Shaping up in '08? Keep it Simple, Cheap
That's the take-away message from new reviews published in the February issue of Consumer Reports. In a survey of more than 10,000 subscribers to ConsumerReports.org who had used a gym in the last six months, community centers, YMCAs, yoga studios and even school and office gyms rated higher than many pricier chain clubs in terms of overall user satisfaction.
Aside from Life Time Fitness, which scored high in such areas as equipment, classes and locker rooms, other chains were criticized for crowds, poor cleanliness and low value.
And as for all those infomercial gadgets that promise miracle results in no time, don't buy it. Consumer Reports purchased 10 gadgets priced from $50 to $300 and put them to the challenge. Testers, three men and two women, worked out as their muscle activity and calorie burn were measured. Consumer Reports concluded that some of the gadgets may strengthen muscles, and one called the Urban Rebounder, a mini-trampoline that sells for $150, "can provide a nice cardiovascular workout." But overall, they're just not necessary and any weight loss is more likely due to restrictive diets than the fitness gadgets themselves, the magazine says.
"Any piece of equipment that motivates you to exercise could hold some value," says Jamie Kopf Hirsh, an associate editor at Consumer Reports. "But these tend to mimic exercises you could really do on your own with little or no equipment." One device, the Bun & Thigh Doer, which was recently discontinued but may be available at some retailers for $300, fell apart during testing. A resistance band came loose and smacked one tester on the leg.
Consumer Reports contacted each manufacturer, asking for evidence to support their claims. Two of eight products that make specific infomercial claims provided summaries of their data. But research for the Bean, an inflatable ab device that sells for $50, involved only one person. And just one of 11 people in a study for the AirClimber, a stair-stepping machine that sells for $140, burned the 950 calories per hour cited in the infomercial.
CR also reviewed 33 treadmills and elliptical machines ranging in price from $500 to $3,700 and found that the most expensive ones weren't necessarily the best. The CR "Best Buys," for instance, are the Vision Fitness and Epic View treadmills, both of which sell for $1,300, and the NordicTrack elliptical, $1,000.
The results show that people who are gung ho to get in shape in '08 don't necessarily need to shell out big bucks for gyms, fancy gadgets or home equipment, fitness experts say. "Ask what is it you enjoy and what goals are you setting for yourself and do they require a gym to be achieved or can you do them through rec centers or by simply being out and about," advises Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise.
The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, which represents fitness facilities across the country, didn't comment specifically on the health club ratings but says it recognizes that not all gyms are for everyone. "Just as people have a wide range of exercise needs, there are many different types of health clubs from which people can choose," president and CEO Joe Moore said in an e-mail to msnbc.com. "People should choose one that addresses their individual exercise needs as well as other practical concerns — such as time and transportation constraints, child care needs, and social support and interaction."
If you want to join a gym, Comana advises, visit the facility a few times that you would normally go to see how crowded it is and whether you like the equipment and atmosphere. As for infomercial gadgets, Comana says, "CR evaluated 10, but we know there are hundreds of [them] out there and most of them do not work." Many have cheap parts that break down, he says, and claims are overblown. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If not, these pieces would be in every gym." Comana does recommend "time-tested" fitness products for the home such as stability balls, medicine balls and exercise bands. If you need advice and can afford it, hire a personal trainer to come to your home for a few sessions, he says. Kathie Davis, executive director of the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, also says jump ropes, balance trainers and workout DVDs can be good, inexpensive investments for the home.
Keep it interesting
Of course, these fitness products aren't any good if they just collect dust, and gym memberships — even reasonably priced ones — are a waste if you never go. "Do your research and choose what will fit best into your lifestyle,” says Davis. A real key to long-term success is turning fitness into a positive experience, according to Davis. "I encourage people to find some things that they really enjoy doing," she says. Making fitness a social affair by partnering with a workout buddy can provide a double bonus, she says. "You have a commitment to somebody else, not just yourself, and it's more fun."
Over time, even fun activities can lose their luster, so mix things up. "Variety in your program is going to keep it much more interesting to you and prevent the boredom factor," Davis says.
And keep in mind that many activities — walking or jogging, playing basketball on a local court or hitting the playground with the kids, for instance — don't cost you much more than the price of a good pair of sneakers.