Ever since Suzanne Somers started pushing the Thighmaster on health- and weight-conscious consumers, a veritable army of sports and fitness trends have marched through the homes of Americans.
Like diet fads, fitness trends tend to come on strong and then peter off once the public starts to realize that they are not all they’re advertised to be. Nevertheless, there are always some—take the stationary bike, for example—that truly are great innovations and stand the test of time.
Here are some of the latest trends, with a brief analysis of whether they are a great idea, bad for you, or just plain stupid.
Barefoot Sports Shoes
Barefoot running has a long history. In 1960, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopa won the Olympic marathon in Rome without the benefit of shoes, and to this day professional runners in many countries such as Ethiopia and Mexico train and compete without shoes. Some health professionals believe that barefoot running may be healthier than running with shod feet; some say that it produces a more natural stride that is easier on the ankle, knee, and lower leg.
But then there’s the obvious problems faced in most potential barefoot running situations—twigs, rocks, and glass getting stuck in your sole. Recently, footwear companies like Vibram and Nike have designed shoes meant to bridge the gap by providing “natural” foot movement with shoe-like protection.
Bottom Line: So are they any good? Chris Ritter, CSCS, NASM-PES, YFS-IYCA, a fitness and sports training expert, suggests that they are a “great idea in theory, but you need to build slowly into them, especially if you have had foot issues in the past." So give them a go. If you like them, maybe they’re right for you. The general consensus is that if you have had any foot problems or you are overweight, shoes with no support may not be the best choice for you.
While shoes advertised to tone leg muscles effortlessly throughout the day have been around for a couple of decades, they have really started to take off in the past few years. Previously, toning shoes were specialty items—strange looking and expensive. Recently, major manufacturers like New Balance, Puma, and Sketchers have introduced lines of shoes that appear like any other running shoe, cost the same as normal sneakers, but claim to enhance muscle tone and burn extra calories while you walk throughout the day. Toning shoes are currently one of the fastest growing segments of the footwear industry.
Bottom Line: Ritter says that these are “a gimmick whose 'results' could be accomplished in 10 minutes of proper training in the gym.” Unfortunately, this is a gimmick with legs; sales of toning shoes are estimated at approximately $5 billion per year. Not all consumers are falling for it, however. In fact, earlier this year at least one irate customer filed a class-action suit against New Balance, claiming that the company had falsely advertised the product. Don’t be fooled by marketing campaigns; there’s nothing special about “toning” shoes.
A growing fad for the past two decades, energy drinks are now ubiquitous in stores nationwide. And with names like “RockStar,” “Monster,” “Full Throttle,” and “AMP Energy,” these beverages are marketed as though they are performance-enhancing substances. A common trend these days is using these drinks—and other sources of caffeine—as sources of energy prior to or during a workout or athletic competition. Many people also use these to try and stay awake for long periods of time.
Bottom Line: “Low-dose caffeine has been shown to help exercise and performance," says Dr. Arthur Valadie, sports physician for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the U.S. Soccer Team. "But the levels of caffeine and sugar in energy drinks is excessive.” The bottom line is caffeine isn’t terrible, but proceed with caution. And don’t forget that caffeine does dehydrate you, so drink plenty of water. There are scattered reports of rapid heart rates induced by consumption of these energy drinks.
Protein Sports Drinks
Since researchers at the University of Florida first developed Gatorade during the 1965 college football season, carbohydrate-based, electrolyte-replacing fluids have been the standard for sports drinks. However, in recent years, a new product has been gaining in popularity—sports drinks featuring significant amounts of protein. The claim made by manufacturers of protein sports drinks—and some researchers—is that they increase endurance, decrease muscle damage during strenuous workouts, and improve hydration. Marty Beene, coach of Alameda High School’s Cross Country team, says that protein sports drinks are all the rage among young athletes.
Bottom Line: Protein sports drinks are not for the casual sports enthusiast. "You need to be exercising at an extremely high level to need protein in your sports drink,” says Ritter. “During exercise you'll need more carbs to keep your energy levels up. Protein is better when used right after a workout." If you are serious about working out, protein drinks might be right for you, but do your research and proceed with caution. In general, there is no benefit to protein drinks during exercise because they are not used by the body for energy in this setting. In fact, protein is the LAST nutrient the body wants to use for energy.
Muscle Relief Sports Cream
The market these days is saturated by various creams claiming to relieve muscle pain. The classics like IcyHot and Tiger Balm that use menthol (methyl salicylate) as a topical analgesic (painkiller). Newer products use trolamine salicylate as an analgesic or claim to use “natural medicines” to ease muscle pain. Athletes of all ages and fitness levels swear by these creams to relieve aches and pains after high levels of activity.
Bottom Line: Topical analgesics are tried-and-true pain relievers, but they are only temporary fixes. They won’t help solve the source of the pain, only relieve the superficial symptoms for a short while. Be careful you don’t overuse topical analgesics. In 2007, a 17-year old athlete died after methyl salicylate overuse. As for the newfangled “natural” creams, any relief they provide is “probably a placebo effect,” according to Dr. Valadie.
If you’ve passed by your local gym recently, you may have seen signs up advertising an intimidating-sounding program called a “boot camp.” Boot camps are the extreme version of a spin class. Taking a cue from the U.S. Army’s training methods, boot camps utilize a combination of aggressive guidance and peer pressure to whip you into shape. They are the apex of an ongoing trend of working out in larger numbers. From boot camps to spin class to step class to weightlifting, group exercise is currently the way to train.
Bottom Line: Not surprisingly, this is a pretty positive trend. “It’s good if it encourages participation,” says Dr. Valadie. It isn’t for everyone, but as Marty says, “even though I don't enjoy these kinds of things that much, I think they're great— anything to get people to, as some friends say, ‘Shut your pie hole and get up off the couch!’ ”