The enticement came in one of those daily deal emails, this one a Groupon for an “urban sweat lodge.” The ad attempted seduction with its semi-pornographic silhouette of a firm sweaty bottom — coupled with a scientific-sounding promise to get rid of cellulite and any excess weight, even while lying motionless. It sounded like the best gimmick ever. Please, go on.
The Shape House advertised that visitors would shed 1,000 to 1,200 calories (the equivalent to running a marathon, according to the marketing literature) just by lying down and perspiring. Not only that, this utopian establishment in Larchmont Village promised to rid our bodies of nickel, mercury, and copper from just by using something called far-infrared heat.
And it would do all that for the low, low price of $22.50 per person — two for the price of one with the Groupon discount.
We'd be idiots not to check it out.
Losing weight while barely moving a muscle has long been a cherished American dream. Naturally, entrepreneurs with money on their minds have made promises to do just that for decades.
Who can forget Suzanne Somers' ThighMaster, which promised to “tone, shape and firm inner thighs with just a few squeezes a day”? And even that was a genius piece of equipment compared to doozies like sauna suits, dumbbell eating utensils, the more recent Shake Weight, and that '60s vibrating belt machine contraption that promised to jiggle your fat away.
Today you can't pick up a magazine or dodge banner ads fast enough to escape cold-pressed cleanses, male boob jobs, or Dr. Oz's miraculous green coffee beans. And of course, botox. Everything promised by these products (health, weight loss, eternal youth) is unbelievable. Yet we customers keep ponying up, hoping against hope they we've found the secret potion.
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And so on a rainy May morning, the perfect day to work out without working out, we pulled up outside The Shape House. A quaint grey one-story craftsman with orange trim and a tranquil cactus garden, it's nestled in the middle of the block on bustling Larchmont Boulevard.
Sprinkled throughout the lobby were more photographs of naked, sweaty buttocks and six-pack abs. "Hi, I’m Natalie,” the girl behind the front desk greeted us. She resembled a Jetsons' flight attendant: orange dress, grey tights, perky purple cap. “Nice to meet you, welcome.”
After signing the disclaimers warning that strokes or heart attacks might occur, and armed with alkaline water, Natalie walked us through a candlelit hallway. We changed into our “workout” clothes, or in this case our “sweat” clothes, that we had brought with us.
She led us into a dark room with sweat beds that were separated by emergency room-like curtains, and tucked us into the silver burrito-shaped containers where the official sweating would occur.
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The bags themselves were confining and claustrophobic. There was an incredibly noisy layer of giant tissue paper between our bodies and the infrared blanket, reminiscent of those loud potato chip bags. (Maybe this was the paper that would collect all of the bad metal deposits?)
Natalie stood above us, like a nurse with perfect bedside manner, and gave her sweat speech.
"So this is a little different, it’s different from a sauna," she chirped. "It’s skipping the skin, skipping the surface, going an inch deep, into your body, down to your bones, and heating you internally. And that’s why you sweat so profusely."
At this point we began to have second thoughts. We could have saved our $45 and been halfway through a free power walk by now. What’s so bad about copper anyway?
"So, I don’t suspect you’ll be sweating right away," Natalie said. "Your body needs to acclimate to the temperature and then kind of rise and then it’s going to begin sweating in around 15 to 20 minutes, which is when I’m going to check on you. When you do start to sweat it’s really good to be distracted. So we do have Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, and we also have Ted Talks, which I love."
Trapped in our respective burritos, nothing much happened, aside from the occasional itch or the need for a sip of our fancy water. The website said “sweat away your weight or your stress…come cleanse your body or re-invent your life.” We were waiting for lift-off.
One hour of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey later, we were released to change back into our street clothes. When we met in the lobby, we were still lacking any kind of transformation, save for the fact that our hair was frizzy and we were unusually stinky. There was no feeling of being thinner or glowier or any of the other amazing stuff that the website described. So what did we just pay for?
The idea behind this sweat lodge's concept is that if you sweat profusely while exercising, and you skip the movement part and go straight to the sweating, your body will receive the same benefits. But not according to Dr. Larry Santora, cardiologist and medical director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and The Dick Butkus Center for Cardiac Testing at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California.
"When it sounds preposterous, it usually is," he says. "So it's kind of a naïve extrapolation to say that because my heart rate is going up 25 beats per minute when I jog, means that when I'm laying down I'm burning the same amount of calories.” Not one study that has looked into the idea proves that laying down and sweating is the equivalent of jogging and sweating, he adds.
That said, "There is a slight benefit because when you're wrapped in the infrared blanket you're going to lose water weight,” Dr. Santora says. “But it comes back as soon as you take in water or salt. You may be slimmer for several days, but really it's water weight only."
After all, most calories are not burned by the heart, but rather by the huge muscle groups in the legs, trunk, and arms, which of course are at rest during the far infrared treatment. And as far as the toxic metals go, , Dr. Santora says, almost all people get rid of these through normal bodily elimination functions anyway.
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Strangely, though, urban sweat lodges weren't done with us just yet. A week later, another Groupon arrived via email — this one for a similar place in Beverly Hills, enticing us with another discount. Would this experience be different? Maybe this was the place that would unlock the secret and prove the doctor wrong.
And so once again we were zipped into burrito bags. Once again we watched TV for an hour while stewing in our own sweat.
Once again we emerged dehydrated, in soaked clothes. But the only real difference beyond our dripping wet clothing was that we were a little bit lighter: our wallets had been relieved of $95.
After that expense, and two afternoons lost, even the Thigh Master started to look pretty good.