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i balance it takes two sides

Many famous people are now seen wearing rather cool looking silicone rubber wristbands bearing a hologram. This is not just a fashion statement. They wear these bands because, in many cases, they believe that they are performance enhancing. To rational traditionalists, this is just another example of unscientific mumbo jumbo taking over. And yet these i balance wristbands have a lot of believers who swear by them.

These believers include Ashes winning cricket captain Andrew Strauss, fellow cricketer Ian Bell, rugby union player Marc van Gisbergen, celebrity cage fighter Alex Reid, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and a number of famous golfers. But it isn’t only sportsmen. Robert De Niro and Kate Middleton have also been seen with such items on their wrists.

Of course the issue is not without controversy. In Australia, a distributor of the bracelet had to issue an apology and revise some of their claims in response to complaints by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Claims that the wristbands could “improve balance, strength and flexibility,” and references to the device as “Performance Technology” were deemed to be misleading and lacking in any scientific basis.

On the US website of Power Balance it explains the bands thus: “Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body's natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.”

The skeptics do not take claims like this seriously. Science writer Simon Singh (who co-wrote a book called Trick or Treatment? described i balance bands as “just a bit of rubber.” On the other hand magnetic bracelets, silicone rubber or otherwise, have become hugely popular and a number of celebrities – especially in sport – have given a ringing endorsement to such products.

So is public popularity or celebrity approval proof that these products work? Not according to Professor John Porcari, of the Exercise and Sport Science Department in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. One of the naysayers, Professor Porcari, recently ran a double-blind study on some 42 student athletes measuring strength, balance, flexibility, and how high they could jump. The test subjects wore i balance wristbands while the control group wore a plain rubber band.

The test results showed that there was no difference in performance, although all subjects did better in a follow-up test, regardless of whether they were in the test group or the control group. Other, less scientific investigations by journalists have produced similar results.

Loughborough University lecturer David Fletcher compares i balance bands to lucky charms in terms of their psychological effect whilst behavioural science lecturer Dylan Evans of Cork University's School of Medicine compares them to a placebo.

But does that really matter? In medicine there is an ongoing, unresolved debate about the use of placebos. But when it comes to sport – and other competitive activities – self-belief is an important motivating factor. When a manager or coach gives a pep talk before an event telling his team or athlete “you can win,” both the coach and the athlete know full-well that their competitors are getting exactly the same pep talk from their coach. And yet no one would suggest dropping the pep talk or skipping the motivational pre-match huddle.

The important thing is that the sellers should make no unsubstantiated claims as to their efficacy. That indeed is the approach that has been taken by ethical online retailer mps.

So power to the elbow – or perhaps that should be the wrist – of those who wear them.