The Power Balance bracelet comes under fire
There's no such thing as a magic bullet, but when England's cricketers won this year's Ashes, many speculated about the secret of their success. Some attributed it to assiduous preparation and Andy Flower's ability to listen and learn. Others, meanwhile, wondered if it was anything to do with the mysterious wristbands sported by members of the team: Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood were all pictured wearing Power Balance bracelets.
For the past couple of years, these innocuous-looking, silicone wristbands have been all the rage. Sports personalities such as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have been spotted wearing them, and the craze has spread to show business celebrities, including P Diddy, Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The claims made by the bands' manufacturers were impressive. Marketed as "Performance Technology", they were said to improve the wearer's balance, strength and flexibility.
At sporting events and expos, their effect was demonstrated by applying pressure to the outstretched arm of a volunteer. Invariably, the first time he or she would overbalance. The second time, this time wearing a Power Balance bracelet, the volunteer's resistance - and accordingly balance - would improve.
The claims impressed many, but the explanation behind it was less convincing. Embedded in the bands were two holograms, "designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body". This, it was said, was "based on the idea of optimising the body's natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many eastern philosophies".
The hippyish language wasn't enough to put off the punters, though. Endorsed by sports stars such as the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal and the F1 driver Rubens Barrichello, the bands were soon adorning the wrists of athletes worldwide. They were named CNBC's Sports Product of the Year 2010 and became Amazon bestsellers.
What followed was, perhaps, inevitable. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission challenged the claims as to the bracelets' physiological benefits and its chairman, Graeme Samuel, dismissed them as being "no more beneficial than a rubber band".
The company has had to withdraw the offending advertising and amend the Australian section of its website. It has also been forced to admit in a public statement that, "there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974".
To add insult to injury, a class action lawsuit against Power Balance has been commenced in California, claiming that it marketed its products by purposefully misleading the public.
Power Balance isn't going down without a fight, however, and is standing by its product. Its president, Keith Kato, has issued a statement defending the bands. He dismisses the admission in Australia as simply complying with ACCC standards and insists that Power Balance "has made no claims that our product is ineffective."
"Our products", he goes on to say, "are used by those with open minds".
Power Balance still has plenty of open-minded followers, who say they are unconcerned by the scientific brouhaha.
Nick Rose, 39, is an Iron Man athlete and something of a fan. He bought one of the bands as he thought it looked nice and finds that he is less grumpy in the morning on the days when he is wearing it. He is untroubled by the challenge to the scientific claims.
"It doesn't bother me one bit," he says. "In fact, since the piece broke about the claims, I have bought my partner one as well. She doesn't care either."
As far as Rose is concerned, the effect of the band is all in the mind.
"I could be wearing a piece of string, but if you think it has an effect you will blame anything. I know the science is refuted but it is a psychosomatic thing for me - positive mental attitude, as they say."
Student and tennis player Ryan Ruonavaara, 20, agrees.
"I don't know if the science behind it has any validity, but for me it's like a good luck charm," he says. "I feel that its psychological impact on me is its greatest asset. If you believe in it, it works, you know?"
Eager to test the theory, I try one out myself in a particularly tough circuits class. Admittedly, my strength is better than usual - I power through the press-ups and sit-ups - and I'm buzzing for hours after the session, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that I'm fresh from a holiday and have slept better than usual. My balance, I note, is worse than normal; I nearly topple over during the stretches.
Power Balance might not be the magic bullet for me, but if it has such a profound placebo effect on others, does it really matter if its claims can't be empirically proven?
Exercise physiologist and sports science blogger Ross Tucker, PhD, believes that it does. He - in common with others - asserts that the demonstrations that convinced so many have been discredited. Tests carried out by the University of Wales in Cardiff (Uwic) for the BBC found that when athletes were asked to do a series of exercises first wearing the Power Balance band and then a placebo substitute, there was no statistical difference between the results.
"The majority of consumers will wear it in hope, or belief, regardless of the facts", he says. "All of which is perfectly fine - until you trace back that the whole promise behind the bracelet is that it works as a result of some scientific theory that was shown to be true using those demonstrations."
If improving your balance, strength and flexibility is your goal, you might be better off turning to someone like Nick Grantham, a strength-and-conditioning coach who has worked in high-performance sport for more than a decade, training Olympic and elite athletes.
"Everyone looks for a short cut to success", he says, "but the bottom line is that it requires hard work and dedication. If you want to improve balance, strength, power, health etc, then guess what? You need to work on those aspects of your training and life".
So it's back to circuits for me, to sweat it out the hard way. As for my band, I've already passed it on to my son, who thought it might give him the edge in a match this afternoon. Perhaps it'll give him a bit of extra confidence; who knows? But if it helps him concentrate in his science class this morning, I'll be even happier.
Updated: January 17, 2011 04:00 AM