Electrostimulation is being billed as a quick fix for people who are afraid of surgery -- or who don't like situps.
It was the prospect of a beach vacation to Mallorca, Spain, that spurred Eva, a 33-year-old music publicist living in Brooklyn, to try to do something about her less-than-bikini-ready physique. But instead of embarking on a new fitness plan or a hard-core diet, she turned to an arcane, pricey spa service involving electrical currents.
Proponents of the treatment, which is sometimes referred to as electrostimulation, say it can spur weight loss, tone skin and muscles, and drain toxins.
"I needed a quick fix," said Eva (who did not want to give her last name), explaining why she used FatGirlShrink, an hourlong $180 service Bliss Spa introduced in January.
The treatment, conducted on a heated table and involving the application of red algae and guarana extract followed by a clay mask from the bra line to knees, also uses electrical currents, which the spa says helps with absorption of the extracts and stimulates lymphatic drainage.
But among medical experts, there are enough nonbelievers out there to make this seem like just another way to feed Americans' need for a quick fix.
"Electrostimulation is one more fad for people who have spent their whole lives gaining weight effortlessly and now want to lose that weight effortlessly and quickly," said Dr. Ronald Sha, the medical director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C.
Likewise, Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, a board-certified family practitioner and nutritionist in Manhattan, said, "Electrostimulation is really only a reasonable option for people who are sedentary or who can't otherwise exercise."
Everyone else, Morrison said, "can burn much more calories working out with a trainer and following a healthy diet."
First developed for use in rehabilitation clinics, electrical muscular stimulation, or EMS, became popular in the United States in the 1950s and '60s as part of a so-called passive exercise movement. (Remember those vibrating belts that were supposed to melt inches?) Now, decades later, the idea has re-emerged among a body-conscious contingent increasingly wary of liposuction and other cosmetic surgeries, but still wanting an easy solution for their weight woes.
"A lot of my clients are afraid to go under the knife," said Ildi Pekar, a Hungarian-born aesthetician in midtown Manhattan.
Pekar's BEAM treatment, which costs $200, sends electrical pulses to trouble spots to stimulate muscles, encourage elastin and collagen production and lymphatic drainage, she said.
Camille Obadia, an aesthetician who owns Beaute Oblige in Manhattan, says that her clients would have to work out for four hours to achieve results her electrostimulating treatment ($300) can accomplish in 45 minutes.
"Women are so busy," she said. "Who has time to go to the gym? Time is money."
It's a sales pitch that seems to be selling well across the country. At Rejuvalife Vitality Institute, a "medical spa" in Beverly Hills, Calif., a "7e" treatment uses bioelectrical "wave forms" and is supposed to increase patients' muscle strength and reduce inches, according to the company's website. Bliss Spa says its service has been so popular that it has occasionally run low on the product it uses during the treatment.
But there is ample reason to be skeptical.
"It is very clear there are no high-quality studies that show that a commercially available device can do anything to change your appearance," said Gary Calabrese, a physical therapist and director of Sports Health and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic.
Although electrostimulation devices are sometimes used during physical therapy, it is in conjunction with a patient working out, he said; for example, one might get an uncomfortable jolt that forces your muscles to perform a bicep curl.
"If you're wearing one of these devices and it cues you to do a situp and then you don't do the situp, then you are doing absolutely nothing," he said.
As for the firmed-up appearance some people say they receive from these treatments, "They are probably changing their eating habits and exercising more," Calabrese said.
And for approximately 20 to 40 minutes after the use of a device, muscles may appear or feel more "pumped up" because of increased blood flow to the treated area, he said.
Regardless of the unproven science behind it, electrostimulation is also gaining popularity as a complexion treatment. In late May, Bio-Medical Research, a company with headquarters in Ireland, introduced an at-home Facial Toner ($395).
Electrostimulation enthusiasts insist that while some of the effects can be temporary, they are also cumulative. Not surprisingly, many spas suggest clients sign up for multiple treatments, in close succession, as well as regular maintenance after the initial treatments, to achieve and maintain maximum results.
Then again, not all clients are willing to leave the comfort of their home to be electrostimulated.
Lisa, 53, a former advertising executive in Newport Beach, Calif., who also preferred to keep her last name private, happily spends two 30-minute sessions each day at her convenience wearing two over-the-counter EMS devices: the BMR Bottom Lift ($200) and BMR Tummy Lift ($200), both of which began to be marketed in May 2011 by Bio-Medical Research.
Comparing the sensation of wearing the devices with sitting in a massage chair at a manicure salon, Lisa said she has seen a significant reduction in "flabbiness" in her stomach and derriere, and feels much more confident about how she looks in clothes.
"Frankly, I hate situps," she said.
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