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Compression Clothes' Advantage Could Be Placebo Effect


Compression clothing is one of the latest fads in workout gear, things like super tight T-shirts, ankle socks and knee sleeves. Some athletes believe tight-fitting garments help with performance and recovery. As for what science says, we turn to Lauren Silverman from member station KERA.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Let's start with the calf sleeves. Maybe you've seen them in the gym or even squeezed into some yourself. They're tight, tube-type leggings that stretch from the ankles up to the knees, and these are not being marketed to people with circulatory problems as they have been for decades. Instead, they're being sold to athletes.

ABIGAIL STICKFORD: They think that it will improve their performance

SILVERMAN: Abigail Stickford is a postdoctoral researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. She led a study to find out whether these compression sleeves really do what some manufacturers claim

STICKFORD: They'll say that these garments help improve blood flow; that they help improve oxygen delivery to your muscles, and those things in theory would really benefit your performance.

SILVERMAN: To test the claims, Stickford gave 16 endurance runners a pair of compression sleeves. She strapped masks and monitors on them to measure their strides and oxygen intake. Then the same sprinting routine was done without the calf sleeves and...

STICKFORD: we found nothing.

SILVERMAN: That's right, nada.

STICKFORD: When we looked at the averages of our group of runners, all those measures of running gait were exactly the same, and their measures of efficiency were exactly the same.

SILVERMAN: Here's where it gets interesting - the two men who showed the most improvements were the ones who believed the sleeves aided in training, racing and recovery.

STICKFORD: The placebo effect is a very real effect. It affects performance, so, you know, if you think these garments work then there's not really any harm in trying it out.

SILVERMAN: And if you want to shell out the cash, you can buy entire compression clothing outfits. A long-sleeved shirt might go for $60. A rejuvenating core band, which looks like a tube top, goes for $40. A full body suit may be several hundred dollars. We did reach out to a few of the companies that make the clothing, but got no response. Stickford's study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, was small, but larger research reviews back up the idea that compression clothing has little effect on performance. So what is it good for? Well, possibly recovery.

DANIEL CIPRIANI: Compression is probably much more effective as a post-activity recovery measure because it helps to keep down some of the swelling that occurs with all the blood flow.

SILVERMAN: Daniel Cipriani is an associate professor at Chapman University in Irvine, Calif. He co-authored a study in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine on cyclists who wore compression and posture T-shirts while riding.

CIPRIANI: During the ride, most of them liked the shirt in terms of making their back feel less fatigued and keeping them in a good posture while riding. But the majority of them felt it was even more useful after the ride. They felt like they were more recovered for the next ride.

SILVERMAN: Cipriani cautions his study looked at the perceived effects of compression shirts. So it's possible the garment had more of an effect on psychology rather than physiology. So while there's little evidence compression clothing improves athletic performance, there's still no evidence the clothing is harmful. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.