Myths and the machine
THERE'S A LARGE machine with rollers that manipulate and roll the blubber as you lie there and read the latest gossip magazines. Then there's the science fiction radio-frequency machine that allegedly melts away body fat. Many people believe such hi-tech equipment are an easy alternative to exercising, but are they really the answer?
There are weird and wonderful solutions from numerous belts to the M6 Endermologie machine, the most popular choice with more than 140 million treatments performed in 90 countries. It also is one of the most scientifically tested, with approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for the temporary reduction in the appearance of cellulite.
'The technology is to knead you into shape. It kneads your skin and this will actually firm you up,' says Connie Kung, head of slimming at Phillip Wain Fitness and Beauty.
The M6 Endermologie machine has a mechanical head, which is applied directly to the skin to increase blood flow and help eliminate fluid, giving a more even look to the skin and 'better' contours to the body. Essentially a deep tissue massage and thus not too painful, it helps to temporarily eliminate toxins and any abnormal fluid retention in the cellulite (better known as the dreaded 'orange peel' look on the skin - a condition present in 90 per cent of women past puberty, so you are not alone).
But while the M6 machine may sound tempting, it is not for weight or fat loss. Instead, it only aims to improve the appearance of cellulite and just temporarily. So don't whoop for joy because, as the M6 manufacturers say: 'Just as we go to have our hair cut on an ongoing basis, we need our cellulite treated regularly as well, otherwise it will come back'.
And this body treatment is not cheap: a 55-minute session costs $3,080. Manufacturers say the average person will only start to see results after six sessions, followed by monthly maintenance sessions.
Terence Chau, registered physiotherapist and programme director of the Asian Academy for Sports and Fitness Professionals, says the M6 can help a person look better in the short term. 'It helps to redistribute fat, but the overall fat content is still the same and the fat is pushed to other parts of the body. After a period of time, the fat will return to the usual body shape,' Chau says.
Felicia Tang, 34, used slimming machines after her first son was born.
'Before giving birth, my tummy was very firm, but now it's different and the muscles are loose,' she says.
With her second baby now a couple of months old, Tang wants to get into shape again. 'I mainly used the M6 machines before, with some additional creams. I was also advised to exercise, so I used to work out in the gym before my slimming treatments. I found it useful,' she says.
But many people misunderstand the difference between losing weight and fat.
'Lots of companies use 'lose weight' as a marketing tool,' says Chau. 'Yes, you can lose weight, but this is from sweating and that is losing water, not fat.
'The golden principle to losing fat is to increase metabolism [by exercising more] and decreasing calorific input.'
Burning 3,500 calories is equivalent to 450 grams of fat and the healthy guideline is to lose 450 grams per week.
The Phillip Wain centre is packed with slimming machines, including the M6, but its newest, and most powerful, is a radio-frequency fat burner. The advertisement says: 'Burn fat ... Make it easy!'
'The radio-frequency [machine] stimulates the ions within the cells, which will then collide together. This generates heat from deep down in the tissue, and basically helps you to burn fat from underneath,' Kung says.
However, medical experts remain sceptical because no clinical trails have been performed to support such a claim. 'There is no machine on the planet approved by the FDA for fat burning. Even though some people, like beauty parlours, say they do,' says Henry Chan Hin-lee, specialist dermatologist and vice-president of the Hong Kong Association of Specialists in Dermatology. 'The problem is that beauty therapists also put people on strict diets and exercise regimes, so it's impossible to know if the radio-frequency machines work.'
The machine emits an electrical current, which warms all the tissues - such as fat, blood vessels and water - as it passes through the body. 'If you induce a lot of heat, the fat melts. But this causes a significant amount of inflammation which could lead to scarring and other non-selective damage,' says Chan.
Another method involves the use of electrical pads or belts that emit electrical pulses causing the muscles to contract. However, Chau says that even though electrical stimulation does burn calories (not as much as in active exercise), the results will not last long.
'Both active and passive muscle contraction [from electrical pads] lead to muscle aches, so many people think 'Ah, it must be working'. But electrical stimulation results are not long-lasting,' the physiotherapist says.
Other experts say the muscle contraction caused by electronic exercise belts and pads will not help build up or strengthen muscles, even though some manufactures promise that 'just 20 minutes of a daily workout ... helps to get results similar to 800 sit-ups'.
Previous Consumer Council surveys show that slimming service providers often use exaggerated language to persuade people to join their treatment programmes. Coupled with a recent council survey that found that 70 per cent of advertisements in Hong Kong magazines feature beauty and slimming products, it's no surprise that many people are either misled, confused or conned by what they offer.
Chinese University of Hong Kong psychiatrist Lee Sing is an expert on how women see themselves and their own body fat. He believes that today's cultural expectations of women - to be thin and have large breasts - is impossible.
'Over 100 years ago, Chinese women had foot-binding which led to pain and infection and some people compare today's slimming obsession with foot-binding,' Lee says.
'There is increasing sophistication in the messages these adverts promote - like all these hi-tech slimming machines - and this creates a broad level of body dissatisfaction among readers, even if they are not fat.
'What happens next is that 'hope-arousal' begins. Women rationally know that the slimming machines may not work, but they'd like to have a try anyway. This is an emotional reaction, not an intellectual or rational one.'
At present no government legislation exists that regulates slimming devices.
The Department of Health has not issued any guidelines over the use of slimming devices, but it has released educational material explaining what normal body weight is and health advice on weight loss programmes and treatments.
So, why bother with these machines? Lee believes many women who use the machines actually have emotional or psychiatric-related problems. 'They read it should be successful and at the end of the day when they do not achieve the results, they can feel like they've failed. This can deepen a psychiatric condition or even trigger depressive problems,' he says.
So lying down and letting machines do all the work is not the answer.