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Release Date: 01/05/2009

Big Promises of Some Infomercial Exercise Machines Fall Flat; plus, Set up a Home Gym for Under $100

What’s real and what’s hype in infomercial fitness machines; plus tests of 40 exercise equipment machines include 6 Consumer Reports Best Buys

CR February '09 Cover YONKERS, NY — Two new reports from Consumer Reports separate the wheat from the chaff in home workout equipment –from ab crunchers, cardio gadgets, and upper-body devices sold on TV and Internet infomercials, to treadmills, elliptical exercisers, stationary bikes, heart-rate monitors, and pedometers.  All of the information in these reports and more will be available online in a special New Year’s do-it-yourself guide to diet and fitness at www.ConsumerReports.org.  The online guide also includes tips for building a home gym for less than $100 and the results of a new survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center that reveals the stay-skinny secrets of the forever-thin.

Consumer Reports notes that gym memberships, which peaked at 42.7 million in 2006, have slid in the past few years while sales of home equipment have continued to grow.  For those interested in building a home gym, it pays to shop carefully, taking into consideration one’s budget, space constraints, and workout preferences.  “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a good workout at home,” says Gayle Williams, deputy health editor, Consumer Reports.   “Choose what’s right for you – not which sales pitch is the most alluring – and then commit to doing the work.  That’s how you’ll get results.”

Sexier Abs!  Great Legs!  Buy Now!

Infomercials make a lot of big promises about the exercise machines they hawk on TV and the Web.  But do they deliver?  To find out, Consumer Reports 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.  Consumer Reports 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.  Consumer Reports also reviewed the dietary plans that came with some devices.  Here’s how they compare:

Abdominal Exercisers

The Ab Rocket ($100) claims to give its users the body they have always wanted, but most Ab Rocket exercises were slightly less effective than traditional abdominal exercises in our tests. The Rock-N-Go Exerciser ($230) barely felt like a workout  to  its users, and it was less effective at engaging abdominals than conventional exercises on a mat.  And the Red Exerciser DX ($175) claims consumers will lose 4 inches off their midsection in 2 weeks. But as Consumer Reports first reported in February 2008, some exercises with the device engaged obliques at least as much as comparable floor moves, but might not work abs as well, so those 4 inches aren’t going anywhere without serious dieting.

Cardio and Cardio Plus:

The Bowflex Treadclimber TC5000 ($2,500) is a good way to burn calories but users should watch their step as tripping is possible.  The CardioTwister ($200) provides variety to a cardio workout but testing showed that one would get more effective abdominal and leg workouts doing conventional exercises.  The Tony Little Rock ’n Roll Stepper ($80) is less effective than conventional leg exercises but a fun cardio workout for beginners who can stay balanced on it.

Upper Body Devices:

The Perfect Pushup ($40) and the Perfect Pullup ($100) both provide a good upper-body workout for beginners and advanced exercisers who want to add variety to their push-up and pull-up routines.  

Total-Body Exercisers:

The advanced workout with the Fluidity Bar ($240) burned fewer calories than a no-equipment circuit-training routine of lunges, crunches, and modified push-ups on the knees, Consumer Reports first reported in February 2008.  Panelists liked the workouts but found the heavy device hard to move.  It’s a pricey but potentially enjoyable alternative to strength training and stretching.

Before buying, Consumer Reports urges shoppers to:

  • Read the fine print.  Some devices come with disclaimers.  For example, the Ab Rocket Web site features dramatic before-and-after shots, but also adds the following:  “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.  Include shipping, unless otherwise specified, and any sales tax.

  • Be careful of trials.  A “30-day money-back guarantee” sounds good, but returning the product might be hard if the item is heavy or bulky, or if the buyer is required to pay shipping.

  • Ask about return policies.  Verify the company’s return address and find out how long it will take to get a refund in case of return.

Best Buys for Treadmills, Elliptical Exercisers, Stationary Bikes, and Pedometers

Consumer Reports tested 40 conventional exercise machines, including treadmills, elliptical exercisers, and stationary bikes for exercise range, ergonomics, construction, safety, and more.  Prices ranged from $200 to $3,300. The pricier machines generally have sturdier designs and more features, but there are bargains that can offer a good workout.  And to help step up an exercise routine, Consumer Reports tested heart-rate monitors and pedometers.  Consumer Reports recommends 6 Best Buys:

  • The PaceMaster Platinum Pro VR nonfolding treadmill, for $2,000

  • The Epic View 550 folding treadmill, for $1,300

  • The Sole F63 folding treadmill, for $1,000

  • The LifeCore Fitness LC985VG elliptical exerciser, for $1,100

  • The Spirit XBR25 recumbent stationary bike, for $1,200

  • The Omron HJ-112 pedometer for $30

To find the right machine, Consumer Reports offers the following advice:

  • Check your space.  Elliptical exercisers and nonfolding treadmills are about the size of a small couch, and most stationary bikes are a bit smaller.  Folding treadmills are generally shorter than nonfolding models, and can be stored upright.  Elliptical exercisers take up more vertical space.

  • Make it comfortable.  Pay special attention to ergonomics.  Treadmills should match the user’s stride.  Elliptical machines should be tested to ensure that they don’t cause discomfort in the knee or hip joints.  Stationary bikes should be the right size and provide a comfortable seat and pedals.

  • Look at the features.  The best machines offer a clear display with easy-to-use controls that show some combination of heart rate, calories burned, speed, incline or resistance levels, and details such as time and distance.  Programs should allow you to adjust routines based on your fitness level and have heart-rate-controlled workouts that consider your age, weight, and gender. 

The full reports on infomercial fitness machines and conventional exercise machines are available in the February ‘09 issue or online at www.ConsumerReports.org.

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