From tapeworms and Thighmasters to fad diets and blubber-shaking machinery, the only sure thing in the fitness world is that there will always be a new trend claiming to be the secret to quick and easy weightloss or eternal youth. Often, these fads make unrealistic promises or are downright unhealthy. Sometimes, though, trends bubble up for a reason—because they work. Here’s a look at five current fitness trends and my suggestions as to whether you should “hit it” or “quit it.”
HCG Diet: Fad diets are a dime a dozen. All the ones that “work” use the same trick: They have some loosely-tested medical theory that distracts you from the fact that you are just doing good old calorie cutting. This is true of most low-carb and non-medically-indicated gluten-free diets, and it’s certainly true with the HCG diet. In its truest form, the HCG diet requires daily injections of a hormone found in pregnant women that is supposed to help release fat stores. Of course, the internet has sprung up with sites offering to sell you HCG in pill form. But HCG is not active in an oral form, so the pills you find on the internet are pure placebos. In either case, the HCG is more or less a red herring anyway. The real way the HCG diet “works”—you are only allowed 500 calories per day! Yes, you read that right—500 calories. Of course you are going to lose weight in the short-term, but a 500-calorie diet is something one should never undertake without the strictest of doctor’s supervision.
The Verdict: Quit It. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn by creating a sustainable deficit, which can be done by anyone, anywhere, for free! If you must, you can take a few twenty-dollar bills out of your wallet and flush them down the toilet for motivation, which would be better than spending your hard-earned cash on this internet gimmick.
P90X: The saying goes, “At any given time, there is an episode of I Love Lucy playing somewhere in the world.” I think the same is probably true of the P90X infomercial—possibly twofold. The parade of jaw-dropping transformations and well-oiled “after shots” just reek of scam. But, you know what…? The hype machine of the infomercial doesn’t change the fact that P90X is a really solid, well-rounded, old-school weight and cardio program that will deliver great results to anyone who has the dedication to push themselves through the workouts and, most importantly, reel in their diet. It delivers the same kind of solid workout experience you can get from taking several classes at a gym, which makes it ideal for parents and people who like the flexibility of working out at home. (One caveat: If you are a woman looking to lose weight, it’s likely the nutrition guide that comes with the program will suggest far too many calories. Here are some suggestions for alterations.)
The Verdict: Hit it! Just don’t expect that something magical will happen when the UPS man delivers the package to your door. As with any workout program, you’ll need the commitment to hit the workouts hard and change your diet to see results.
Shake Weight: Due to a so-bad-it's-good advertising campaign, the Shake Weight has become a viral video darling and even landed a starring role on an episode of South Park. But, is it any good as a workout tool? Hardly. I purchased the Shake Weight in the “for men” size and ran through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it enclosed workout DVD. For starters, I can think of very little that would actually “get you ripped in only 6 minutes per day” aside from deadlifting a small SUV repeatedly. And, while I did have difficulty shaking the weight for the specified period, I’m chalking that up to a slippery handle and biomechanically-shaky moves. I felt no delayed muscle soreness that would indicate that the workout had done anything different from my usual weight regime. Plus, it works only three muscle groups, and in my opinion having used the product, there’s certainly not enough weight involved to “get you ripped.” In fact, I’d argue good ole pushups, dips, and pull-ups would do a much better job of that than this noisy gizmo.
The Verdict: Quit It. Spend your twenty or thirty bucks on a pair of 20-pound dumbbells that you can use for curls, presses, squats, and lunges to get a full-body workout. Bonus tip: If you want to get the whole Shake Weight experience with your dumbbells, just stop your curl or press mid-way through the rep and do micropulses or hold the isometric contraction for 30 seconds. Oh, and make funny faces. That’s the important part.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training): High Intensity Interval Training is the talk of the gym, promising to burn the most calories in the least amount of time and elevating post-exercise calorie burn for up to 24 hours after the session. HIIT is a great addition to most workout programs, and all these claims are backed by solid research, but here’s the thing—most people don’t do HIIT right. It’s more than just hitting the “interval” button on the elliptical while reading the latest copy of Cosmo. A true HIIT workout session involves a warm-up followed by one minute of all-out intensity and one minute of recovery, repeated no more than 10 times, and followed by a cool down. To be true HIIT, the all-out bursts must be can’t-go-for-a-second-longer intervals, and at the end of the 20-30 minute session you should be absolutely beat.
The Verdict: Hit it! High Intensity Interval Training is a great way to get the most out of your workout time. Remember, though, that a true HIIT will leave you utterly depleted and require proper recovery, so don’t do this kind of workout on back-to-back days. Also, don’t put too much weight on the promise of increased post-exercise burn—any workout program will do this. Just focus on blasting through those calories in the workout timeframe and consider any additional benefits as gravy. I tell my clients: With HIIT, if you don’t feel like a flailing fool in the gym, you probably aren’t doing it right.
High-Antioxidant Drinks and Supplements (Acai Berry, Pomegranate, etc.): It seems that anti-oxidants have been added to so many products these days, promising everything from better heart health to eternal youth. Notably, the beverage aisle is jam-packed with high-antioxidant drinks, but most of these drinks are nothing more than expensive fruit punch, with little to offer than massive quantities of sugar and some vitamins tossed in to make for better marketing. Yes, a diet sufficiently high in anti-oxidants is important for good health, but a well-rounded diet full of multi-colored foods will not only provide you more than enough vitamins and minerals, it will contain other important phytonutrients and fiber naturally. I am always wary of artificially adding nutrients to our food outside the ratio of what you’d find in a healthy, well-balanced diet. There is even some evidence that too many anti-oxidants might reduce the positive adaptations to exercise.
The Verdict: Quit it! Don’t reach for a pricy, sugary, calorie-bomb just because it claims to have anti-oxidants or other health benefits. If you are eating a well-rounded, colorful diet, you are probably doing fine on the anti-oxidant front. Try as we might, we really can’t improve on water for drinking.
If you’ve got a fitness trend you’d like me to investigate, drop me a note.
Heather Hawkins is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition coach based in San Francisco, CA, who works with clients over the internet through FitLifeSF Coaching and blogs at FitLifeSF.com. Please send your fitness and nutrition questions to Smurf@FitLifeSF.com for use in future blogs.