VON DAINE ST. MARIE doesn’t look like the kind of woman who despises exercise, but she hates it, loathes it thoroughly. Thirty-some years have passed since she was a sprightly photographer’s model, but Von Daine’s waist still measures a teensy 22. From across a board room, she can look a little like the present-day Garbo. Von Daine sometimes wraps her hair in a stylish scarf and smashes an Irish walking hat on top of that. Her eyeglasses are of designer quality, complete with a golden monogram glistening from the bottom of one lens. Von Daine drives a Corvette, wears a lot of jewelry, drinks just a little and tries to eat red meat only once a month. She is a self-professed sucker for self-help. “Anything anyone can do to improve themselves, I think is great. Whatever we can do to make ourselves better, let’s do it. Let’s do it. It’s great. That’s what I’ve always believed.”

So when Von Daine heard about passive exercise, a way to gradually tone muscles through electric stimulation without expending any physical effort whatsoever, she thought, great, great, this is something I will do. This is something everyone will do.

And everyone is doing it. At least that’s what the proprietors of electric muscle stimulation (EMS) centers would like everyone to believe. Von Daine is now among them, but since she got her job with Tomorrow’s Body (one salon that seems to be franchising quicker than a fast-food chain), she’s hardly had a chance to experiment with the machinery the way she’d like. She sneaks in sessions on Sundays and wishes she could work up a more regular routine. She’s a believer; she’s addicted; and she can’t get enough electric stim.

“What’s this?” you ask. Another fad like the body wrap? Another expensive way to lose water weight? Another fly-by-night diet scam being advertised in the TV guide weeklies? EMS is none of those things. It has been used in hospitals for a long time by orthopedic surgeons and therapists who have successfully kept the muscles of incapacitated or casted patients from atrophying. The entrepreneurs who have opened EMS salons – under a variety of different corporate names-are using the same medical principle and the same European machinery but broadening their markets by insisting that their gadgets are legitimate body-enhancing tools.

Electrode placements and the intensity of toning “treatments” vary from EMS center to center, but the designs are fundamentally the same. Passive exercise is conducted on a sturdy massage-type table next to an 18-inch control panel with lots of futuristic knobs and dials. The panel controls 16 electrodes that have been slipped underneath snug Velcro belts wrapped around the customer’s body in five or six places. Treatments last approximately 35 minutes, the amount of time it takes those electrodes to delicately zap the motor points of the muscles with enough electricity to make the tissue contract for 3 seconds and then relax for 2 1/2 seconds 700 times. In the meantime, a customer can read, sleep or listen to FM-radio to his mind’s delight while his body systematically convulses like a goose’s whose neck has recently been wrun

Comfort during the treatment depends almost exclusively upon how well a client communicates with the nurse or technician who puts him down and hooks him up. In our excursions through the salons of passive exercise, we found some experiences more pleasant than others. But all in all, EMS was painless, effortless and almost like relaxing

Body measurements were taken before and after most sessions, and although the centers cannot claim inch loss as a side effect of EMS, we lost and regained inches several times.

As more medical research is conducted and if these salons continue to operate without complaint, passive exercise may someday slink its currents into our homes. Why, we may even be able to hook it up to our cable TVs. Imagine.

Imagine having a beautifully toned body that doesn’t need to be maintained with time-consuming, exhausting jogs or games of paddle ball and squash. It is almost too good to be true, and it is this instantaneous “that’s incredible” assessment of passive exercise, combined with the pervasive fear of being plugged into something electric, that keeps many potential salon customers at arms’ length. But others, particularly the people Von Daine describes as “body nuts,” have plunged wholeheartedly into regular passive exercise programs. The most conscientious combine EMS with their established routines at health spas and gyms. Athletes such as Harvey Martin do it to rehabilitate injured areas of their bodies. One center spokesman claims a little old lady with a bad spinal curvature has been much relieved since she began using electrical stimulation to strenghten the muscles along her spin

Initially, EMS negates everything we’ve learned about hard work paying off. There is no challenge. But passive exercise does require some sacrifice -as much as $35 a pop. And if you’re realistic and more health-minded than just wanton, you’ll still need those jogging costumes, tennis rackets and expensive sneakers. You’ll need to mix passive exercise with active exercise to get the full-fledged benefits: a healthier, happier you.

“There are only two bad things about this kind of passive exercise,” says Future-tone co-owner Larry Sussman: “One, it does nothing for the cardiovascular system. Two, it does not give you a license to eat. You don’t burn off calories.”

The only center appearing to earnestly emphasize the need for cardiovascular stimulation is Slimtronics, which provides a computerized Dynavit Aerobitronic-30 machine free of charge to customers willing to combine passive treatments with a little legitimate exertion. The bicycle-style apparatus will monitor pulse and measure the calories customers are wearing off as they work. Other centers may ask customers to sign a release that reasserts EMS does nothing for their heart and lungs.

In the meantime, the Dallas office of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems somewhat bewildered by what may develop into a passive exercise craze.

“The use of electric muscle stimulators in salons constitutes a misbranding of the device,” says FDA compliance officer Charles Sedgwick, who one minute will say he sees potential “danger” in the nonmedical use of EMS, and the next moment will admit his office has yet to receive a related complaint

The Dallas FDA will not take a major stand on EMS until litigation concerning the confiscation of imported EMS machines is resolved in New York. Officials are tangentially concerned about some of the advertising claims being made by several centers, but competing salons admit to having forewarned each other about what they can and cannot say before the FDA has intervened. While the FDA is saying that “there is no information to show that the salon use of these devices is safe,” at least one doctor at Southwest Medical School has research favorable to salon EMS that he has not yet made available to the press

Considering all this within a larger context, one can only conclude that the FDA has assumed a custodial role, the medical researchers have taken an uncommitted position and the salons are practicing EMS as a muscle-toning business with quite a bit of success. Pregnant women, people with a history of high blood pressure, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis are not permitted to use the machines.

“I’ve been given a body to live in while I’m here in the world,” says Slimtronics manager Jim Flemister, “and it’s my responsibility to take care of what I’ve been given. With these machines, there’s a motivation factor. They’re not the answer to all one’s fitness problems. But this way, people see results faster and that motivates them to keep up their active as well as passive programs

In order to be licensed, EMS salons must have nurses on duty at all times. Each private EMS room is equipped with a call button to summon technicians if any discomfort or cramping occurs. At some salons, such as Le Nouveau Moi, customers are never left alone during treatment. Attendants at other establishments, including Tomorrow’s Body, are less attentive and have a variety of people checking customer

Several new salons will have opened in Dallas by the time this article is printed, but here is a list of the places we’ve found to date

Futuretone. The Corner Shopping Center, Walnut Hill and N. Central, Suite 824. Single session, $35; second session, free. Ten sessions, $200. Twenty sessions, $350. Twice a week for a year, $695. 368-844.

Le Nouveau Moi. 2048 Promenade Center, Richardson. First treatment free. Single treatment, $30. Ten sessions, $200. Twenty sessions, $350. Unlimited use for a year, $695. 699-3594

Mary Markum Skin Care and Body Works. 8226 Douglas Plaza, Suite 102. First session free. Other sessions $35 each. Ten sessions, $200. Twenty sessions, $350. Maintenance program sessions, $15. Twice a week for a year, $675. 373-8486.

Slimtronics. 5757 Alpha Road, Suite 106. Twelve sessions, $288. Twenty sessions, $388. Maintenance program sessions, $15. Twice a week for a year, $750. 233-9950

Tomorrow’s Body. 7748 Forest. Twelve sessions, $250; 20 sessions, $350. Twice a week for a year, $650. 373-1444. Other locations: 4119 Lomo Alto, 559-4450; 932 N. Cooper, Arlington, 265-5390.


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