We're the quirky civilization that rides elevators to the second floor and buys electronic stair steppers to condition our thighs. We drive to convenience stores and hurry back to our treadmills. Yes, we rely on machines to save us from working, then buy other machines to save our bodies from terminal flab. It's a roundabout way of staying in shape, and it's certainly not cheap. But if you want to get a good workout in front of the tube, an exercise machine may be the ticket.
There are plenty of marvels out there to work your pecs, quads, abs, and glutes. All you need are several hundred to several thousand dollars. The ultimate focus is the most important muscle of all, the heart. Today's machines come with all sorts of snazzy panel displays that make heart-watching easier than ever. But one warning before you start: An estimated 50% of the machines people buy sit idle in garages and spare bedrooms, abandoned after an initial burst of energy. So before you spring for one, get a doctor's O.K. and make sure you're ready to revamp your life to make room for this new routine.
Next, see which equipment works best for you. After all, when you put down the money, you're committing yourself, in theory, to thousands of hours on this machine, perhaps tens of millions of steps, oar-strokes, or revolutions. It had better be a motion your body likes.
Most fitness machines replicate common real-world forms of exercise, from rowing to riding a bike to walking. But for those who yearn for something entirely new, there's the rider. Pioneered by HealthRider--and now imitated by many others, including NordicTrack--the rider is a seat with handlebars on which you pull yourself up and down, almost like a cowboy on the very tamest of mechanical bulls.
Rider sales have rocketed, growing from zero to 27% of unit sales in the $3 billion fitness market in the past four years. The reason: A rider is particularly well-suited to exercise novices. The up-and-down motion gently works the chest, stomach, shoulders, and legs while you're sitting. They're also relatively cheap. While the HealthRider sells for $499, including extra weights, the company sells versions for as little as $199. The Nordicrider, featuring a handlebar that pushes and pulls, costs $299.
Riders are affordable, in part, because they don't have motors. Exercisers on a budget would do well to stick to motorless apparatuses, including rowers and ski machines, that cost well under $1,000. If you have your heart set on a motorized treadmill or stair-climber, be ready to fork over at least $1,500. Otherwise, you're likely to end up with a rickety machine and an undersize motor that won't stand up to millions of footsteps, especially if you're heavy.
Treadmills are the most popular of all exercise machines, with 42% of the market. They sell well for a simple reason: Most humans know how to walk. The Cadillacs of the category are produced by Trotter and start at $3,500. Trotters have powerful motors, smooth, cushioned belts that are easy on the joints, state-of-the-art monitors, and ironclad guarantees. If you're looking for similar features at a lower price, consider the True 500. It boasts a 2-horsepower motor and a large walking surface and lists for $2,795.
Of course, treadmilling, like jogging, exercises only the bottom half of the body, unless you carry weights and swing your arms. But because the goal of aerobic exercise is to lift the heart into a target range--a ballpark figure is 220 beats per minute minus a person's age--working the big muscles below the waist on a treadmill does the trick.
Stationary bikes, which focus on the same muscles, have several advantages over treadmills. They occupy less space, and since the person is sitting, they place less stress on the ankles, knees, and hips. They also average about half the price. The latest rage is the recumbent bike, where you sit in what looks like an office chair and pedal with your legs out front. In exercise clubs, you'll notice that the recumbents are usually the ones you have to sign up for in advance. That's because they're easier on the back and the knees.
Diamondback's Preference HRT-1000R recumbent goes for $1,300 and offers smooth riding and slick controls. Like many machines, it comes with a set of preprogrammed routines. Its heart program adjusts the resistance to keep your heart beating at its target speed. The bike comes with a monitor that clips onto your earlobe. Or $100 more will get you a wireless connection directly from your chest. For $300 less, you can buy a Trek R2200 with many of the same features, minus the heart monitor. Both bikes simulate hills with magnetic resistance, which keeps noise, as well as wear and tear, to a minimum.
The third option for the lower body is a stair-climber. "They're excellent for taking stress off the knees and hips," says Fredrick Hagerman, an exercise physiologist at Ohio University. Like a number of top-of-the-line machines, Bodyguard's Quantum LS series, starting at $1,899, keeps you within your target heart range. You wear a monitor around your chest, and the rate is fed to the machine, which adjusts its resistance to keep you on target. Bodyguard's climbers also feature a series of programs that allow you to simulate climbing a host of famous towers--from the Empire State Building to the Statue of Liberty.
For exercisers who want a full-body workout, rowers and skiers offer the most promise. NordicTrack's sturdy cross-country ski machines start at $299. Its Achiever, at $699, features more stylish oak, along with a few options, such as a hill simulation, heart monitor, and a wider, more stable frame. The cardiovascular workout of a ski machine is excellent. But the motion is unfamiliar to many people. Therefore, the company offers a 30-day tryout.
Despite offering the quickest and most thorough cardiovascular workouts, rowers have fallen into disfavor as consumers worry about their backs. Rowers now account for less than 5% of the market. Still, they're among the best aerobic machines that also build full-body strength. With proper posture and technique, bending the legs with the sliding seat, the back shouldn't suffer. The standard for rowers is the $725 Concept II Rowing Ergometer.
The growth in the exercise market is due, in large part, to doctors' orders. But be careful not to overdo it, or you risk hurting the very heart you're trying to help. Three good workouts a week, getting the heart to 70% of its target rate for 20 minutes, is the recommended minimum. Those who hold to the no-pain, no-gain adage, say the experts, are short on brain. "The trouble comes when people feel pain and they keep going," says Diane Markovitz, a physical therapist at Pittsburgh's West Penn/Harmarville Rehab Center. Her advice: Warm up for about five minutes on the machine. Then take time out to stretch before getting back on. If you feel sharp pain, slow down or stop.
Perhaps the most useful exercise aid you can buy is a heart monitor. Polar sells one for $100 that looks like a wristwatch. These monitors beep when you go above or below your target heart rate. You might want to use a monitor while out shoveling snow, walking to work, or climbing steps. Those activities, combined with regular turns on a rider, rower, stepper, or treadmill, should keep your heart and doctor happy.