My Facebook newsfeed is littered with ads for a fitness gadget called the BionicGym. The BionicGym is a pair of electrified leg wraps that claim to “burn calories on your sofa, at your desk, anywhere.” The videos on BionicGym’s Facebook page show people wearing the things, a little out of breath, with their legs twitching.
Their website claims it to be the “No. 1 most-funded fitness machine of all time” on Indiegogo, raking in over $3 million to date between pledges and pre-orders since their crowdfunding campaign launched on January 14th, 2017. It also boasts that it has been the “subject to a dozen scientific studies” for evidence of its efficacy, some of them peer-reviewed.
So I can sit on my ass and tone it at the same time? I have my doubts.
I would love to get in shape sitting at my desk, but I also live by the ethos of asking for evidence now instead of asking for my money back later. It’s not impossible that this works, but in my opinion the evidence they have presented doesn’t adequately support their claims. Furthermore, the behavior of the BionicGym’s inventor, Dr. Louis Crowe, hasn’t made me feel confident about strapping the electric boogaloo shorts to my ass. Here’s why.
Who is Louis Crowe and WTF is NMES?
Dr. Louis Crowe is a medical doctor in Ireland, graduating from medical school in 1993. His resume boasts “clinically-proven, independently-validated, effective therapies” on his website. Fancy. He’s worked at a handful of companies with generic sciencey names: Bio-Medical Research, LTD (BMR) – it’s like if a pharmaceutical company called themselves Pills, LLC. Crowe’s personal website, contrary to his posh resume, is an embarrassment of out of date information and poor design reminiscent of the Geocities era. He mentioned working in an ER and in geriatrics in one interview, but the vast majority of his career has been in a business setting.
So what’s Dr. Crowe selling? Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES). In practice, it’s basically controlled shocks delivered to your muscles via your skin from conducting pads that stimulate your nerves to produce a muscle contraction. It’s been kicking around as a scientific and medical curiosity for some time now. Theories have floated about how it could be used to enhance exercise and physical performance, but it seems to be the cold fusion of the exercise world. It’s a fantastical theory, but supporting evidence at this point that it’s a great replacement to exercise is lacking. Though it isn’t promoted by the BionicGym as a complete replacement for exercise, they do say it “exercises you,” and they refer to what it does as “exercise.”
It’s true, equipment using NMES technology can elicit some of the physiological responses of exercise. This includes increased heart rate and (mildly) improved muscle tone. There is evidence supporting some uses for it, mainly in reducing or repairing muscle atrophy for people who are inactive long term due to injury or old age. There are scattered, small scale studies showing perceived muscle strengthening and firming from NMES, but no overall change in body composition or overall fitness level. I asked Dean Somerset, BSc kinesiology, owner of Somerset Fitness Ltd, for his opinion.
“It’s typically used in rehab settings, shows next to no benefit for fitness or performance training other than making muscles jump around. It’s not revolutionary or even novel. The funny thing is a lot of the studies that show muscle hypertrophy with NMES have been done on rats, and have never been able to be reproduced on humans as the intensity of stimulation needed to see enough muscle strain hurts like a mother fucker. Most people find working out to be too painful in and of itself, so tossing some electrodes on and zapping 300 milliamps through your skin is likely not a strong selling feature.”
If you’re looking to get a killer workout in while Netflix and chilling, the evidence for strapping electrodes to your ass pales into comparison to hopping on a damn treadmill.
Why crowdfund an electronic twerking machine?
After years working with Bio-Medical Research LTD and on various products utilizing NMES, Crowe moved onto his new venture as the front man. He claimed in an interview published to Medium that he opted to use crowdfunding because there was no interest from investors for a direct-to-consumers NMES product. In the same interview, he talked about another direct-to-consumers NMES product he’d developed (the Innovo), which “made over a billion in sales and been on millions of people.” Funny that. To be fair, from what I can see, the Innovo does seem efficacious.
With what appears to be a record of success, why wouldn’t investors jump at something that, at least according to his advertising, was ready to gift everyone with thigh gap? Were they put off by the jittery, at times painful to watch product demonstrations, or did they not believe Crowe’s claim that it wasn’t just another ab belt? Whatever investors thought, consumers laid down a lot of money for this get-fit-easy gadget that surely wouldn’t disappoint. Their first post facebook post with a video of the product came on September 15, 2016, showing Louis Crowe wet, jittering, and out of breath, captioned as follows:
Hi, I’ve done the equivalent of a marathon on my sofa, really – check out the video to see it in action. You can use it at low levels, easy exercise, surfing the net / gaming or more intensely for greater calorie burn and training. It’s effective and proven (lots of scientific publications)… even tested with the European Space Agency. We’ll be launching a crowedfunding shortly to get this into your hands. Thanks and please like and share. Louis
Spelling mistakes aside, it’s hard to be skeptical when you want something to be true. An initial crowdfunding goal of $20,000 was shattered long before their goal deadline and the pot has only continued to grow. Since the campaign launched, prices are planned to triple. In one article at the launch of their crowdfunding campaign, it was set at the ‘low’ price of $299, but at Oddity Central, it was listed at “$349 for the BionicGym Standard, or $379 for the Pro version,” a clear differentiation for which I have yet to find in terms of electrical components or capacity for cardiovascular training. When I first started researching this article, they were listed at $499 for the standard version and $599 for Pro, with the plan to raise them to the retail launch price of $800 and $899 respectively. A year later, a member of the BionicGym team posted that the “suggested” retail price is $999.
The [missing context from] marketing.
Dr. Crowe figured out one thing: how to write a story that paints an optimistic picture. Sometimes, that involves ever so slight readjustments in details of events.
In all of his websites he advertises that Ellen Degeneres said “you have to see this” on her show regarding the BionicGym. Though I’ve reached out to Degeneres for comment (I’m not holding my breath as she seems busy), I hunted down the clip from the show, in which his commercial calling the product “an app and a wrap” is featured. Even if she says that, the caption on the screen implored viewers, “have a funny video Ellen should see?” Well that’s not what I expected. She goes on to say “maybe it’s a good product, it’s hard to tell” before rolling the clip, much to the amusement of her laughing audience. The commercial’s appearance on Ellen doesn’t appear to be any sort of endorsement, but it was good for a few laughs before being leveraged in advertising on BionicGym’s website, facebook, and indigogo. Obviously a bit on a comedian’s show doesn’t prove anything about the device, but I’d be annoyed if I found out this was the context after spending my money.
This isn’t the only place where Crowe uses this technique. Compiling a list of websites that they’ve been featured in, declaring “they talk about us!” they listed GQ without any quotes or links to the article. A search of GQ’s website reveals no article about the BionicGym or Louis Crowe. The representation of their scientific studies and their work with the European Space Agency (ESA) follows this technique, but we’ll get to that later.
With all his fantastical claims about the invention, even if I’d handed over my money and wanted this thing to work, by now I’d be suspicious.
I had to email him. He claimed he used the BionicGym alone to train for a marathon. I’ve run two marathons, and I’m pretty sure anyone who’s ever run a marathon is thinking the same thing right now.
Bull fucking shit.
But his emails.
We exchanged some words. It was weird even for what I expected from this guy. The emails received from Dr. Crowe were somewhat reminiscent of a carnival barker. When I asked him about the fact that his studies lacked statistically significant sample sizes, he gave an answer that would make Kellyanne Conway blush, declaring, “We got statistically significant results.” That’s… not what that means.
Dr. Crowe tells me over email, “We’ve got some data up to 6 months. We’re a startup! Once we’re established or get long funding we’ll undertake more studies… things like improving lifespan can’t be shown in less than 10 years, by definition.”
Fair enough. But what doesn’t make sense to me about this is that he’s said in interviews that he’s been working on this for 16 years and has even applied for patents for it. This is the same technology he researched at BMR, and the BionicGym even has BMR’s backing for the project (so I’m curious why they even needed crowdfunding). If there was meaningful data to be preened from this device, he’s had enough time to launch a machine onto market. Why wouldn’t this be accompanied by long term, proven results?
I asked about the marathon. He alleged that 14 years ago, he’d successfully run a marathon in 3:42 by training with the BionicGym, with no running as a part of his regimen at all. I looked online on several websites that publicly post race times and Crowe was listed nowhere. He told me it was a course that he’d mapped alone, so there’s no proof that this happened. Yeah, and I always parallel park correctly on the first try when nobody’s looking. He also suggested that you could train for a marathon by cycling (“but it makes sense to do some running, too,” he added), which tells me he doesn’t understand what it takes to train for a marathon with or without magic pants, but I do. Avoiding all impact so that training is not hard on the knees may sound appealing, but it’s not the way to prepare your bones for a marathon. Actual running- specifically the strengthening of the calf muscle– is preventative of stress fractures on race day. And how exactly did he use something you just strap to one muscle group for marathon training? You do not just muscle up your quadriceps, you train your entire body. Your arms are pumping for 26.2 miles, your calves are wrecked if you don’t pound the shit out of them for a year before the race, and don’t ask what I’ve seen happen to nipples. I was nervous going into a marathon after a peak training week of “only” fifty-five miles of running and 30 miles of cycling. But hey guy with funny shorts, you do you, I’m just asking questions.
In his emails he said he wouldn’t make medical claims, just wellness claims. Huh, that’s a funny way to say “get a whiff of the bullshit.” Then the explanation arrived: medical claims came with needing to get FDA approval. Despite Crowe’s initial insistence that it was “not for medical purposes,” the product is now being reviewed by the FDA as a medical device. I can’t say for sure if they were trying to avoid medical claims to sidestep FDA clearance, but that certainly was interesting information that Crowe so readily volunteered. The product currently still does not have FDA approval—a fact Crowe has had to break to hopeful and patient backers on Facebook over and over again- but he does have $3 million of his backers’ money. Maybe he can get all that research done now.
It’s in the mail… eventually maybe?
The crowdfunding campaign started nearly two years ago, and they have not shipped yet. I have followed this company for most of the last two years, and have literally (the real literally) read every publicly visible post and comment on BionicGym’s facebook page. It’s dizzying the number of times he’s told backers that the product was in production and they would be shipped out soon… only to push back shipping dates again for vague reasons months later. Over and over and over and over again, people have shown their growing annoyance with BionicGym’s lack of transparency about the science and shipping dates. Their backers have run out of patience.
And looking at the timeline, who can blame them?
On their facebook page, they posted pictures of test garments in July of 2017, then pictures of the wraps on a conveyer belt in November of 2017 saying they were “on the production line.” In March, they said all components of the product except the ‘board’ were in production. Later that month, they seemed to have the problem solved. One photo, which seems to have some fairly obvious photoshop, shows a model wearing the wrap while leaning on the production line. Then the first sets were ready for testing in April, the same month that they were prepping to submit paperwork to the FDA for approval. They were also “in production” in April, with the first picture of the finished garment later that month. Then they were having firmware issues. And then they were excitedly “in production” again in May. Then due to FDA approval and testing it would be, at the earliest, three months from June. By July, they had two final units in their office, and at the end of that month they told a backer they would no longer be announcing tentative shipping dates. The last few months, while their customers continue to riddle their comments section to ask when the fucking things will ship out, their questions fail to be met with answers. Their most recent post, dated October 28th 2018, has a comment from the BionicGym team stating that they are “still not manufacturing yet,” whatever that means.
For a long time, the cited hurdle was the FDA. However, they’re an Irish company, and for the purposes of answering backers outside of the US, they’re continually working out bugs in the system. Even when someone goes to the office, they somehow only have the prototypes available. As they’ve told their backers, at the rate they’re projecting to be able to produce the finished products, it’s possible that some backers may not receive it until next bikini season is over.
A company once got $4 million in crowd funding for a laser razor that still hasn’t been invented years after the crowd funding. Not to be a spoiler here, but a good sales pitch doesn’t mean shit about your product. It just means you can talk.
These wraps could very well arrive soon, but I have to ask; how many backers wouldn’t have paid into the crowdfunding campaign if they had an inkling that the final model of the BionicGym didn’t have the bugs worked out- or may not have even existed- yet?
Pants. In. Space.
It’s alleged in BionicGym’s ads that they researched with the ESA. Crowe told us, “I presented to [name redacted], he was so impressed by the live demo he helped clear the path for our research—they funded it as part of their prodex program.”
I contacted the scientist who was “so impressed” by Crowe, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. He told me, “I do not recognise the name of Dr. Louis Crowe, but I cannot exclude the possibility that we met in the 2008 timeframe as part of a bigger science team.” He also could not find any evidence of email correspondence with Dr. Crowe after an extensive search.
The BionicGym team was approved for conducting their experiment on ESA’s Zero-G Airbus. “The most important point however is that approval of an experiment is not identical to endorsing a technique; it only means our reviewers considered the proposed experiment scientifically relevant,” the scientist told me. “Most importantly, neither the execution of the experiment nor the funding of the hardware would in any way imply an endorsement by ESA of the effectiveness of the technique or device.” It bears noting that Crowe didn’t claim that ESA approved or endorsed the device, but much like being featured on Ellen, I’m getting a strong whiff of horseshit.
Unusual for this situation, there aren’t any recorded results from the experiment on the ESA’s website. Crowe, who was oddly not listed as a study author, did not fulfill my request for their experimental data. He did send a picture of himself floating in zero gravity.
About those studies…
Always read the fine print before purchasing. Or in this case, click on the list of studies. Looking through them thoroughly, there are some obvious issues to me. One is that they were, at best, either case studies looking at just one person’s experience over a few sessions, or very small scale studies. Some studies looked at the concept of using electrical stimulation to produce some effects of exercise without really studying long term effects of the equipment on any metric of physical fitness improvement. None of these studies were produced by an outside group independently studying a final model of the BionicGym without oversight from Crowe’s team, as it hasn’t been made available for outside researchers to test his claims yet.
One place they published was Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. They charge up to $500 between submission and publishing fees—because quality peer review is great, but pay for play works for indiegogo, right? One article presents results from a single person in a journal called BMJ Case Reports, which markets itself as a “high volume” “educational resource” that publishes case reports across “all disciplines” including from “medical students and junior doctors.” Not exactly where thoroughly researched medical breakthroughs find a home.
It bears noting that the studies don’t actually say the BionicGym device fulfills the inventors nebulous claims. The studies claim a few sorta interesting things about NMES. The claims that the technology employed in the device increases endurance? That’s limited to an increase in walking time in sedentary people in a study of 22 people, only 13 of whom were included in the final analysis for increased walking time. That’s very different from being able to take a relatively fit person from couch to marathon without training, which is what Crowe appears to be selling.
Furthermore, this machine claims to mimic shivering, a process meant to increase body temperature to normal as a reaction to cold. Though some studies have shown cold promotes the conversion of white fat to brown fat (along with some interesting metabolic mischief), it’s a jump to believe that this implies it burns an excess of calories. At the moment it looks like studies only show an increased calorie burning potential of about 150 calories per day due to shivering, and that’s at the higher end of the spectrum (some studies only show a 15-20 calorie per day burn increase). It’s also not clear how they calculated the burn of 1,095 calories in an hour using the device. I’m speculating they used the most common accessible tool we have to calculate caloric burn: heart rate monitoring. Unfortunately, though heart rate and caloric burn tend to be correlative, wearable fitness devices have an atrocious track record of extrapolating this inaccurately.
It’s also curious that in a video from last year, he claimed that they managed to get their battery life up to a few hours, which is strange that this only happened many years after he allegedly used this for marathon training. You’ve got to train continuously for a few hours on long runs for a marathon. I’m curious how they conducted tests for endurance training on the device before this. In another update, he claimed to have lost an astonishing amount of weight due to the BionicGym in two days. However, he also uses coffee and fasting… and credits the fucking shorts. This is experimental design that would be thrown out of a freshman science class. A high school freshman science class.
Scientists are still looking for ways to utilize NMES for fitness, but so far no one shows the amazing results the BionicGym team claims to have produced. A group studying NMES for energy expenditure found between a 5 and 16 percent increase in absolute caloric expenditure from NMES, which could be worth researching further. Meanwhile, BionicGym’s study presented results that are about three times higher than that—based on results from a quarter the number of test subjects.
I might be the weirdo for balking at small trials and case studies that have never been replicated, but given the massive reproducibility crisis in science, my doubts are probably healthy.
It is/is not an ab belt. Sorta.
At one point in an interview in the Irish Times, Crowe claimed “with some modifications, BionicGym has been used with patients suffering from spinal cord injuries to help strengthen their muscles.” Which is interesting, since the interview was conducted about a year before the retail model was in production. What have they been using to conduct all these tests with if the product didn’t exist yet?
Probably the technology he was working on all this time, the technology from BMR, producer of the fucking ab belts that likewise refer to their product as “a form of exercise.” That’s the strangest part about this to me. Allegedly this “wasn’t” one of those ab toner belts according to the crowdfunding page, they just “share some underlining (sic) technology.”
Here’s the punchline kids: Crowe’s previous employer, Bio-Medical Research LTD, is the name of the corporation behind Slendertone, purveyor of ab belts and a bunch of other NMES bullshit. There’s an interesting amount of crossover between Slendertone, BMR, and Louis Crowe in their patent and trademark lists.
There’s even a goddamn ab belt with Crowe’s name on the patent.
But recall, Crowe claimed that BMR was ‘backing’ the product while seeking crowdfunding support due to a lack of investor interest. I’m curious what ‘backing’ means in this case, and why it’s not just being sold through their established company with name recognition, Slendertone.
Might just be me, but if I was selling a piece of exercise equipment, I probably wouldn’t want people to know my previous foray into the field was a fucking ab belt.
How do I avoid getting any of… this… on me?
It’s not the ab belt but they share patented technology. He’s worked on this for twenty years but doesn’t have ten years of research data. Here’s a picture of him floating but he wouldn’t send experimental data. Look at him twitching but no, he won’t send the shorts to outside labs without his control to test it. He ran a marathon but why would he have proof of it?
For fucks sake.
Over nearly two years, I read Dr. Louis Crowe’s interviews, gave him the chance to explain himself to me on the record, kept track of the BionicGym facebook page, fact checked claims, emailed regulatory agencies, and talked to experts. The only fair opinion I can come to is that it’s possible this product works as implied. However, as a research scientist who’s very familiar with standard of proof in clinical trials, it has not been sufficiently proven yet, the quality of their evidence is scientifically questionable, and I would be surprised if this was little more than marketing fuckery.
As phrased succinctly in one article criticizing the BionicGym, Louis Crowe “watched a man convince millions of people that an international ally will pay for a border wall and thought “if I make the lie gaudy, absurd and expensive enough, they’ll have to believe it, right?’”
I will welcome data from the team at BionicGym when independent long term trials with sufficient sampling size and control groups are conducted. But at this point, NMES technology hasn’t been shown to do much. Can it train you for a marathon or answer your weight loss dreams? It’s impossible to know that with the bleak evidence that’s been presented so far, but I have strong doubts. The customers are beginning to show their outrage and disappointment on the BionicGym facebook page. They deserved better than a man coming through town peddling not just snake oil, but new and improved snake oil, this time with an app.