Getting Physical: Home-fitness Success

Don’t let your home-fitness resolution for the new year be an exercise in futility. With the proper equipment and some forethought, your regimen can last through 2013 — and beyond // Illustrations by Jacqui Oakley
Illustrations by Jacqui Oakley

In January, with the weather depressing and the post-holiday bloat around one’s middle dispiriting, it’s tempting to decide that the remedy for all one’s ills is a new treadmill.

Of course, I’ll use it, we vow. I’ll set reasonable goals and get up half an hour early and start my day right. I’ll feel energized and I’ll lose weight.

But then, one month and several hundred dollars later, the treadmill sits neglected, its bulky presence a rebuke every time we walk past it. Which isn’t often, because we put it in the basement so we wouldn’t have to notice it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. By putting a little more thought into the equipment we purchase — and considering if it’s right for us — exercise machines don’t have to languish unused in the corner.

The U.S home-exercise equipment industry is booming, generating more than $3 billion in annual revenues, according to 2010 figures by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. With so many sophisticated machines to choose from, it should be easy to find one that inspires us to stay active. But often it’s not, and fitness experts say that’s because we tend to impulse-buy machines and rely on the experience of friends and family in choosing them.

“You need to identify what you want to get from the equipment. It’s about finding something you enjoy.” Alvin Miller

“People think, ‘This year I’m going to get in shape. Everyone I know has an elliptical machine, so I’m going to buy an elliptical and it’s going to happen,’ ” says Alvin Miller, clinic director at Advanced Physical Therapy in Southfield. “Or they go out and buy a weight machine and then realize it’s boring. Once that happens, doing the dishes looks much more attractive.”

If you’re determined to find home-fitness success, follow these steps to buying — and actually using — the right equipment.

Reflect on your hopes and dreams vis-À-vis your home-exercise equipment, and then get real. “We need to keep in mind that a lot of exercise equipment and programming is marketed by fitness models,” says Dr. Marty Lillystone, an exercise physiologist in Beaumont Hospital’s Weight Control Center. “Quite often they’re suggesting if you do this type of exercise or use this type of equipment, you’re going to look like that person.”

In other words, if you buy the Bowflex so you can have a ripped slab of abs like that guy in the commercial, you’ll probably give up before Valentine’s Day. But if you buy it because you want to build a stronger core in order to ease your back pain, you’re more likely to stick with your new routine and be happy with your purchase.

“You need to identify what you want to get from the equipment: Do you want to lose weight, do you want fitness, do you like to run but don’t like to run in cold weather?” Miller says. “It’s about finding something you enjoy.”

Recumbent bikes are especially good for exercisers who need to minimize the impact on their joints. An elliptical will give a high calorie burn and build strength. A treadmill provides a steady cardiovascular workout. And for strength, you can’t beat weights — so long as they’re actually weighty.

“A lot of nylon-covered weights can be part of an aerobic exercise program because they increase intensity,” Lillystone says. “But in order to get stronger, you have to lift heavy stuff. Typically, those weights don’t weigh more than a person’s purse.”

Sample the goods. “When you’re looking for a piece of equipment, you need to throw on a pair of sweatpants and test-drive it,” Miller says. “You might think you’re going to love the elliptical and then get on it and not like it at all. Or you can try five elliptical trainers and like one of them. A lot of it is design of the machine.”

Some specialty retailers rent equipment, allowing for a longer courtship before deciding if a machine is for you. That extra trial time can be especially useful for anyone with an injury.

“For elliptical machines, especially if you have a knee, back, hip, or ankle issue, you’ll want to find out how high or long it goes on its pattern,” says Dr. Nancy White of Henry Ford Health System’s athletic medicine department. “People with back issues shouldn’t use an elliptical machine that slants forward. Where is the hand placement? If you have lower-back issues, you’ll want to be pretty straight up.”

Treadmills have their variations, too. How long is your stride? Do you like a strong board or one with more forgiveness? Do you enjoy lots of inclines? Are these questions stumping you? If so, you’ll want to take your time with your treadmill purchase.

“It’s very helpful, especially for bikes or elliptical machines, to have someone set it for you so you know you’re fit appropriately in there,” White says. “If you’re getting any pain in the joints, such as the knee or hip, you’re probably not fit appropriately. It should be all in the muscles that you’re feeling it.”

A high-quality machine won’t be cheap, but a machine that’s uncomfortable to use will soon be a clothes hanger. Specialty retailers often sell refurbished equipment or allow you to trade in a used piece for credit toward a purchase.

Don’t make it all about machines. Home-exercise options extend well beyond hulking machinery, and some of the best equipment is also some of the least expensive.

“You can probably get your biggest bang for your buck from the fitness ball,” Miller says. “You can strengthen your upper body, lower body, core. Regardless of your issue — shoulders, knees, back — you can address it with that ball.”

White favors Bosu balls for developing balance. Seniors often like Wii-based exercises and stationary cycles that are just a pedal and a wheel.

At Beaumont’s weight-control center, all program participants receive a pedometer.

“Studies tell us that people who have a pedometer will become more active,” Lillystone says. “What I like about the pedometer is, it encourages you to look at the activities you do throughout the day and make them more physically active. If you’re chasing your son around the house for 100 steps, it’s no different than using a treadmill for 100 steps. And what’s more likely to happen?”

For a really effective fitness routine, buy a fitness ball or workout DVD along with your new machine. Spending just an extra 10 minutes doing light exercises such as squats, stretching, and balance work will pay off, White says.

“When people go looking for a piece of equipment, they tend to make it all about that piece of equipment,” she says. “It’s really good to incorporate these other things.”

Don’t hide your equipment from yourself. If you really want to stick with your fitness resolution, make your home-exercise space a place you want to be, like in front of the TV or facing a window with a view.

“What’s most important is not the equipment but where it’s located,” Lillystone says. “If it’s in a dusty corner of the basement, it’s not going to get used. If it’s in your living room, part of your normal environment that you see every day, it’s more likely to get used.”

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