Fitness gadgets lighten wallet a little, promise a ton -- but do they deliver?

April 11, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Remember the last time a rush of resolve pulsed through your sluggish heart, the moment when you knew that this time you would do it, you would exercise regularly? It was a beautiful moment, in which you knew that you would triumph over grim encounters with full-length mirrors.

You sallied forth to the sporting goods store in search of a new pair of sneakers. You were not seeking Kathy Smith's Air Bench and Power Step Workout, or the Denise Austin Tone Up 1-2-3. But these gizmos, along with the Slide Reebok, the Lifeline Gym and Tony Little's Ab Isolator, flanked the cash register.

An informal survey of sporting goods stores across the country revealed that these five exercise systems -- low in price (under $100) and long in the promise that they could sculpture Adonises from the clay of mere mortals -- are the most often requested home fitness items today.

What was once a novelty niche, led by the Thigh Master, now seems to be a rapidly expanding category.

"It's all impulse," said Edward J. Jackowski, the founder of Exude, the nation's largest personal-training service, which is based in New York. "The world is full of yo-yo exercisers. They see a slick package with a great-looking body on it and think if they buy it, they'll be it."

Aside from the fantasy fueled by their packaging, the most compelling components of these gyms-in-a-box are their novelty and their price tags. Consumers feel they have less to lose if the freshness wears off on a gadget that costs less than $100.

But do these contraptions really work?

Mr. Jackowski, a psychologist who played and coached college football, supervised a test drive of five of these popular exercise aids. Here's how they performed:

Bobby Hinds Lifeline Gym (Lifeline International, $60, available by calling (800) 553-6633) is a collapsible bar with cables that, when properly used, can tone most of the body's major muscle groups. Lifeline is largely a strengthening tool and will not provide a quick fix to anyone whose muscles rest beneath unwanted fat.

But if one trusts a door jamb (and what scale watcher ever really does?), Lifeline can be put to aerobic use.

Lifeline comes with a pamphlet that resembles the instructions that accompany assembly-required furniture, which may not be a coincidence. Many of the exercises require attaching a belt to one's waist, a pulley to the belt and inserting the other end into a door jamb. Then, you run in place. But only the truly obsessed and already fit could imagine that the floor beneath their feet was a treadmill.

The system is best suited for people who are familiar with Cybex, Nautilus or Universal gym work. Do it correctly, and you strengthen muscles; do it wrong, and you risk injury.

Nevertheless, Lifeline would be welcome during a lengthy stay in a hotel that had no gym. Used for an hour or so, the system can give a respectable workout.

* Denise Austin Tone Up 1-2-3 ($75, available at Sears) resembles a corset with many Velcro stays. The corset contains a little pack of weights and rubber cords that allow the corset to become the anchor for resistance training. The adventurous can wrap a separate swatch of fabric, with weights, around the thigh to create what Ms. Austin calls a "bun firmer." All proposed exercises are nonaerobic, best suited for someone trying to tone, not lose weight.

The device comes with a flimsy pink-covered video; purchased three separate times, the Tone Up package yielded no video that worked.

The five exercises billed as "Ultra Arm, five minutes to firm upper arms" are exercises in futility. The series "Super Tummy Trimmer" consists of basic sit-ups, leg lifts and crunches, to which the corset contributes no apparent benefit. The same was true of the "Bun Firmer" series. All the calisthenics pictured are tried and true -- if performed in a position that applies no unnecessary pressure to joints.

For the already sculptured, Tone Up 1-2-3 could be a motivational toy. But, of course, the already sculptured would not need the device.

* Kathy Smith's Air Bench and Power Step Workout (Fitness Quest, $90, available at Sears) is a new twist on the old idea of a step platform. Its plastic legs support an arching wooden platform that "gives a little," Mr. Jackowski said, for which the knees should be grateful. To use any step, even the forgiving "air bench," is to gamble with the cartilage and tendons that support the knee joint.

This particular step comes with a video that is more MTV than personal trainer. It assumes a working knowledge of basic step technique and portrays three levels of workouts. For someone accustomed to step platforms, this step is a welcome change; for the unfamiliar, the arc can present a challenge.

But if stepping is your thing, this one is entertaining, and a lot easier on the knees.

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