Marines still do push-ups. Heavyweights jump rope. But these days more and more ordinary Americans are trying to get in shape with elaborate and expensive home exercise equipment. Last year they spent $1.73 billion, triple what they spent in 1980.
Exercise machines are the latest stage in the fitness boom, and suitable for an aging, family-minded generation.
Richard Miller, owner of Cutler Owens, the Gym Source, says his New York store began as a full-line sporting goods retailer that catered to runners and tennis players in the 1970s.
He started selling exercise equipment in 1981 and gradually eliminated everything else, concentrating on higher-end products.
"I figured the ultimate would be in the home," he said. "People were in the health clubs, they got married and had kids, and they are staying at home."
In National Sporting Goods Association consumer surveys, retail sales of home fitness equipment grew 22 percent in 1988 and 19 percent in 1989.
The equipment accounts for about 15 percent of sporting goods sales, more than any other category except hunting.
Products range from a bottom-of-the-line exercise bicycle for less than $100 to computerized treadmills for more than $3,000.
Some in the industry wonder if the growth can continue. How many people will keep sweating in the privacy of their homes? they ask. And if more machines end up in closets, will fewer new ones be sold?
Exercise equipment fads can be fleeting. Rowing machines were the rage several years ago; now, sales are slow.
Treadmills and stair machines are popular, but for how long? Several companies are bringing out weight machines, for those more interested in strength than in endurance.
Manufacturers have learned that buyers can be quick to rebel when they don't get results, said Wayne Sales, merchandise manager for sporting goods at K Mart.
In the mid-1980s, he said, sales stagnated. "We saw a lot of equipment that was gimmicky." Since then, he added, "there has been a resurgence of basic, fundamental equipment."
Pamela Miller, fitness editor at Sportstyle, a trade magazine, says consumers who are fickle about equipment usually retain their dedication to good health.
When they become discouraged with one machine, they try another, she said. But others in the industry fear that the boom will end as buyers consign their machines to the closet.
Manufacturers always stand ready to provide new products. Those companies that keep up with the trends lead the industry. Most are privately held, keeping even their sales figures to themselves.
But Sportstyle reports that Diversified Products of Opelika, Ala., was the industry leader last year with sales of $220 million, up 22 percent.
Weslo Inc. of Logan, Utah, and its sister company, Proform Fitness Products Inc., are growing even faster, with a 94 percent gain to $204 million last year.
After the leaders, about three dozen smaller companies tend to be more specialized.