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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 10 2013: Hey Kyung!

    I think this question is really interesting, because it calls to question the purpose against the ban doping, in addition to contributing to the debate of spirit of the law vs. letter of the law.

    If the purpose of the ban is to protect the athletes from compromising their overall health for a temporary athletic edge [as in, allowing the dangerous advantage would create an environment where everybody feels compelled to do whatever it takes to win, at the risk of their health], then we have to debate how safe EMS is, compared to the other, banned, doping methods. EMS (seems to be) relatively safe, so under that lens, the argument falls apart.

    Other arguments against doping include the removal of an unfair advantage to one athlete, or the desire for an even playing field. However, I think that (at least in recent years), the health has been the number one concern of the ban. Steroids are hypothetically available to every athlete, but they're still banned.

    So EMS definitely follows the letter of the law, but is using it in the spirit of the law? What about Oscar Pistorius [now famous for...other reasons] who came into the spotlight during the 2012 summer Olympics for being a runner with 2 prosthetic legs? Do we consider that to be a violation of the spirit of the law? Is the purpose of these events to find the strongest or fastest humans under natural conditions, or is it to see how far we can push previously considered boundaries and see what humankind can accomplish?

    I think that's a much more difficult question to get to the bottom of, and one that might not have a definitive answer.
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      Mar 12 2013: Hindi,
      I really liked the way you phrased the argument presented. I agree, that the major purpose of the ban against doping has been to protect the health of athletes while they are in their competition. In terms of the unfair advantage argument, if these illegal substances were available to everyone, then none of the athletes would have a complete advantage over the other - since anyone could get a hold of it. This being the case, since EMS is safe for the athletes, and has been shown to even improve their health, I do not think that EMS would fall under the doping category. If EMS technologies are widespread enough such that anyone who wanted to could get treated, then I see no reason to put EMS under the doping ban, unless it had been proven to become unsafe or unhealthy for the athletes.

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