Flex Time: The Right Stuff For Home Workouts

If exercising ranks high among your New Year's resolutions, consider buying a home fitness machine. You won't have to travel to a gym or worry about changing clothes and fighting crowds. Home equipment can be pricey, but it's no more expensive than many health clubs--and you have to pay for it only once. Even if you belong to a health club, you may want a machine for days you don't feel like schlepping there.

As machines have grown more high-tech, they've become more fun to use. They can now set and rate your regimen, or even tell you how to lose weight. But people have misconceptions about their benefits. You can't, for instance, buy a $79.99 model from a late-night infomercial and expect miraculous results. Nor can you expect to lose weight in the specific body parts that are worked by a machine. Computerized machines cost top dollar--but they may be worth it. And if you're serious about fitness, you'll jog or swim as well as lift weights.

POUND-FOOLISH. What kind of machine should you buy? "The best machine is the one that you will do," says Ellie Ballew, marketing adviser at manufacturer Precor. Sign up for a temporary club membership to try the machines and learn how to use them. Then, head for the high end when you buy, says Jeff Zwiefel, director of the National Exercise for Life Institute, a nonprofit information center. Cheap equipment that is sold on TV or through department stores is often flimsy. It can break easily, vibrate, or make noise. "All that stuff people buy, they see it on TV, think they'll get a miracle, and it just gets dumped in the garage," complains Steve Rhodes, a vice-president at Paramount, a maker of weight machines.

Do your shopping at a specialty fitness store, where you can compare models and where the help is knowledgeable. A machine is a major investment. "It's not a toy, but a piece of medical equipment," says Precor's Ballew. Look for stability, durability, and ease of use. Quietness is a factor if, say, you want

to watch TV while working out.

Most companies offer a range of models and prices. The mechanics of midrange machines are often the same as those at the top of the line. You pay extra for the electronics--computerized displays that record your speed, distance, and the progress of your workout. Don't under-estimate the benefit of such gizmos when it comes to incentive. "The bells and whistles play an important part in motivation," says Jenifer Mason, associate director at the Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas. But don't take machine readouts of heart rate or calories burned as gospel. Most are an approximation. True heart-rate gauges, say experts, strap around your chest.

TREADWARE. There are two kinds of equipment: aerobic and anaerobic, or weight lifting. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends both kinds of exercise to stay fit. If you can afford only one machine, remember that you can supplement a weight station with a run in the park, or complement a treadmill jog with a cheap set of dumbbells.

A treadmill is easy to use and offers a forgiving running surface. But a good one will cost "at least $2,000," says Joel Kaye, exercise physiologist at a New York health club. To get speeds of 8-10 mph and inclines of 10%, you'll want a continuous-duty motor of at least 1.5 horsepower. Check the width of the belt and the give of the deck to make sure the machine isn't too narrow or bouncy. Trotter's treadmills ($3,000-$6,000) stash the motor under the belt instead of under a hood at the front. This makes their machines smaller and quieter. Precor's 9.4sp ($4,500) has 96 courses, including the Boston Marathon. The newer 9.4E/L ($3,700) even programs a weight-loss plan for you.

Stair-climbers are popular for working the legs, hips, and buttocks. Cheaper ones use hydraulic pistons rather than a motor, which can make for a stiff and jerky ride, says Richard Miller, owner of the Gym Source, a fitness specialty store in Manhattan. Better models use motors. Tectrix makes the ClimbMax ($2,995), considered by many the Cadillac of steppers because of its quiet, smooth ride. It has nine programs that operate at 12 speeds and can interact with your personal computer to record graphs of your progress or design new programs. But steppers tend to be hard on the knees.

If budget is a big concern, consider a cross-country ski machine or a stationary bike. Decent ones don't cost a lot and take up relatively little space. NordicTrack is the premier maker of ski machines. It sells eight models ($300-$1,300), which fold up to save room. Ski machines work your arms and legs for great overall conditioning. But it takes time to learn how to use them.

PEDAL-PUSHING. Stationary bikes range from $300 to $3,500. The popular Schwinn Air-Dyne ($600) has handles to work your upper body while you pedal. For electronics, check out Lifecycle from Life Fitness ($900-$2,500), which is used in many health clubs. The 6500 heart-rate model ($1,595) even reads your pulse through the handlebars. If the rate is too high or low, the bike automatically adjusts the resistance. But partly because bikes work mainly the lower thighs, they can be boring. And they can aggravate any back or knee problems.

For these reasons, the recumbent bike ($500-$2,000) is gaining ground. Such bikes support your back, and your knees don't bend as much. Your legs are closer to heart level, so the blood pressure doesn't rise as much as it does on an upright. Recumbent bikes work more muscle groups than do uprights--toning the lower abdominals, thighs, hamstrings, and buttocks. But just because a machine works these parts doesn't mean that you'll lose weight there: You lose weight last where you gain it first--and that's determined by genetics.

Like cross-country-skiing technique, a rowing stroke may be tricky to learn. And it can be hard on problem backs or knees. But a rowing machine exercises both the upper and lower body, and it can be stashed under the bed. Concept II makes the most common version ($700), which drives a flywheel against air resistance. For a more luxurious feel, try WaterRower's machines ($1,200-$1,600). On these rowers, the flywheel is submerged in a tank of water, which makes for an extra- smooth, quiet ride. For incentive-seekers, Lifecycle has a top-of-the-line rower ($2,795) that requires you to vary your speed as you compete with a cartoon rival on a 14-inch color monitor. When a helicopter drops oarsmen into the other boat, you must row faster; when a shark eats the crew, you can slow down.

Anaerobic muscle-building is also a good way to shed fat. Muscle tissue burns calories even when you are at rest, and muscle is denser than fat, so you can gain muscle and still drop a size. Home weight-lifting stations combine 20 to 40 exercises. Cheaper models may use bungee cords or coiled springs for resistance. But a stack of weights is preferred. You want cables that move effortlessly through the pulleys and don't have to be changed when you switch exercises. Good stations start at $1,300. Again, smoothness and durability are key. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that you limit lifting

to two days a week--unless you want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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