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This article was published 19/12/2011 (3588 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not since Lance Armstrong's yellow Livestrong band sparked a consumer/charity awareness craze has so much rubber been worn on so many wrists.
And not since Wonder Woman's bullet-deflecting bracelets has so much power been attributed to wrist wear.
They have names like Power Balance, EFX, iRenew and Lifestrength, and if the marketing hype is to be believed, wearing one of the ubiquitous, coloured silicone wristbands can make you stronger, steadier, more flexible and energetic, less stressed, and even a better athlete.
The orange iRenew Sport bracelet ($19.99) we received in the mail looks like just a fancier version of Armstrong's $1 rubber band, but on the website, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo says it "has absolutely given me an advantage to make my game never be the same."
Most of these trendy "power" bracelets claim to get their performance-enhancing properties from special hologram discs, health-sustaining minerals or negative ions that balance out the body's energy field.
iRenew -- whose high-profile client list also includes NFL stars Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and singer Nick Lachey -- uses a patented technology called "Selective Frequency Resonance (SFR)." It kicks in as soon as the wearer puts the bracelet on, according to the ads.
Exactly what's embedded in the thick silicone, the company isn't saying.
"It's proprietary technology," says Gus Renny, co-founder of iRenew Bio Energy Solutions LLC, based out of Palm Beach, Fla. "Just know that we have clinical studies from respected universities that indicate it may promote strength, balance and endurance."
According to the company's website, its products "harness the natural frequencies which are ever-present in our environment and use them to tune and rebalance your biofield back to a more natural, coherent state."
It's a subtle technology, Renny says during a phone interview. "It's not like you're going to put the bracelet on and become Superman."
After wearing the bracelet for 24 hours, including to the gym, our test subject, Free Press copy editor Jill Wilson reported "no noticeable improvement."
"During that period, I ran 5K -- the time did seem to fly by faster than usual, but I would attribute that to Prince's greatest hits on my iPod, not the bracelet -- and I did a strength/weight class, during which I actually toppled off a BOSU several times," she says. "Also, the rubber texture of the bracelet is problematic -- it pulls on your arm hair and it is quite irritating when you're sweaty."
Renny says his company is being careful with the wording of its product claims -- using qualifiers like "may," for example -- to avoid class-action lawsuits like the $57 million one filed against Power Balance back in January for allegedly stretching the truth about the abilities of its wildly popular hologram bracelets.
The company, which sold $35 million worth of bracelets in 2010, according to ESPN.com, is currently still in business. As part of the settlement, Power Balance admitted on its website that it had "no credible scientific evidence" to support its claims.
Noah Fast, a Grade 12 student and basketball player at Glenlawn Collegiate, says he bought one of the $30 wristbands hoping it would give him a competitive edge on the court. (Former American basketball star Shaquille O'Neal swore by it.) But after wearing it for nearly two months, he still isn't sure whether its "performance technology" is bogus or just subtle.
"It definitely wasn't instant," says Fast, 17. "I didn't really notice anything until I took it off, and then it felt a little bit different when I was playing basketball, almost like I was falling down more easily. But it wasn't a big difference."
The Winnipeg teen concedes it may have been the placebo effect. That's a likelier explanation than rebalancing biofields, says University of Manitoba kinesiology professor Todd Duhamel.
Humans do have a biofield, he says, which is simply the electrical and magnetic energy field around any living thing. But claims that it, and subsequently the physical body, can be affected in any meaningful way by something worn on the wrist make him think someone's playing fast and loose with scientific principles.
"That sounds like gibberish to me," Duhamel says. Biofields can be measured, but "we don't know what everybody's biofield should be; there's no 'normal' biofield frequency" where we can say, 'Oh, you're at 47.7 hertz and therefore you're out of whack because you should be 49 hertz."
Wearing a watch or ring made of metal will also influence your electrical field, he says, but any ions or other electricity or radiation emitted would only penetrate to a depth of one or two skin cell layers. And it doesn't make sense, says Duhamel, that something worn on the wrist would affect how your legs work.
"I'd love to see scientific evidence. The fact that they're making claims about strength and balance but not making an actual health claim would tell me that they have no evidence that it actually affects the human body in any real, meaningful way."
Renny says iRenew should have results of its latest clinical studies on the website by the end of February. The tab marked "research" currently opens to an empty page, save for a photo of a muscled, braceleted young man hooked up to machines while running on a treadmill.
Meanwhile, over at Vita Health's head office, general manager Brenda Comte says the LifeStrength power bands ($29.99), which claim to supply more negative ions than any other wristband on the market, is a hot seller at the store's six locations. Comte herself swears by the ability of "ion normalization" to produce deep, rejuvenating sleep.
"They say it typically takes up to three weeks to feel the full benefits, but in three days I was sleeping way better -- deeper and dreaming like crazy," she says.
"It's a running joke around here; everyone will come in in the morning and talk about the crazy dreams they had last night, just because we're all having such deep sleeps."
Comte says she first bought a band for her 13-year-old son, whose entire football team was sporting various brands of bands last fall. "All these boys were doing their little before-and-after strength tests that they saw on YouTube and they believe they're stronger."
One of the main marketing tools used by the bracelet companies is a balance test. The test subject is asked to stand on one leg and hold his or her arms straight out to the side. The tester then pushes down on the arm on the same side as the raised leg until the subject falls off balance. The subject then puts on the bracelet and repeats the test -- without toppling over.
Gem Newman, founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics, has an explanation.
"It's a trick sometimes called applied kinesiology," he says. "The first time when they're pressing down on your arm, they're pulling very slightly away from your body. It's imperceptible to the subject, but they're pulling you off balance.
"However when they put the wristband on your arm or in your hand, they'll pull down on your arm again but slightly toward your body."
Members of his group exposed the "trickery" for visitors at this year's Red River Ex, where they happened to have their booth near a vendor of Energy Balance bracelets.
Anyone can test this out for themselves at home with a friend, says Newman.
"I'll usually do it with my magic iPhone."