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Home exercise equipment

Tests of 40 machines include 6 CR Best Buys


Thinking about canceling that gym membership and working out at home? You're not alone. Industry analysts say that gym memberships peaked at 42.7 million in 2006, have slipped slightly since, and are expected by some to decline further in these recessionary times. But sales of home exercise equipment, including treadmills, elliptical exercisers and stationary bikes, have continued to grow in recent years.

We trotted, plodded, and pedaled on 40 machines including treadmills, elliptical exercisers, and stationary bikes, testing for exercise range, ergonomics, construction, safety, and more. Prices range from about $200 to $3,300. The pricier machines generally have sturdier designs and more features, but there are bargains that can offer a good workout.

"The top one is the one you enjoy because if you enjoy it, you'll use it more frequently," says Christina A. Geithner, a professor of exercise science at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.

That's helpful information, considering that 37 percent of Consumer Reports subscribers used their home exercise equipment less frequently than they expected, according to a survey in 2007 by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Treadmills are the most popular, commanding about 55 percent of the home-fitness-equipment market. Running is the gold standard for cardiorespiratory fitness, but elliptical exercisers and stationary bikes might help strengthen your legs, hips, and glutes more than running because you can ramp up the resistance to work your muscles harder.

A workout on an elliptical exerciser is a good choice for those with joint problems or extra weight. Those machines can also help you improve balance. And they have one advantage that most treadmills don't offer: the ability to work out in reverse, which stimulates the muscles differently, Geithner says.

There are two kinds of stationary bikes. The traditional upright type resembles a regular bicycle; a recumbent bike has back support. They provide similar workouts, though Geithner says an upright might work your glutes better because you can fully extend your hips. Because body weight is supported, both types are options for people who have difficulty with balance or have lower-limb injuries. A recumbent might be more comfortable for those with back problems.

Posted: December 2008 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: February 2009