Fitness fads

Fitness fads come and go, and most end up gathering dust in thegarage, but could the latest piece of equipment buck the trend?

REMEMBER the chest expander and the Abdominiser? The Thighmaster and the Ab Wheel? Let's not forget the Swiss ball, the pilates band, the wobble board and the kettlebell ... some of which are still doing sterling service in gyms and bedrooms around the country, while others are languishing in attics, garages and under beds, never to be used again.

No car boot sale is complete without the flogging of a slightly dusty 'trampette' or barely-used mini-stepper, once bought as the answer to all our fitness ills but somehow abandoned when we fell off the New Year resolution wagon.

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A recent study by the television channel Home found that 25 per cent of British households were cluttered up with unused and unwanted gym equipment, but experts suspect that figure could be even higher.

It all began long before Jane Fonda donned legwarmers and leotard, and manufacturers are still selling us all manner of fitness nirvana today, from Alex Gerrard's recently launched vibrating dumbells to a pair of sauna shorts said to trim the bottom, not to mention pedometers, heart rate monitors and ever-changing versions of Slendertone.

"Everyone should use a heart rate monitor," says personal trainer Will Sturgeon. "It helps you figure out your training zone and is a good way to make sure you're getting the most out of your workout, whether you're an elite athlete or are just looking to burn some fat."

As for most of the other pieces of gym kit on the market, he says: "Everything just gets reinvented, it's all about the sales pitch. You really don't need a lot of this equipment – it'll just end up sitting in your cupboard.

"In the main they're horrifically expensive as well. I have clients buying treadmills and things like that and I couldn't think of one of them who regularly or religiously actually uses any of their little gadgets."

Of the chest expander, he says: "That was a horrific piece of kit that didn't do anything whatsoever for the chest so I'm not sure how it got its name.

"And some of the things that come out for abs – the wheel for instance – oh my goodness! There is an ab contraction there but it's such a specific, dangerous movement I can't see it doing anybody any good."

These days most gyms use a tubular contraption called the ab cradle for crunches – "it's really good for support, for people with neck or back problems," says Sturgeon, "but it wouldn't be my preferred choice for someone who's able to do sit-ups normally".

In fact, he says, the best piece of equipment anyone could invest in is the Swiss ball. "It's a personal trainer's best friend because it can used for abs, arms, legs, stability ... there isn't anything you couldn't do on a Swiss ball. They're really cheap as well, so they're fantastic."

Combine that with a Dynaband and you're sorted. "It's like an elastic tube with handles on either side," says Sturgeon. "They come in at a really cheap price – 7 or something like that – and it's a resistance tube, so it takes the place of a dumbbell. That with a Swiss ball is all you need."

But do we, in fact, need any of these fads to get fit? "Essentially, no," admits Sturgeon. "Gyms have all these gadgets anyway so if you can afford a membership then brilliant. But the body was designed to do what it does and doesn't have to be limited to pull-up bars and wheels and that sort of thing."

Undeterred, the newest kit on the block is the ViPR. A metre-long rubber tube with handles, it comes in various weights and was designed by one Michol Dalcourt, a Canadian expert on performance training. Seeing how down-home farm boys kept beating his gym-toned ice hockey teams time and again, he set out to replicate how they trained – and discovered the key was in their everyday tasks: manual labour like lifting hay bales and picking up heavy logs.

Due to be introduced to Edinburgh's Virgin Active gyms from next month, trainer Garry Anderson is convinced the ViPR spells the future of fitness, because it works the whole body as a chain of muscles rather than isolating, say, the biceps or triceps. "What it does is mimic real-life movements and it's so versatile: you can flip it, twist it, throw it, roll it ... use it like a paddle, like a golf club, like a spade, like a cricket bat. You could even mimic tennis motions."

And he insists it is not just another fad that will go the same way as the bullworker. "This is something totally different. It is the way the industry is going. I've done a lot of studies in the US and without a shadow of a doubt this is one of the best tools I've seen and it will be around for a long time."

To find out more about the ViPR see www.fitpro.com or www.virginactive.co.uk. Will Sturgeon (www.willpowerpersonaltraining.co.uk)

best foot forward

SPORTS shoes that give you a workout have been one of the success stories of the last few years as we all rushed to follow in the footsteps of celebrities from Cher to Jemima Kahn, papped wearing their MBT sneakers, Reebok Easy Tones and Fitflops. But are they worth shelling out the best part of 100 for?

Podiatrist Claire Carr at Glasgow's City Chiropody says, "MBTs are great. The technology was developed from the Masai who have different bone structure and very flat feet that makes them very mobile and good for terranial adaption and shock absorption. Adapted for western feet these shoes create an instability that improves muscle strength and they're great for people who want to improve their strength as they help with propulsion. They're not ideal for anyone who is infirm. They would be better off with an ordinary trainer."

"FitFlops are quite good in that they're not as flat as ordinary flipflps but you still have to grip a lot, especially if it's wet outside. You're probably better off with ordinary trainers as they fasten on to the feet and aerobic versions are good for shock absorption," says the HPC registered podiatrist.

"For most activities you don't need specialist shoes or gimmicks. They won't improve your fitness asmuch as getting a pair of trainers and going to the gym, or being checked out by a podiatrist or chiropractor. And as for high heels, they're strictly taxi shoes for when you're not expecting to walk," she says.

FITFLOPS

Promising to give you a training session while you walk, FitFlops were flying off the shelves last summer and this year's extended range looks like doing the same. Sold as the 'flip flop with the built-in gym', these sandals claim to improve posture, reduce foot pain and shock and work on your bottom and leg muscles, aiding everything from scoliosis to restless leg syndrome. From the original Classic Walkstar to the latest pewter-sequinned dazzlers, these shoes have a strong foothold in the trendy fitness shoe market. From around 36, see www.fitflop.com

MBTs

Claiming to improve posture and muscle tone, as well as whittling cellulite, MBTs or Masai Burning Technology shoes, mimic the experience of walking barefoot, as practised by the Masai people of East Africa. Favoured by Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, like FitFlops, they claim to give you a workout while you pound the pavement. Now available in boots, mary-janes and sandals, these 'anti-shoes' have achieved a popularity way beyond their tribal roots. Based on the principal of 'natural instability', their cut-away heel shape produces a rolling action that can solve knee and back problems, relieve tension in the neck as well as joint pains and help tone and shape firm buttocks and thighs. It also helps burn more calories when standing and slow running compared to ordinary shoes. Starting from 72, see www.uk.mbt.com

SKECHERS SHAPE UPS

Designed to tone and strengthen your legs, bum and core muscles while you walk Skechers combine trainer style and the health benefits of barefoot walking. And now there's a men's range, that like the women's can be dressed up for the office or down for the pub. From 69.95, www.shapeups.eu

EARTH SHOES

High heels are a no-no for arthritis sufferers, since they aggravate the joints but there are options for those who don't want to sacrifice style for comfort. The very words 'orthopaedic shoes' might have you hobbling away at speed in your four inch Prada platforms but slow down and take a look at Earth Footware.

Its cute Central Peanut boots are orthopedically contoured with a memory gel arch to keep the toes in their natural position. It also shifts your weight back onto your heels and prevents the back pain associated with arthritis.

Earth Central Peanut, 120, see www.LoveThoseShoes.com

Janet Christie

• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 January, 2010