Get in shape during the new year!

The right home exercise equipment can help you reach your fitness goals in 2014

Published: December 2013

Goal: Get started

The AFG 3.1AT treadmill, $1,200, folds and is a CR Best Buy.

If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most powerful drugs ever invented. Chances are, you've heard many variations of that sentiment. It's not hype. A 2010 review of 40 studies in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, for example, found that being active can help prevent about 25 conditions. Other research suggests that exercise can cut the risk of colon cancer (60 percent), type 2 diabetes (58 percent), heart disease (40 percent), and Alzheimer's disease (40 percent). Another study, which compared regular exercisers with couch potatoes, concluded that each minute of physical activity added an average of 7 minutes of life span.

You'd think statistics like that would make everyone lace up their sneakers. But apparently, powerful evidence isn't powerful enough: Just 20 percent of Americans say they get the recommended amount of aerobic and strength exercises.

Why? Partly because many people overestimate how much they need to work out. But you can get benefits with just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity. Better yet, "10 minutes three times a day is just as effective," says Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., associate professor of movement sciences at Columbia University and president elect of the American College of Sports Medicine. And if you can't do that, "even 5 or 10 minutes a day can make a difference."

"Convenience and proximity are key predictors of exercise," says Garber, so it makes sense that working out at home ups the odds not only that you'll become active but also that you'll also stick with a routine. Having a cardio machine makes it that much easier. The best machine for you is the one that you'll use—but how do you know which one that will be? Our tests of elliptical trainers, rowing machines, spin bikes, and treadmills can help you decide. And we consulted with experts to help you pick the machine that will best help you reach your health goals.

"People are more likely to be active if their mode of exercise is something they do well," says Len Kravitz, Ph.D., coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico. Because everyone knows how to walk, a treadmill may be the least intimidating machine for a beginner. But if you have hip, knee, or back problems, consider an elliptical trainer, which is easier on your joints. Or think about activities that gave you pleasure earlier in life, Kravitz says. If you liked bicycling as a child, consider a spin bike. If you remember fond days paddling on a lake, maybe give a rowing machine a chance.

No matter which activity you choose, check with a doctor first if you're middle-aged or older before you begin exercising. And don't do too much too soon. It's unnecessary and if you're exhausted and sore afterward, you won't be eager to do it again. "People have the misconception that exercise has to be hard, but when we say ‘moderate intensity, ' we mean that you should notice your breathing has increased and your heart is beating faster, not feel the way you would if you were running to catch a bus," Garber says.

The FitBit One, $100, was a CR Best Buy for activity trackers.

Or count your steps: For a beginner, moderate exercise equals roughly 100 steps per minute. (You can use an activity tracker or pedometer to track your steps. The Mio Trace Acc-Tek, $30, scored best among pedometers in our latest tests; Walmart's Sportline Step & Distance, $5, was a CR Best Buy, but it had fewer features. Among activity trackers, the FitBit One, $100, was a CR Best Buy.) After your workout, you should have a sense of accomplishment—maybe you had to push yourself, but you did it.  

What to look for when you're starting

It's easy to just jump on a treadmill or elliptical and go, so both are good choices for new exercisers. Bonus: The machines will "grow" with you; you can begin at a low speed or resistance and increase as you get fitter. Whichever machine you choose, it's good to try before you buy.

5 ways to get motivated

Make exercise a ritual. There's a lot of truth to the adage: A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion. "Exercise quickly becomes a habit, and the more you do it, the more likely you are to continue doing it," says Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., president elect of the American College of Sports Medicine. "Recalling how good exercise makes you feel helps you get back on the machine the next time."

Set mini goals. "Use the information displays on the machines to challenge yourself to do just a little more," Garber advises. "Tell yourself, ‘Let's see if I can burn 20 more calories or go another 2 minutes.' It becomes a game."

Track your progress. People who record how often they work out, what they do, and how long their sessions last or how far they go are more likely to stick with a routine, research suggests.

Accentuate the positive. Telling yourself that exercise feels good actually makes exercise feel good, according to a study from the University of Kent in England. People who were coached to say things like "You're doing well" to themselves during their workouts on a stationary bike were able to extend how long they biked, whereas people not coached in positive self-talk showed no improvements.

Keep it entertaining. TV watching is generally anathema to exercise experts—with this exception: "If you use an exercise machine while you watch, you can stay in front of the TV as long as you like," Garber jokes. Record a favorite program, but watch it only while you exercise. Or make a music playlist that you reserve for exercise.  

Goal: Lose weight

Losing weight requires more exercise than getting fit does— about 3½ to 5 hours a week (plus diet changes). So it's important to get a comfortable machine.

A treadmill can be a good choice. People tend to work out harder on them than they realize, so they end up burning more calories, research suggests. But for people who are heavy or have back, knee, or hip problems, a non-impact elliptical might be better. And competitive or easily bored types might opt for a spin bike or rowing machine.

For greater benefit, mix it up. Kravitz says in his experience it helps to use multiple exercise machines, because your body never adapts to one machine, so you're always working hard and burning more calories. And variety helps avert boredom. Although most of us don't have the room or budget for several machines, you can mimic the effect. If you walk outside several days a week, opt for a home rower or spin bike. Or consider the Xterra Trail Racer 6.6 treadmill: It has a programed workout called Fitness, which signals you to get off the machine periodically and perform five upper-body moves with dumbbells. It rated Very Good overall and at $1,000 costs less than some other models in our tests.

The Precor 9.31, $4,000, was our top-rated nonfolding treadmill.

What to look for in a treadmill

Space. Treadmills are big: Most need about 7 feet by 3 feet of floor space. So if you have a smaller area, consider a machine with a folding deck, and before you buy, make sure the deck isn't too heavy for you to lift easily. Some people find that folding machines feel less stable than nonfolding ones. Both the AFG 3.1AT and the ProForm Pro fold, and both are CR Best Buys.

Deck size. Belts that are 52 inches long and 18 inches wide should be fine for walkers; runners should look for belts that are 60 inches long and 20 inches wide.

Safety. Treadmills account for two-thirds of all emergency room visits related to home exercise machines. So make sure you have 2 feet of space on each side of the treadmill to make getting on and off easier, and 3 to 6 feet behind it so that you aren't crushed if you fall. Unplug the machine after use if you have a small child in the house. (In fact, take care with all exercise machines if you have kids—or pets.) Always attach the security clip to your clothing—it stops the motor if you fall—and check the cord length. The one on the TruPace M 100 was so long that users almost drifted off the deck before it stopped the machine.

Tips. Raise the incline to 1 percent to mimic the effort it takes to run outside on a flat surface. Leaning on the handrails on a treadmill or elliptical cuts the workload on your legs, so you burn fewer calories.

Goal: Kick it up a notch

The Sunny SF-B901 costs just $285 and scored better than several models.

Interval training, which involves alternating intense bouts of activity with slower recovery periods in the same workout, is the top fitness trend for 2014, according to an American College of Sports Medicine survey of 3,815 fitness professionals. The workouts can be challenging, but they also let you cut exercise time while maintaining or even increasing the health benefits. During the intense period, get your heart rate to at least 80 percent of your maximum (to calculate your maximum, subtract your age from 220). Two highly rated heart-rate monitors in our previous tests are the Mio Alpha, $200, and the Polar H7, $70.

You can do intervals on any cardio machine, but spin bikes—which have a weighted flywheel directly linked to the pedals—are well-suited to the technique. Intervals are the foundation of indoor cycling classes, where an instructor guides you through a "ride" that includes steady-paced flats, sprints, and hills. You can easily adjust the resistance on spin bikes. Indoor cycling is also easier on your joints than running. And for people who have been working out for a while, indoor cycling can be a welcome change of pace.

What to look for in a spin bike

Fit. The seat should be adjusted so that your knees are slightly bent when your foot is at the bottom of the stroke. Your forward knee should align with the ball of your foot when the pedals are level. One tester who is 4' 10" couldn't lower the seat far enough on the Diamondback 510ic or the Sunny SF-B901 to accommodate her. Check the handlebars, too. A 6-footer couldn't raise those on the Livestrong LS9.9IC high enough to avoid hitting his knees.

Display. Having a display is also important; you'll probably want the feedback it provides. The ProForm 300 SPX and the Sunny SF-B901 did not have displays. On the Spinning Spinner Aero, the display was an accessory that cost extra.

Space. The bikes don't require a lot of room. Most of those we tested fit into a space 4 feet long by 2 feet wide.

Tips. Before buying a spin bike, consider taking a few classes at a gym. If you're already a fan of indoor cycling, consider how you'd feel doing it alone. Owning a machine lets you vary the length of your sessions and play your own music, but if you rely on the instructor or the camaraderie of a group, you might not be happy at home. Our top-rated model, the Diamondback 510ic, has built-in programs, whereas the Spinning Spinner Aero, which rated third overall, comes with exercise DVDs. You can find group cycling-class videos on YouTube and other websites; play them on a tablet or computer and follow along. Watch a few and see whether they give you the motivation and guidance you need.

Goal: Total body toning

The LifeFitness X5 GO

No piece of cardiovascular equipment builds as much strength or muscle as weight machines, free weights, or exercises like squats or pushups. But if you want a little toning with your cardio, an elliptical is a good choice. Pushing the handlebars works your triceps and chest and pulling works your back and biceps.

Goal: What to look for in an elliptical

Space Ellipticals can take up as much space as treadmills, so you need sufficient space around the machine, as well as adequate ceiling height, because you'll be elevated. At about 120 pounds, the TruePace E220, $700, is one of the lightest machines we tested, which makes it easier to move. But the frame flexed noticeably. A good choice for many people: the AFG 3.1AE. It rated Very Good overall and at $1,000 was a CR Best Buy.

Ease of setup. In a previous survey of Consumer Reports readers, those who bought pricier ellipticals reported that they were less of a hassle to set up and more likely to be comfortable.

Features. The number of features—such as incline and touch-screen displays—tends to go up with price, so consider whether you need them all.

Fit. Look for a sturdy machine that matches your normal running motion. Moving handgrips should let you stand tall with your weight centered, not push your hands behind you or pull you forward.

Tips. "To work your upper body, don't allow the handlebars to glide—really push and pull them," says Alex Willen, who tests exercise devices for Consumer Reports. To tone your thighs and butt, squat while you pedal, as shown at left. "It takes good balance, so be sure you're comfortable on the machine," Willen says.

Goal: Cross training

It can make sense to balance your workouts by pairing exercises that involve different muscle groups. That's especially relevant for runners. "They tend to have an underdeveloped upper body, so rowing would be an excellent way for them to cross-train," says Henry Williford, head of the department of Physical Education and Exercise Science at Auburn University. Cross-training can also help prevent sport-specific injuries. Any machine that complements your normal activity can be a good choice for cross-training.

What to look for in a rowing machine

Fit. Our highest-rated machine, the Concept2 Model D, had all of the features that make rowing fun and efficient. The foot pedals and foot-restraining straps were fully adjustable, accommodating different-sized feet and allowing for the foot and ankle to flex as needed. It operated smoothly and with little noise. It was also the only model to offer preprogrammed workouts and games. In contrast, the Stamina ATS Air Rower was noisy and rough feeling. The rowing mechanism on the Kettler Favorit is two rigid side handles, which mimic oars. Our testers found that the setup constrained rowing motion and made the machine awkward to use.

Features. Most exercise machines measure performance by speed or calories, but rowers often want specifics on split times, stroke rate, and projected times. The Concept2 and WaterRower A1 Home models provide that data. Two models, the H2O Seattle Wooden Rower and the Water Rower A1 Home use water for resistance. Filling the water tanks can be tedious, but water adds a soothing sound—reminiscent of rowing on the Charles River, one of our engineers said. Those models are also more furniture-like in appearance.

Tips. Rowing can help you build upper- and lower-body strength. Use the proper three-step technique: Push back with your legs, and when they're straight, lean your torso back, then pull the handle to your lower rib cage. Pulling the handle first can stress your back.

Editor's Note:

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.  

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