The term "passive exercise" is an oxymoron, because if something is passive, it is not exercise. Common sense alone should be enough to discredit claims that a person can gain the benefits of working out by not working out. Nevertheless, the appeal of getting something for nothing is so strong that many people are willing to believe that such is possible. Passive-exercise promotions usually involve devices such as electrical muscle stimulators, devices that move the body or limbs while a person remains relaxed, or psychological aids such as subliminal tapes -- not unlike the phony "think system" of learning how to play a musical instrument introduced by "Professor Harold Hill" the con man in the delightful musical comedy, The Music Man.
The most persistent passive exercise devices have been the electrical muscle stimulators (EMS). The most publicized was the Relaxacisor, a device that was taken off the market by the FDA. EMS devices have limited usefulness in physical therapy. People with spinal cord injuries who can no longer control their voluntary muscles may be treated with EMS devices to help them maintain muscle tone. The smallest amount of exercise by a person with normal function would be at least as effective as an EMS device could achieve.
So-called "toning tables" are claimed to achieve physical fitness without effort. The most any such device could achieve would be to help develop flexibility. Although flexibility is a measurable quality of fitness, it has no effect on muscular strength, muscular endurance, or cardiorespiratory fitness. Theoretically, passive movements that stretched joints beyond their usual activity ranges could improve range of motion.
A passive warmup, such as sitting in a hot tub, whirlpool, or sauna, can help prepare the body for activity. This might help a performer get started faster than would occur by relying entirely upon physical activity to raise the body's core temperature to performance levels. However, such activity does not improve the strength or endurance of the athlete.
© 1996, National Council Against Health
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