What is the whole truth about home exercise machines? For the puzzled and the perplexed, we compiled several interesting facts about some popular exercise equipment from Consumer Reports and Nutrition Action Healthletter as a guide.
TO use a walker, sometimes called a strider or glider, you position your feet on two platforms connected to swinging "legs". Most models also have arm levers connected to the "legs". These help you balance and also provide a way to exercise the upper body. You work out by walking briskly with some resistance. The effort combines walking and cross-country skiing.
Now for the bad news: Walkers offer a poor workout for people who are already fit. At best they can be good for beginners (even then, dedicated beginners will outgrow this machinery); at worst, they break. So says the US Consumers' Union (CU).
The CU tested the durability, fit, and stability of each model, and judged the quality of the workout you'll get, among other factors.
Although the walkers tested were found to range from "fair" to "very good" at aerobic exercise, which gets your heart rate up in a "target" zone and strengthens the cardiovascular system, they were found to be "mediocre" for toning.
According to the CU, the resistance they offer isn't significant enough to really work your larger muscles.
3 walkers also failed the CU's durability test. In the test, weights were attached to each foot platform of the walker and pneumatic pistons were used to push and pull the platforms 150,000 times. The action simulated a 200-pound person using each walker for 50 hours (about a year's use).
On one walker, a leg lever bowed and bent; on a second walker, the lever completely broke from the frame. On a third walker, a metal linkage bar on the leg-lever mechanism bent on one sample and broke on another. And the resistance pads on a fourth walker fell apart. Although the pads are replaceable, the repair may be tough for the average user.
RIDERS: Beware of breakdowns
WITH riders, you sit on a seat, pull on a handlebar as you push out on pedals, and the machine lifts your body. The exercise offers less-fit users a good toning workout and a reasonable aerobic one.
The heavier you are or the faster you ride, the more strenuous the workout. But as you lose weight and become more fit, the workout becomes less effective. This is true even for the several models that let you add resistance by adding weights, changing the seat position, or regulating a shock absorber, says the CU.
The CU also cautions that riders are worse than walkers.
"When we last tested riders, in January 1996, 2 out of 5 tested poor for durability. This time, 5 out of 7 failed our test... Never before has exercise equipment we tested performed as poorly as riders," says CU in its January '98 issue of Consumer Reports.
Poor quality overshadowed other features on most riders. When the CU attached weight to the seat and used pneumatic pistons to simulate a year's worth of use by a 200-pound person, welds broke on frame parts of 5 models.
Most of the failures would probably not have caused serious injury if someone had been riding. But the breaks in 2 models could have made the seat collapse during use, causing the rider to fall.
In July last year, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of the ProForm rider, because it could collapse and cause injury if its safety stop is not used.
If you already have a rider, pay attention to the welds and linkages. Creaking and wobbling could mean trouble. If you see cracks or breaks in the steel, stop using the rider and contact the manufacturer.
In the CU's test, many machines were also found to chafe users' thighs, or the handlebars irritated hands.
Exercising on a rider can stress your lower back if the exercise is done wrong, or if your lower-back muscles and hamstrings are very tight. If you suffer from back problems, consult your doctor before using a rider.
Current and prospective users should also know of these potential problems:
- Instability. Some models can tip if the user leans too far left or right. Some can also tip backward if the seat is extended too far back and the user plunks down on it.
- Sharp edges. Some models have rough metal edges in accessible areas. The ProForm for example, has a metal clip that can cut your hand when you reach to adjust the shock absorber.
- Hot surfaces. After a vigorous 20-minute workout, shock absorbers and friction pads on models that have them were hot enough to burn a hand adjusting them.
For example: "Using the Fitness Flyer and Airofit air glider machine, the subjects, exercising at maximum effort, only reached a peak heart rate* of 155 beats per minute, equal to a quick walk or slow jog," notes exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, editor-in-chief of ACE's FitnessMatters newsletter.
"On average, a moderately fit male between the ages of 23 and 29, such as the subjects studied, should be able to reach a heart rate of at least 194 beats per minute during a peak-performance test."
[*Peak heart rate is when your heartbeat is in a high-end "target zone". When you get your heart into that zone — for instance by jogging — you're doing aerobic exercise, the type that burns fat, raises HDL (the "good" cholesterol), and can strengthen your heart and lungs.
To calculate the low end of your zone, start with 220, subtract your age, then multiply by 0.70 (0.60 if you're new to exercise). To calculate the high end of your zone, multiply instead by 0.85.]
ACE also expressed concern about the back pain reported by 5 out of 7 participants after exercising on 2 types of rider/gliders — the Cardioglide and the HealthRider. "This finding is significant," the study reports, "given the fact that all the participants were young healthy females with no previous history of back problems."
ABDOMINAL MACHINES — Unnecessary
THESE gadgets with names like Ab Blaster, Abflex, AbShaper and Ab Trainer, promise to take you from flabbiness to fabulous.
The catch? There's nothing you can do with an ab machine that you can't do without one. Plain old sit-ups and crunches done without any device can be every bit as effective at strengthening your abdominal muscles (see separate story on how to do it).
As for the claims that ab machines can magically take your stomach from fat to flat : pure bunk.
"To lose a pound of fat you need to burn about 3,500 fat calories and not put them back by eating more fat," says orthopaedic physical therapist Carol Hamilton of Frederick, Maryland.
"This takes more than 4,500 repetitions for about 71/2 hours on an ab machine. Losing weight and slimming your stomach takes a combination of a balanced low-fat diet and regular aerobic exercise.
"Unless you push yourself away from the table and engage in aerobic, calorie-burning activities, the ab machine will do little to trim your waistline."
How to do an abdominal crunch
The best advice: Forget ab machines and simply do abdominal crunches. Here's how.
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
2. Cross your arms across your chest, or place your fingertips lightly behind your head. Contract your stomach muscles and tilt your pelvis up, then slowly curl your head up, just until your shoulder blades lift off the floor.
3. Slowly lower back down. Repeat as many times as you can. Try to add a few more crunches each day. Be sure to exhale as you curl up and inhale as you release back down.
TREADMILLS — Not for daydreamers
THESE can simulate everything from walking trails to running hills.
Non-motorized, manual treadmills operate by having the user walk on the rubberized surface, which powers the belt. If the exerciser slows down, the belt slows down.
On a motorized model, the belt continues at the same speed, forcing the exerciser to walk or run at that pace.
In other words, you challenge a manual treadmill, but a motorized treadmill challenges you.
In the past, treadmill-related injuries have been reported to the US CPSC. The injuries occurred because the user fell or someone caught his or her fingers in moving parts.
In the CU test however, none of the treadmills tested posed a significant hazard. But a moving treadmill belt can be hazardous to any exerciser who daydreams. If you own a treadmill, to ensure a safe workout, straddle the belt before you start it moving, and get on when it's moving very slowly.
Concentrate: If your eyes are constantly darting around the room, it's easy to become disoriented. And if you have young children, make sure your treadmill has roller ends which are covered.
If you're planning to buy one, a welded frame and deck construction is by far the most durable, since bolts and rivets will eventually rattle loose. Look for a panic button that will bring the treadmill to a rapid halt.
Along with side or front rails, stop buttons can make you feel safer and more at ease.
Natural ways to burn
SO do you really need a home exercise machine? Forget the claims made by scantily-clad hard-body exercise enthusiasts who promise thin thighs and bigger biceps to those who lay down their gold cards for the latest fitness fad, experts say.
"There is no one best kind of fitness machine," stresses exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, spokesman for ACE.You should also consider the risks posed by exercise machines too.
Research shows that if you exercise, you'll reduce your chances of dying prematurely; cut the risk of developing heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, or osteoporosis; and you'll be better able to control your weight and resist depression and anxiety.
But you don't need exercise machines to achieve these. Walking or running outside, or riding your bike, will save you money and can provide the same health benefits. Best of all, you get to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor scenery.
A total of 30 minutes of physical activity a day, on most days of the week, is good enough. You can rack up those minutes through everyday activities like walking to the bus-stop, doing some gardening or cleaning floors.
Here's a quick rundown of the various activities you can do and how many calories you can burn in the process :
Activity Calories per hour (for a 150-lb person)
Running, 8 mile per hour (mph) 920
Cycling, 13 mph 545
Jogging, 5mph 545
Walking, 4mph 330