Sports aids always sell, but seldom work

Feb 9 2011 - 11:04am

Psst! Buddy, over here. Yeah, you.

There's this great new product, Placebo Power, guaranteed to improve your vertical leap in basketball, help your running biomechanics, prevent injuries and hasten recovery. It might even cure acne. You never know.

How does it work? Our revolutionary product is a breakthrough harnessing the power of money and marketing, of suggestion and gullibility, and the athlete's desperation to gain an edge.

Scientific data? Uh, no. But check out what our celebrity spokesman has to say ...

Placebo Power is not a real product. But its inspiration can be found in a long line of "therapeutic" sports-performance devices making impressive claims that, upon scrutiny, have been found to have little or no scientific data to support them.

The latest must-have is the Power Balance wristband, whose Southern California makers last month had their wrists slapped by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Australian authorities forced the company to issue this statement: "We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct."

People were shocked -- shocked! -- that a flimsy silicone bracelet hadn't been shown by nerdy types in lab coats to help performance with its hologram "embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body's natural energy field to improve balance, strength and flexibility."

The filing of a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles followed, as did a 300,000-euro fine against the company by Italian regulators, as well as the offer of mass refunds to Power Balance customers in Australia.

But just days later, the power of Power Balance's popularity was demonstrated when it obtained naming rights to the Sacramento Kings' arena. Sports celebrities, too, have rallied to defend the wristband, either because they have a sponsorship deal (Shaquille O'Neal, for one) or they just really, really want to believe it helps them.

One true believer is the Kings' Jason Thompson, who told the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones, "I would always just wear regular rubber bands and they'd be lucky, and then found out (Power Balance) had bands where something works. And I said if it helps with something, why not kill two birds with one stone?"

Why not? Ross Tucker, an exercise scientist who writes the blog "The Science of Sport," has an answer:

"It is not for nothing that decades and generations have passed with this concept of 'natural energy fields,' yet not a shred of scientific proof under controlled conditions exists," Tucker writes. "It's a scam, and it has cost you money."

Power Balance joins a pantheon of performance accessories that have failed to stand up to independent scientific inquiry. They include Phiten Titanium Necklaces, Breathe Right Nose Strips, Under Armour Performance Mouthwear and, most recently, "toning" shoes by several makers that have graced store shelves.

Still the subject of debate are compression socks, used by runners, cyclists and triathletes who believe the tight-fitting, knee-high glorified support hose help with performance and prevent muscle cramping. Conflicting studies have been released, but the latest research, in the January issue of the journal Phlebology, showed that the socks do not improve cardio-respiratory performance or stave off muscle fatigue in endurance athletes.

Yet again, many top runners and cyclists swear by the socks. It's the power of suggestion, said Dr. Steven Barrett, a retired psychiatrist in North Carolina who is vice president of the Institute for Science in Medicine.

Barrett's website, www.quackwatch.org, tackles an array of products, including medical devices and nutritional aids, and the claims made about them. As for sports accessories, he believes a combination of motivation, superstition and financial compensation makes athletes vulnerable to fads.

"It was observed many years ago by Ellington Darton (former director of research for Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries) that athletes were gullible when it came to taking dietary supplements," Barrett said. "He actually ran some tests on protein powder on himself. At one time, he thought it was helpful. But he discovered it wasn't helping at all.

"When (athletes) say they've been helped, it's either coincidence or they simply don't want to admit they haven't been helped. They could be going along with the crowd."

There's also another motivation for many athletes. "Getting paid for endorsements is a possible factor in, you know, helping them believe," Barrett said.

Tucker and "Science of Sport" colleague Jonathan Dugas think the placebo effect -- in which a treatment like sugar pills will help some people to a minor degree because they believe the treatment will work -- plays a major role.

But Barrett credits coincidence, not the placebo effect, with turning athletes into believers. "There are probably some people who coincidentally performed better, and then they spread the word," he said.

Michael Specter, author of "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives," does not see people investing in bogus products to aid health and performance as a benign phenomenon. He points to the continued belief that the herbal supplement echinacea helps lessen the impact of colds, despite "hundreds of studies" showing its ineffectiveness.

"You have to wonder: When is enough enough?" he said recently on National Public Radio. "... Because we spend millions of dollars. It's the second-most-popular dietary supplement in this nation and one of the most thoroughly disproved."

Barrett, citing the long history of "quack" devices, isn't sure the marketing of dubious products will ever end.

"Some people may eventually realize it; some may never," he said.

(Contact Sam McManis at smcmanis(at)sacbee.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

 

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