Get fit? Get real.

Some infomercial fitness machines can boost your workout. Others are duds.

Videos
VIDEO:
 
 

Sexier abs! Great legs! Super fun! TV and Internet infomercials for fitness machines promise that you'll get the body you've always wanted quickly and with less effort or strain. Some ads feature models with rippling muscles, a pounding techno beat, glitzy graphics, and high-energy workouts that raise high expectations. Are any of the infomercial fitness machines worth getting off the couch to buy?

To find out, we assembled panels of testers. One group looked at the ads and then used the devices, ranging in price from $40 for the Perfect Pushup to $2,500 for the Bowflex TreadClimber TC5000, and reported their experiences. We then measured muscle activity and calories burned in another group who worked out on the machines and also on a standard treadmill and did traditional no-cost calisthenics, such as sit-ups and the bicycle maneuver for abdominal muscles and lunges for the lower body. We also reviewed the dietary plans that came with some devices. Here's what we found:

Sit-ups beat ab machines

The Ab Rocket and the Rock-N-Go Exerciser engaged the abdominal muscles less effectively than sit-ups and other conventional exercises on a mat. The Rock-N-Go barely felt like a workout to our testers.

Cardio gadgets burned calories

The CardioTwister, Tony Little Rock 'n Roll Stepper, and Bowflex TreadClimber TC5000 provided workouts that were at least as good as walking on a flat standard treadmill at 3.5 mph. Walking on the TreadClimber burned more calories than walking on the treadmill at the same speed.

Upper-body devices can help some

The Perfect Pullup and the Perfect Pushup offered good assistance for doing those standard exercises. However, our panelists had mixed expectations and reactions about how well they worked.  (Update: On Feb. 17, 2011, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a recall of the Perfect Pullup due to a fall injury hazard. Read more about the recall for details on replacement parts.)

Diets might be tough

Most of the meal plans gave sound nutritional advice, though some seemed overly restrictive and skimpy on food. The TreadClimber Body Leanness Program includes drinking at least a gallon of water a day, which can be difficult for most dieters, and reducing total calorie intake progressively, which is unconventional advice compared with recommendations of other diet plans.

You don't have to spend a lot of money on infomercial fitness machines, because standard floor exercises can provide a good workout (see Home Gym for Under $100). But some people find that exercise machines can be motivating. "Machines allow you to do exercises efficiently and to track your progress," says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit fitness-education group based in San Diego. "And exercising with some machines can be a safer experience than working out on your own with free weights, because machines take you through a guided path for each exercise."

How to choose

Before buying, consider the type of workout you prefer and review our findings.

Read the fine print

To get some promised results using infomercial fitness machines we tested, you might have to follow a diet plan and do additional aerobic exercise. For instance, the Ab Rocket Web site features dramatic before-and-after shots along with a disclaimer that says, "Results not typical. This person used the Ab Rocket Fat Blasting System, did cardio exercise regularly, and ate a reduced-calorie diet."

Calculate the total cost

Expect to pay shipping, unless otherwise specified, plus any sales tax.

Be wary of trials

A "30-day money-back guarantee" sounds good, but returning the product might be hard if it's heavy or bulky, or you have to pay shipping.

Ask about return policies

Verify the infomercial fitness machine company's return address and find out how soon you can expect a refund if you send back the device.

Posted: January 2009 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: February 2009