My esthetician, Ildi Pekar, travels to Europe once a year and usually comes back with whatever is the latest rage there. This time it was something called Creative Fitness and a machine that does some kind of version of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). I love exercise and keeping fit is an important part of my life, but my first reaction when I heard about electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) was to think “tone-a-matic.” You know, one of those things in an infomercial that you strap around your waist so that its magical pulses will give you a six pack while you sit around eating junk food and watch more infomercials. In other words, a waste of time and money that doesn’t work. Even if it did work, it would be cheating….right.

Ildi’s machine comes from Germany and she has named her process Creative Fitness. I must say, that after trying it out, feeling real post exercise muscle soreness for the following two days and, after doing some further research, I am something of a convert.

First, the experience was rather good fun. I changed into a tight-fitting black suit of leggings and long-sleeved top and then slipped on a jacket that was a cross between something you’d wear for diving or jumping out of a plane. It was kitted out with pads (pre-soaked with warm water) straps (which are pulled for a corset-like snugness) and wires that tethered me to a machine. Other pads were strapped around my hips, thighs and upper arms.

The Miha Bodytec EMS machine works out eight different muscle groups simultaneously. Initially, I turned dials that switched up the electric current to each of the pads so that I could get a feel for things. Ildi then took charge of the controls, increasing the intensity – although it never felt uncomfortable or scary. Unlike the infomercial things, I actually had to do a work out and it was surprisingly hard at times to move against the resistance that the pads created. After 10 minutes of side kicks, lunges, arm curls and such, Ildi had me running on the spot for a further five minutes. I consider myself fairly fit, yet I was feeling quite winded by the end.

And this is the thing about these EMS workouts; they are theoretically very efficient, achieving the equivalent of a long run or an hour in the gym in about a quarter of the time or less. Theoretically…. But was there any real evidence to back this up.

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) has been around for a while and has been much studied in the last 20 or so years. The electronic pulses that I could feel were actually eliciting a contraction of the muscle and, therefore, the muscle fibers are being trained. The result is a stronger and more toned muscle. There is more or less agreement on that and it seems to be great for helping to stimulate and ultimately strengthen weakened or atrophied muscles.

There has been less agreement over the years on how EMS works. One theory is that the muscle contraction occurs in a similar manner to “voluntary” exercise. More recently, there has been a growing view that EMS communicates with nerve fibers. When the stimulation is applied, the brain sends a nerve impulse to the motor point of the muscle. This signal causes the muscle to expand and contract. Either way, there is a contraction.

The FDA has been on the case of EMS device sellers who claim certification of devices that claim weight reduction. Calorie burning is marginal at best (source). Anecdotal reports that I have heard of “looser pants” may be more to do with muscle toning than loss of fat. There is usually a healthy eating program that accompanies EMS if the goal is weight loss.

EMS has demonstrably been shown to stimulate and tone muscle and strengthen weakened muscles. However, claims of significantly increased muscle strength in athletes has not been substantiated (as far as I know) as there has been little standardization in trials. It is generally accepted that weakened muscles are helped greatly, but (according to a review conducted in the mid 1980s) tests have failed to show whether EMS is any more successful than normal exercise.

My own take is that EMS is not a substitute for normal exercise, but it would be excellent for someone who has been away from the gym for a very long time and can’t bear the thought of or find the time for the hour or so investment needed for every session. I can see that EMS could be a great jumpstart, giving quick results that would hopefully motivate someone to start exercising as part of their lifestyle. Also, if anyone has been forced to quit regular exercise due to an injury, bad back or uncooperative knees, EMS could provide a curative way to get restarted.

If intrigued New Yorkers are reading this, then do call Ildi Pekar’s salon in midtown Manhattan and mention Truth In Aging for an exclusive discount on Creative Fitness.