college students.
"They weren't any stronger, they weren't any leaner," said Porcari. "They weighed the same, body fat was the same and they didn't look any different."
Jeffrey Knowles, an attorney for Fast Abs, said that their belt comes with diet and exercise advice. "I think that anybody will know that a piece of electricity isn't going to cause people to lose weight," he said.