In the world of fitness, the promise of weight loss can generate big bucks. This is why most fitness centers offer their clients weight loss products and services. Unfortunately many of these products and services are ineffective, and sometimes dangerous. On their consumer education web site, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns consumers to avoid programs and products that promise results without effort. Despite these recommendations, some fitness centers are still making false promises.
Advertisements from a local fitness center illustrate this very point. The ads promote a weight-loss sauna that claims to have revolutionary calorie-burning technology. According to the ad, a single session in the sauna can burn up to 800 calories.
Curious about this technology, I decided to contact the fitness center promoting it. I spoke with a woman who was happy to discuss the sauna. When I asked “how can someone burn 800 calories while sitting in a sauna” she said she had spent 10 hours researching the sauna on the internet. Her research led her to conclude that as sweat evaporates from the body calories are “burned”. Unfortunately her conclusions are completely incorrect.
According to Guyton’s textbook of medical physiology “as water evaporates from the body surface, 0.58 calories of heat are lost for each gram of water that evaporates”, however losing heat through the evaporation of sweat does not mean that your body is burning calories. Sweating (losing heat) in a sauna occurs because your body absorbs heat from the sauna. This process is called thermoregulation. Thermoregulation prevents heat illness by regulating body temperature. Thermoregulation and the break down of chemical energy (burning calories) are two separate processes that are not directly related.
According to Walter Thompson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Georgia State University, “sweating is the way your body cools itself. Post-exercise weight loss often represents a loss of fluids from the body, not a reduction in body fat”. In their highly acclaimed book The Fat Free Truth, fitness authors Liz Neporent and Suzanne Schlosberg tackle this issue by telling readers “don’t confuse sweating with fat burning”.
If burning 800 calories in a sauna were possible, a person could expect to lose significant amounts of weight without ever moving their body. This would make all exercise obsolete. Exercise guidelines from health agencies around the world could be met by sitting in a sauna. If you over ate you could easily balance the excess calories by spending a few minutes in the sauna. This kind of flawed thinking goes against established laws of physics and exercise science. Losing body fat and managing your health requires effort. This no effort approach to health and weight management is exactly what the FTC warns against.
There is currently no scientific evidence to show that sweating in a sauna will lead to fat loss. However, there is evidence showing just the opposite. The Clinical Guidelines for Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides clear evidence on what works for weight loss and weight loss maintenance. A summary of these guidelines was published in the Journal of Obesity Research. This comprehensive report was created by a panel of 24 members who are experts in medicine, clinical nutrition, exercise physiology and psychology. The report reviewed evidence from nearly 400 published studies and concluded that successful weight management is best achieved by participating in programs that focus on diet therapy, physical activity, and behavioral therapy. The NIH report does not mention or recommend the use of saunas for weight management!
You may be wondering how a fitness center can get away with such bold unsubstantiated claims. The truth is there are no standards of practice within the fitness industry. Advertising in the fitness industry comes down to “say whatever you want”. The vast majority of the time nobody challenges the claims that are made in paid advertisements. Ultimately consumers suffer the most. Given the legal structure under which fitness centers operate, it is unlikely we will see any improvements in the near future.
Despite the fact that the government has increased its efforts to fight fraud, resources are limited, which makes it difficult to enforce truth-in-advertising laws. To help combat this problem, the FTC has launched “Operation Big Fat Lie” with a nationwide law enforcement sweep against companies making false weight-loss claims in national advertisements. Additional information on how to avoid fitness and weight-loss scams can be found online at www.consumer.ftc.gov/health. Ultimately, the best way to prevent health fraud is to become an informed consumer. Continue to learn, ask questions and always keep your thinking cap on.
Become an Informed Consumer
Become a better consumer of health information by reading Richard’s blog at www.medfitnessprogram.com/blog, or by following him on Twitter and Facebook at www.twitter.com/mymedfitness and www.facebook.com/medfitness.
Richard J. Wolff, RD, LDN