Can you get fit by doing nothing?

There is, it seems, a benevolent deity after all: "passive exercise" - the newest thing in exercise technology - has finally arrived. Yes, now all you have to do to get a bum like Britney's, is stand on a vibrating plate for 12 minutes and watch the fat melt away. Do this, say proponents of the "vibration plate", now available in some gyms across the country, and you reap physical benefits equivalent to a 90-minute strenuous weight-training workout. It's nothing short of a miracle.

We have, of course, heard this sort of thing before. There's Slendertone, where all you have to do is strap your belly up to a few electrodes a couple of times a week, allow your muscles to receive electrical stimulus, and the memory of those three pregnancies will dissolve away. This of course would be great were it not for the fact that you also have to do the Atkins diet for six months in order to melt off the layers of fat which would otherwise mask your unbelievably toned abdomen. Yes, the horrid truth is that passive exercise machines may "work", in that they do indeed tone your muscles (at least somewhat), but lying on your back reading Hello! is not going to give you the aerobic workout you need to burn calories, and therefore reduce the fat that pads your lovely new muscles.

The allure of "no pain, much gain" exercise techniques is, none the less, burgeoning. The latest notion to sweep the US is "SuperSlow" - a weight-training technique which, proponents say, negates the need for aerobic exercise entirely ("Is Cardio Dead?" screamed a recent US Elle magazine headline). All you have to do is lift weights incredibly slowly for 30 minutes once a week. This will, say SuperSlow devotees, burn more calories than lifting weights at a normal pace and just one weekly session is ample to keep you in tip-top condition. Of course, most exercise specialists beg to differ, citing such incidentals as the cardiac health benefits of regular aerobic exercise, but where's the fun in that?

These new vibration plates do seem, at first glance, to make similarly inflated claims. But there is solid science behind the idea. "Vibration training," says Ross Weir, a researcher in sports technology at Loughborough University "is still fairly new in UK gyms, but it has been used for a while by high-performance sports people to perfect their performance."

The idea behind "whole body vibration" is that frequent, vigorous vibrations cause instability in the muscles which contract to stabilise themselves. This uses 100% of their capacity, which over time, makes the muscles more toned and dense.

Vibration training also affects your body's "neuromuscular function". Weir explains: "There are specific neural pathways from the brain to the muscles and the increased stimulus of the vibrations reinforces these pathways. Essentially, the muscle learns that 'this is a very important action', and remembers how to do it well." This explains why it is particularly good for athletes whose bodies need to learn good techniques (Liverpool football club have just bought the Fit Vibe vibration machine: the Premiership is theirs). It also explains why vibration machines are used in physiotherapy for rehabilitation.

But will machines such as the Fit Vibe and Power-Plate turn your average flabby exercise-phobe - me for instance - into a fit goddess? One study published last year found that the vibration plate did increase muscular strength and power in "non-athletes" - although it did not measure how long such benefits lasted. But, says Weir, if I only showed up at the gym in order to stand on a vibration plate for a few minutes, I definitely would not become magically fitter. "You'd have to do it in conjunction with standard exercise," he says "as vibration training alone is not going to make you aerobically fit." In other words, though my muscles would become more dense, and stronger, and would therefore be "more calorie hungry" than the flabby ones I have now, running for the bus would not be any easier. To get aerobic fitness, you have to, well, move.

"Overall fitness has different elements," says Sam Jenkins, a personal trainer. "You have to combine cardiovascular exercise with resistance training and flexibility training to be truly fit." This sounds suspiciously like old-fashioned hard work. "It is," says Jenkins. "If you are comfortable during exercise you are not doing enough to get fit. Fitness has three main components: frequency, intensity, and time - or duration [FIT]."

You can stand on your Power-Plate all you like, but you will only really become fit if you also spend about 30 minutes, four to five times a week, significantly raising your heart rate.

Come back Jane Fonda all is forgiven? "Aerobic exercise can take many forms," says Jenkins, "Even walking can be sufficient if you do it vigorously, swinging your arms as you go. Swimming, cycling or easy jogging are all excellent forms of aerobic exercise." Your sluggish laps of the local pool, however, may not make the grade and, says Jenkins, most of us wildly overestimate how hard we are working. "Clients will tell me they're working at nine - on a scale of one to 10 where 10 is 'I'm about to throw up', when they are really only just working up a sweat."

There are non-technical ways to tell if your aerobic exercise is working you hard enough. You should be able to talk, but not comfortably (panic-stricken wheezing means you should rest) while exercising. The best way to tell if you are raising your heart-rate enough, is fairly technical. You want to get your heart to beat at about 60%-85% of its maximum capacity (known by professionals as "the training zone"). To work out your heart's maximum rate (beats per minute) you take the number 220 and subtract your age from it. This number is your maximum heart rate. Then, when you have been walking, or cycling or running for a few minutes, stop and take your own pulse for 15 seconds. Multiply this by four and you have The Gospel Truth about how much exercise you are doing. The good news, here, is that you do not have to go to a gym. "Do something you enjoy," says Jenkins. "That way you are more likely to stick with it."

Your weekly yoga class, while worthy and calming, is not going to be enough to get you fit. Do all the downward dogs you like, but you're unlikely, with the standard Hatha yoga most of us do, to get your heart rate to its fat-burning zone (this could be why Madonna recently took up classical ballet - leaping around in a tutu is more aerobic than saying Om). Activities such as yoga and pilates do, however, have a useful place in any fitness regime. They help build both your muscle strength and your flexibility, the latter of which is, according to Weir, "a much overlooked aspect of fitness".

Don't think, though, that you can get away with "just" jogging. If you want overall fitness you have to do "resistance" training such as lifting weights (or vibrating on a plate) to make your muscles more dense and strong. "You can do this at home," says Jenkins. "Exercises like squats, lunges and push-ups are good, and you can even use tins of beans as weights."

Another "fun" method is to use a large inflatable ball (the Swiss ball is probably the best known) to balance on while doing exercises - it has extra benefits as your muscles are working hard to keep you from falling off. The internet, Jenkins says, is full of useful websites that give you exercises you can do at home, and products you can use.

If all this all sounds like a bore, why not simply shell out for a pair of Masai Barefoot Technology shoes (MBTs: "Use gravity to stay young") instead? The makers claim these miracle shoes will improve posture and flexibility as well as reduce cellulite and help you burn up to five times as many calories as you would in regular shoes. Fitness instructors may say "if it looks too good to be true it generally is" - but gym membership... or a new pair of shoes? It's no contest really, is it?

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.