This is the craziest machine! The Relax-A-Cizor began production in 1949. It claimed to reduce the hips, waistline, abdomen, and thighs “without physical effort” through electrical stimulation of the muscles via contact pads that you wore for 1/2 an hour per day while you rested, read, watched TV or chatted on the phone.
Before it was outed as medically horrifying, the Relax-A-Cizor was marketed as an easy way to get thin in your sleep, a glamorous “reduction” contraption endorsed by Doris Day.
Invented by an engineer named William J. Browner, who hand-built and sold prototypes around Hollywood after World War II, the Relax-A-Cizor was a hit throughout the 1950s and 1960s, selling over 400,000 devices at $100 to $400 a pop before people figured out it was a claptrap paralysis-causing hazard.
In 1952, the New Yorker praised it as the “first portable reducing machine in the world,” and interviewed a Relax-A-Cizor “contour consultant” who insisted it would make callisthenics obsolete. Selling “sexy exercise” worked.
To use the device, people placed electrode pads—two to twelve, depending on their model—on their “problem areas.” They turned the machine on for 30 to 60 minutes, or 10 minutes for the face. Attaching more than one pad to the body created a complete electrical circuit, and people could control the intensity of the electric pulses with a dial as its “slimming” jolts stimulated muscles via motor nerves, all while they lay around in ultimate lazy comfort, blissfully unaware of its high chances for inducing catastrophic malady.
With its emphasis on effort-free fitness, the Relax-A-Cizor an ancestor of those ab belts you’ll see on late night infomercials.
Modern ab belts are scammy, but the Relax-A-Cizor was in a different league, a version so flagrantly irresponsible that the Food and Drug Administration eventually recommended that people destroy existing units to prevent people from getting paralyzed or losing consciousness.
Before it was banned, people started complaining of an impressively wide array of injuries caused by the Relax-A-Cizor. Eventually some of those people helped bring the company down. A Chicago Tribune article from 1970 recounts some of the gruesome consumer testimony that led to an FDA lawsuit against the company, Relaxacizor, Inc.:
“A young woman noticed fibrillation [very rapid irregular muscle contractions] of the heart. Another young woman reported she had suffered a miscarriage after placing the pads across her abdomen.”
Judge William Gray, who banned the device, damned the machine as capable of causing a diverse horror-roster of health problems, like ruptured blood vessels, hernias, cramps, vomiting, urinary discharge, anxiety, skin rashes, paralysis, numbness, nervousness, difficulty swallowing, miscarriage, and loss of consciousness. The judge also acknowledged that the device could worsen pre-existing conditions like epilepsy.
The Relax-A-Cizor trades in the same weight loss myth that ab belts do: The idea that you can “exercise” without trying by wearing a device that does all the hard work for you. There is some evidence that electric stimulations from belts like these can change muscle tone, but the minimal muscle improvements aren’t big enough to give people visibly ripped abs or change the scale. For that reason, the Federal Trade Administration has ordered ab belt makers to give money back to customers for making unsubstantiated claims about weight loss.
The problem with the Relax-A-Cizor wasn’t that it was wholly ineffective: The device did make muscles contract, at a rate of 40 contractions a minute, according to United States v. Relaxacizor, Inc., the lawsuit filed by the FDA in 1970. It was that the contractions were more likely to make you ill than svelte.