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Kyung Lee

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Is the use of EMS(electrical muscle stimulation) a form of doping?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we discussed electrical stimulation of the body. There are EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) devices that allow the user to stimulate and contract specific muscles by sending electrical impulses via electrode pads. EMS is sometimes used in competitive sports to increase exercise tolerance and manipulate the behavior of muscles favorably.

In 2011, a study revealed that EMS may enhance pitching performance and recovery in baseball. Without EMS, pitchers need to find a balance between resting and active exercise. With EMS, blood can continuously flow into the muscles, reducing the risk of exhaustion. There are other studies that show positive effects of EMS on athletic performance such as helping athletes stay warmed up without fatiguing the muscles, while the validity of these claims have not been confirmed. There are coaches that use EMS training on elite athletes who compete in the Olympics.

I’d like to pose a question, is the use of EMS in competitive sports a form of doping? While eating healthy or regular exercise can shape and improve an athlete’s performance, the use of EMS seems to be a more direct and invasive way of making the athlete’s body more fit for the sport. If the EMS technology advances enough to the extent where it can significantly improve athletic performance, do you think it is legitimate or fair to use EMS in competitive sports?

Topics: ems
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  • Mar 9 2013: I think that the reason doping and other "unnatural" methods of increasing athletic aptitude are condemned is because not every athlete will necessarily be able to afford them. Naturally, doping is harmful to health and should not be encouraged. But if there is any monetary cost attached to EMS--even if it is not harmful at all--then it simply isn't fair. In the same way that the athletes competing against Lance Armstrong had a strong feeling he was using steroids and felt that they had to in order to even try to win against him, once other athletes feel a competitor has an advantaged of some kind, they will want to match up in the same way. But the cost barrier will prevent others from less affluent backgrounds from accelerating their growth and recovery time, stratifying athletic excellence to just those who can afford the latest treatments. The only way for it to be totally fair, across the globe, is for either a) everyone to have access to natural, holistic, harmless treatments or b) for no one to have access to them, even if they are legal. Since a) isn't realistic, we should take it upon ourselves as spectators and participants to encourage athletic development the way it was supposed to happen--100% naturally.
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      Mar 11 2013: Whenever we try to categorize something into legal terms, it's more important to think about ideals and fairness (like you do) than to think about written legal definitions.

      Sports regulation aims to ensure fairness, and fairness will vary with the sporting event's setting. International events and local events can be expected to have different doping rules if the pools of participants have different levels of access to performance-enhancers. For example, in international swimming events, a certain new type of hydrodynamic wetsuit is banned. But in a country where all players have approximately the same access to the suit, wearing the suit might be fair.

      But is it possible to achieve complete fairness? Electrical muscle stimulation devices can be between $50 and $900. (e.g. Compex Sport, $899.) If cost and performance enhancement are correlated, then you're more likely to make it ONTO the team in the first place if you have more money, and that's not fair. Similarly, more money allows an athlete to have more time to train, better coaches, better diets, and better resources. Laws can only get us so close to fairness.

      The other consideration is the impact on society. Because of how public some sports events are, champion athletes are role models for the audience. If athletes are known to have an inaccessible or unsafe advantage, then sporting events can be demotivational or harmful to society.

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