By Eirish Sison
We've all seen them, the colorful silicon bracelets with holographic logos sported by celebrities ranging from athletes like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, to actors like Robert de Niro and Gerard Butler, and even Prince William's bride-to-be Kate Middleton. But do wearing these Power Balance™ bands, which its makers claim to be "based on optimizing the body's natural energy flow," actually have any benefits to merit the whopping $29.95 price tag?
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the country's consumer watchdog agency, doesn't think so. The commission took action against Power Balance™ Australia for falsely advertising that the wristbands improve "balance, strength, and flexibility." As a result, the company issued a statement , saying, "We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct" and offered a refund for Australian customers who feel that they'd been hoodwinked.
The lack of objective evidence either supporting or refuting Power Balance's claims spurred a group of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, also in Australia, to conduct a study measuring the effect of the bands on balance and stability. The researchers used a placebo - a Power Balance silicon wristband with the hologram discs removed and replaced with plain aluminium discs of the same weight. In a single trial, the study's 42 subjects underwent a balance performance test three times, once without a wristband, once wearing the placebo and once wearing a Power Balance band. The tests were repeated with the same subjects one week after the first trial. The findings, which will be published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (and are currently available online ), indicate that the Power Balance bands have no effect on balance and stability.
"There was not even a placebo effect with the bands," Brett Jarosz, CertPT, BAppSc(CompMed), MClinChiro, ICSSD, a private-practice chiropractor and sessional lecturer at the RMIT University School of Health Sciences and co-author of the study on the bands, said in an email interview. With a placebo, a physical effect results from using something believing it will work, but, according to a RMIT media release , the researchers found no significant differences in people's balance whether they were wearing the Power Balance wristband, the placebo or no wristband at all.
Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, many customers still hail benefits from wearing the wristbands. According to Dr. Jarosz, the expectation that the bands will work results in a "perceived improvement", meaning that a person thinks he has gotten stronger, faster or more flexible, when in reality his performance hasn't changed at all. Jarosz also said that when people actually do improve their athletic performance while wearing the band, it's the result of practice. "[If] you are working on your golf swing while wearing the band, and you start hitting the ball straighter, it is because you have practiced your golf swing. The band didn't do it - the person learned to hit the ball better."
Power Balance does not claim to have science on its side, but instead relies on reviews from famous athletes on the "Power Balanceä Team" who all say that wearing the band helps them perform better. Perhaps this quote from the testimonial  of basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, a Power Balance band user, best explains why these bedecked pieces of plastic are so popular with the athletic community:
"I want to do everything to get the slightest advantage; wristbands, necklaces, t-shirts, band-aids, everything and anything we [sic] can get our hands on." Athletes are a notoriously superstitious bunch, and it's very likely that the bands are just ridiculously overpriced versions of good luck charms or pre-game rituals, or, as lead investigator on the Power Balance bands study Simon Brice, BAppSc(ClinSc), BCSc, BAppSc(HumBiol), calls them, "high-tech lucky jocks or socks."
Since the intervention by Australian authorities, Power Balance has removed from their website any claims of improving balance, flexibility and strength. In fact, there are no longer any concrete descriptions of what the bands even do. All that's left are vague statements of how the holograms are "programmed through a proprietary process, which is designed to mimic Eastern philosophies that have been around for hundreds of years." If one tries to dig into the exact physiological mechanisms by which the bands work, a read through their site's FAQs  only reveals that the holograms "react differently for each person" and the site goes on to encourage readers to "give it a try and see what it does for you."
What spurred the invention of the healing holograms? Was it a breakthrough discovery? An unlocking of Eastern medicine secrets? No such luck. Rather, the company and holograms were created out of the very scientifically-rigorous "principle that...everyone, no matter what their level of activity...maximize their potential and live life to the fullest."
Luckily, the FAQs also say that they offer a 30-day money back guarantee. So if you recently bought a Power Balance product hoping it will work for you, well, make sure you kept your receipt.
Eirish Sison is a health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Published: February 28, 2011