Gut-Check Time Health: With endless reps, infomercials bombard us with taut tummies shilling ab flatteners. It takes a strong stomach to resist the pitch. With so much money being made, there apparently aren't many of those around.

July 09, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,STAFF WRITER

Morning, noon or night, if you watch TV with any regularity, you can't possibly miss seeing action in the War to Flatten America's Middle.

"Get rid of your gut," commands a toothy, endlessly smiling former aerobics champion named Brenda Dykgraaf. Click.

"I used to wear loose clothes to hide my tummy, but now, look," says one of those unidentified "real-people" shills in a floral leotard, revealing her presumably modified midriff. "We want you to have the perfect stomach." Click.

"Visualize yourself getting back into that dress, into those jeans, into that bathing suit," the muscular Jake Steinfeld bubbles on a shop-at-home channel, falling not much shy of speaking in tongues during a half-hour of selling his tummy-tightening, back-bracing exercise chair. "The only one stopping you, is you." Clic no, wait. Jake, he's so infectious.

Why, that's "Jan" on the phone, dialing in to testify, yessir, about Jake's product: "My mother is 80 years old," says this Southern drawl. "She's never exercised before. Now she's doing it five and six times a day, and she's lost five pounds since April."

C'mon, viewers, if this gut-busting granny can do it, so can you. All it took to get her into a life-enhancing rocking chair of "tough, tubular steel, made in the U.S.A." was two easy payments of $69 and change.

Yes, and let's not forget that seat, interjects smiling Jake, relentless, digging for any edge. "It's nice and cushy. And it swivels." Click.

If it isn't "Eight-Minute Abs" on tape, it's equipment such as Jake's Ab and Back-Plus, the AbFlex, AbWorks, the Ab Trainer, or the Ab Roller-Plus, which must be much better than the original Ab Roller because now it comes with (expectant pause) "power stands."

Channel-surf your heart out, but those belly-bashers can eat at your defenses, even if achieving a minimal mid-section is not one of your colossal concerns.

This is nothing new, of course -- at least in concept. TV has carried ads for exercise devices for years -- fat-jigglers, creams, squeezers, pullers, tuggers and machines both simple and complex. Sometimes stronger chests and arms have been the (( target; sometimes legs and thighs; sometimes fannies.

Abdominal exercisers are just the latest pound-pinching products aimed at the nation's expansive waist problem. The ads are just longer and showier these days. What's happening is simply one more variation on the good old American medicine show, using '90s-style marketing techniques to trade off the public enthusiasm for living healthier, more active lives (or thinking about it).

In the process, if the sketchy sales figures available are anywhere close to accurate, a bunch of people are making a bundle of bucks.

AbFlex U.S.A. claims 2.5 million sales at something around $60 each for its plastic-plus-rubber band device. Body by Jake claims 700,000 Ab and Back chair exercisers sold at $200 apiece. Makers of the "Eight-Minute Abs" videotape claim 200,000 sales at $20 a pop.

NordicTrack, an exercise-equipment maker relatively new to the abs-only scene, estimates that all manufacturers sold nearly 3 million abs devices for about $145 million in just 1995. With its new product, the company is betting implicitly, of course, that the market's still not saturated.

So powerful is the response from TV viewers that Jordan Whitney, a California firm which reports on the infomercial business, says three of top 12 ads in 1995 were for abdominal exercisers. Jordan Whitney says its rankings are based on how often an ad runs, how much the maker spends, and longevity.

But even if you exercise only strong resistance and don't hurry to call that 800 number, Part II of the mass-marketing strategy still might get you. And that is, hit 'em again, over-the-counter, in discount stores, usually two or three months after the TV ads begin to run.

There, you'll find even more options, such as the PowerTek, the Ab Isolator, the Ab Toner, EZ Krunch ("As seen on TV"), and Kathy Ireland's Abdominal Exerciser, which carries a label assuring shoppers that this is a "breakthrough exerciser." Uh, maybe.

Flab over abs

Whether they look tight and trendy or not, strong abdominal muscles are important. They link the movements of the upper-body with the lower-body, hold in your stomach and also offset pressures that can cause back problems, another American epidemic. Over the years, they stretch or sag through under-use, childbirth, or too much fattening food.

Tighter abs come with an important asterisk, especially if you buy into the advertising-fed image of a muscular middle making you a more manly man or womanly woman: You can crunch your abdominals all you want, but if you start out fat, no one's going to notice until you make your paunch go poof.

And that, doctors and exercise specialists agree, results far more from aerobic exercise and a low-fat diet than from doing sit-ups modified to stress the abs, either with or without a device to help.

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