Illustration by Bob AulExercise got a lot easier when it stopped requiring physical activity. That's when my friend Margo bought in. It cost $119.80, plus tax and shipping and—her favorite—handling.

That's what the TV infomercial charged her for the AbTronic Mark IV electronic muscle stimulator. Margo paid it off in four monthly installments of about $30.

“Now I'm pissed,” says Margo, who just saw the AbTronic Mark IV advertised online for $59.99. “I waited more than 30 years to start exercising, and I still started a little too soon.”

She's not really sweating it, though, and that's the point.

“You don't sweat when you exercise with the AbTronic,” Margo says. “That's one of the things I like about it.”

Some of the other things Margo likes about her new fitness regimen is that she doesn't breathe hard, her heart rate remains low, she doesn't have to put on special shoes or shorts or shirts. She doesn't even have to leave the house.

“I just squirt a little palm-sized dabble of conductive fluid on the electronic pad and smear a little more on whatever muscle I want to exercise,” she explains. “Then I just wrap the AbTronic around that body part with the Velcro attachments and flick it on. And I can go right back to whatever I am doing.”

Even if what she is doing is eating.

“Sometimes I wrap it around my stomach while I'm watching television, holding a drink in one hand and eating my dinner with the other,” Margo says fondly. “Occasionally, if my food gets cold, I wrap it around my throat—you know, to kind of re-heat the food as I am eating it. Once, I strapped it on while I was eating some cold roast beef, and soon I started to smell meatloaf.”

Margo's training routine is part of a growing trend of fakercise equipment, programs, foods, drinks, mixes, pills—whatever—that purport to achieve the appearance of physical fitness while keeping actual exercise to a minimum.

For some people, it's as simple as buying a membership to a fitness club and talking about it a lot without ever actually going.

For others, it's more involved, requiring the consumption of soft drinks and candy bars—usually with prefixes like “power” or “nutri” or “super” on the wrappers—while dressing in tricked-out shoes and sweat suits or just the jersey of your favorite professional or college team.

This philosophy is summarized on the website for David Steele Inc., a company with a Newport Beach address, a Dallas distribution center and a buttload of foreign-made electronic muscle stimulation machines called the EMS 400 ($129). “No time for workouts? Hate situps? Want to sculpt fast abs?” it asks. “You can tone, shape and tighten your muscles while you surf the Internet, relax or watch your favorite TV show.” Or—since the other two products offered on the David Steele website are a cotton candy machine ($52.50) and a remote control dimmer switch ($29.95)—while you eat cotton candy in a gradually darkening room.

“Yes, we specialize in electronic muscle stimulation,” David Steele's website pitch continues, “but, hey, these are neat products and fun to offer!”

Fun? Stuck with her AbTronic—sans cotton candy machine and remote control dimmer switch—Margo realizes now that she doesn't know the half of it. She's kinda bummed.

“But it's not like the AbTronic isn't delivering what it promised,” she allows. “It took awhile, but I'm starting to get some definition in my abs—especially since I combined my AbTronic workouts with about 300 crunches a day.”

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