Fitness machines continue to show economic muscle

November 02, 1993|By Bill Laitner | Bill Laitner,Knight-Ridder News Service

Weight Watchers entrepreneur Florine Mark has free weights and half a dozen fitness machines in the mirrored exercise room she built onto her home.

"It's not how much it cost, it's how much you use it," she insists.

In the rural house of accountant Bruce Correll reside a treadmill, Lifecycle and rowing machine.

"I don't have any furniture, though," he deadpans.

Each shares in the growing preference for sweating in private. Sales of home exercise equipment still are booming, even after a decade of streaking growth.

Exercise machines went from a blip in 1981 to "numero uno in sporting goods" in 1991, nudging aside categories like hunting and golf, says Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Yet in the same period, countless contraptions went into garage sales, closets and trash heaps.

Many buyers "just can't stick with doing exercise alone," says health psychologist Dr. Don Powell. Their success rates climb when they join a fitness center.

Countless others swear by the convenience, security and privacy of home exercise. It solves child-care worries, saves hours a week over driving and dressing for a spa, even allows several short workouts a day, which research shows is nearly as beneficial as a sustained bout.

Experts say matching a machine to your wants and abilities is the key to sticking with home workouts.

"By and large, you get what you pay for," advises Dr. Vic Katch, a University of Michigan exercise physiologist. Cheap models are too noisy for TV-watching, tend to break down "and the range of adjustments is minimal," he says.

One adjustment to look for? A way to specify workload, such as the number of pounds or revolutions per minute. If you can't repeat a workload exactly from session to session, you miss the incentive of competing with yourself and recording your progress, says Dr. Katch.

* Try before you buy. Test machines at a health club, or buy with a clear understanding of return and exchange privileges. Visit stores in workout apparel and give your favorite a serious trial. If -- you're bored in the store, be forewarned.

* Balance your activity between aerobics, the nonstop activity for heart and lungs, and resistance exercise, which builds muscles. Only a few machines let you do both effectively. You're smarter ** to buy a good machine that does one thing well and take a simplified approach to the other activity. For example, combine a good-quality weight machine with fitness walking; or buy inexpensive hand weights to go with a high-quality treadmill, stair climber or cycle.

Here's a sort of Home Hopping Network to what's out there. (Prices of products may vary among retailers.)

Weight machines

Health experts are giving new emphasis to the fitness and weight-loss benefits of resistance exercise.

That's sparking sales of machines that use stacks of weights attached to pulleys, or other resistance gizmos like rubber bands, flexible rods and hydraulic pistons that look like shock absorbers.

The November issue of Consumer Reports magazine reviews 10 machines priced from $300 to $1,000. It gives chilly ratings to most and just a lukewarm top score to the BMI Challenger 9700 (about $500; for store locations, call 800-321-9838, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays).

Consumer Reports warns against lack of durability, bad designs and the 3-5 hours needed to assemble weight-stack machines. It gives a "good" rating to the Marcy Apex Plus ($699) and "fair" to these (listed in descending order of preference): Pro/Form Edge 3001 ($399), Weider Cross Trainer Master Gym ($374), Schwinn Bowflex Pro ($900), NordicFlex Gold ($999), Soloflex ($995), Trimax ($650), Pro/Form Flex Plus Cross Training System ($300) and DP Prime Fit Lifeguard ($400).

Not considered in the roundup was a machine called the Hammer, invented by bodybuilder Mike Calderone, 36, of Brighton, Mich. ($700; $1,070 for deluxe version; 800-878-0745, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays). After years of slow sales, he was buoyed by a top rating in a May issue of U.S. News & World Report.

"It appears to do everything well," says Dr. Craig Broeder, director of exercise science at East Tennessee State University, who uses the Hammer to study the increase in calorie-burning that lasts for as much as 24 hours after a weight workout.

The Hammer is ideal for bodybuilders who don't mind adjusting a machine from exercise to exercise, says Dr. Broeder. It requires purchasing weight plates at about 40 cents per pound.

Which begs a question: Why not simply use free weights?

Answers Consumer Reports, "Although barbells and dumbbells must be handled with care, they can increase strength for far less money" than weight machines. A 200-pound set sells for as little as $150. Add $200 to $400 for a padded bench for certain exercises.


Despite their high cost, treadmills still outsell all other machines. They combine the familiarity and relaxation of walking with the opportunity on fancier models to jog uphill.

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