Do Sports Products Really Enhance Your Workout? Maybe Not

A recent study finds that the performance-enhancing claims of dozens of fitness products don't hold up to scientific scrutiny

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tyler Stableford / Getty Images

Do sports drinks really give your workout an extra edge? A recent study of the performance-enhancing claims of more than 100 fitness products says probably not. In fact, of the hundreds of such claims identified in product advertisements and websites, researchers couldn’t find a single one that was backed by solid scientific evidence.

For the study, researchers at the University of Oxford looked at advertisements for sports drinks, oral supplements, footwear, clothing and fitness devices like wristbands and compression sleeves in 100 general interest magazines and the top 10 sport and fitness magazines in the U.K. and the U.S. The team also searched the websites of any product making claims to enhance athletic performance or improve recovery, seeking references for scientific studies supporting these claims.

The researchers found 235 magazine ads for sports products, of which 54 made claims to improve performance or recovery. Only three products provided references; many simply offered celebrity athlete endorsement instead. The 53 websites the researchers examined contained 431 performance-enhancing claims for 104 products, with a total of 146 references. More than half of the sites provided no references at all.

(SPECIAL: 5 Common Mistakes You’re Making at the Gym)

The researchers then contacted 42 companies for references that couldn’t otherwise be found, and heard back from 16, nine of which offered additional material. Among the companies that didn’t provide usable references, two, Panache and New Balance, said they were unwilling to share their research; one, Nike, offered a video of its product in use and said it was “sufficient”; and one, Merrell, pointed to the work of a researcher but didn’t say whether the company had any research on its actual product.

After sifting through the available references, the researchers discarded half for being unfit for scientific appraisal; they pointed to books without clinical studies, nonexistent studies, conference abstracts or online surveys without data, or nonhuman studies, such as a study of the effects of different diets on rat metabolism published in 1930. Of the 74 studies that could be evaluated, the team found that only three were of high quality and low risk for bias. Notably, all three reported no significant effects of the intervention studied.

Victor Katch, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor who was not affiliated with the current research but studies the validity of fitness products, says the findings aren’t surprising. “We are in a culture where testimonial evidence and talking heads have a lot of power and sway, especially in areas where people have little knowledge,” he says. “People want to do something about their fitness and wellness and they’re willing to give products a chance. Almost every week there’s a new diet or fitness book out, and they’re all nonsense.”

(MORE: Teens Don’t Need Energy or Sports Drinks, Pediatricians Say)

The marketing of sports products has become a multibillion dollar industry, the authors note, and each year consumers increasingly buy into the claims of performance-enhancing products, especially so-called energy drinks. But the “current evidence is not of sufficient quality to inform the public about the benefits and harms of sports products,” the authors write.

To be fair, there may yet be evidence, not included in the new study published in the journal BMJ Open, that backs some of the products’ claims. The authors also acknowledge that while they attempted to include a representative sample of products in their study, it’s possible that the ones they analyzed were “on the worst end of the spectrum.” The scientists note further that they didn’t give manufacturers much time to respond to their requests for more information.

But, by and large, many experts in the field agree that the evidence shoring up sports product claims is thin. “There is a need to improve the quality of the research conducted in this area and its reporting, and a move towards using systematic review evidence across the board for decision-making,” the authors conclude.

(MORE: What a Workout! Women Report That Exercise Triggers Orgasm)

Unfortunately, many manufacturers are unwilling to put in the time, money or effort required for solid research, says Katch. “[As experts in the field], we have a responsibility to offer proper information to the public. If we don’t, no one will. It’s very unregulated,” he says.

For consumers left wondering which fitness products are worth the money and which aren’t, the answer is that there isn’t enough evidence to say. But for the average American, it’s less important to try to boost performance than it is to just get moving, says Katch. If you want to know whether your fancy running shoes will help shave seconds from your time, you’ll need to get out there and hit the pavement.

6 comments
jegfitness
jegfitness

I think saying that sports drinks don't do anything for athletes is just asinine.  They don't claim to make a person jump higher or run faster, they claim to hydrate and bring electrolytes into a persons system.  If you have any type of nutritional background you would know that this is true.    If a person prepares for an event with proper nutrition, hydration and carbo-loading they do not need Gatorade or Power Aid, unless they are running some type of marathon where all stores are just depleted.  In the same breath, not everyone follows a proper diet and most athletes don't hydrate properly.  To say if a sports drink is necessary or not necessary is based on an individual basis.   

Jordan Meeter
Jordan Meeter

The only legitimate gym supplement is steroids.

Mishfit
Mishfit

One product that lives up to its advertising are SRC recovery shorts. With each consignment of compression fabric tested by CSIRO making them the best compression wear available. Both my clients and myself feel a huge improvement in performance with the support they give. Love them!

Mishfit
Mishfit

One product that certainly enhances performance is SRC recovery wear. Compression garments that are second to none with each consignment of fabric tested by CSIO to make sure it really does what it says it does. It has impressed me and my clients!

WTF
WTF

Thank you for writing this, and pointing out the need for valid data... It is so easy to get carried away by BS! 

Firozali A.Mulla
Firozali A.Mulla

To day's

economy demands less health and more risk but cash always wins At times we

complain to our wives where the cash is going Four hundred million more plastic

bags were handed out by supermarkets last year as the campaign to reduce their

use went backwards, official figures from the waste reduction body Wrap showed today.

Shoppers in the UK used 7.96 billion single-use bags in 2011, a rise of 5.4 per

cent on the previous year - with each person taking 10 throwaway carriers a month.

Plastic bag use rose steeply across most of the UK but in Wales, which

introduced a 5p charge per bag last October, it fell by 22 per cent. In

England, which has ruled out a similar charge, the number of bags rose by 7.5

per cent and in Northern Ireland, where a levy will come into force next year,

the spike was 8.1 per cent. There was a 0.3 per cent dip in Scotland, which

launched a consultation into introducing a minimum 5p levy last week. The

number of plastic bags in the UK has now increased for two years in a row,

following a 4 per cent jump – the first rise in five years - to 7.56 billion in

2010.However since 2006, when publicity highlighted the damage done by

discarded bags to the countryside and seas, the annual number given out by supermarkets

has fallen by 35 per cent. Over the same period supermarkets have thinner bags,

halving the amount of virgin polymer used in the manufacture of all carrier

bags including re-usable ‘bags for life’.The British Retail Consortium said the

rise was down to changing habits in grocery shopping, with hard-up families

doing several small shops a week instead of one big trip, and switching from

the car to public transport. Both factors meant they were less likely to take

reusable bags, the organisation suggested. Friends of the Earth campaigner

Julian Kirby said: “A plastic bag tax in England is long overdue to tackle this

appalling waste and reduce the mess unwanted bags make in our open spaces.“But

plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg – the Government must develop a

comprehensive strategy to tackle food waste, appliances that break early and

the postcode lottery that means what’s recyclable in one area isn’t in

another.” I agree with this as I see the plastic bottles on the streets . As

the car crashes it the cap comes out and , if you are on the way, make sure you

are insured as these are becoming VERY dangerous .The biggest problems is the

garbage collectors care little about this . More plastic is thrown in the

garbage now then any time before. To some amazement what no one knows is  Although a staple of the American diet,

butter came under a great deal of scrutiny when its high levels of saturated

fat were associated with increased heart disease risk. Many people accepted the

demise of butter in stride, ruing the loss of its savoury flavour but agreeing

that its effect on the heart might be too high a price to pay. They dutifully

switched to margarine, as researchers and nutritionists suggested. Then the

hazards of margarine came to light. Its high levels of trans fats packed a

double whammy for heart disease by raising levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and

lowering levels of HDL (good cholesterol). Many people felt betrayed or duped.

The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of

butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease.

Making the switch was a well-intentioned guess, given that margarine had less

saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats. Today

the butter-versus-margarine issue is really a false one. From the standpoint of

heart disease, butter is on the list of foods to use sparingly mostly because

it is high in saturated fat, which aggressively increases levels of LDL.

Margarines, though, aren’t so easy to classify. The older stick margarines that

are still widely sold are high in trans fats, and are worse for you than

butter. Some of the newer margarines that are low in saturated fat, high in

unsaturated fat, and free of trans fats are fine as long as you don’t use too

much (they are still rich in calories).You can quickly compare the health value

of spreads (including butter and margarine) simply by looking at the nutrition

labels on these products. The FDA now requires nutrition labels to include

information about both saturated fats and trans fats. Your goal is to limit

intake of saturated fats and to avoid trans fats altogether. Healthier

alternatives to butter or margarine include olive oil and other vegetable

oil–based spreads, which contain beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

Next time you tear into a warm loaf of bread or roll, consider dipping it in

olive oil rather than coating it in butter. If you're trying to lower your

cholesterol, stanol-based spreads (for example, Benecol and Take Control) are

even better, since regular use can help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Margarine

is made from plastic MARGARINE, when first produced, is a grey, smelly plastic.

It needs ... a grey, smelly grease. Yet many health ...There you are you eating

plastic? Is that why we need more plastic bottles? The only reason people but

this instead of butter is butter is high in cholesterol and it is priced expensive

I thank you Firozali A.Mulla