A FEW YEARS ago--at the peak of the fitness boom--it seemed that almost everyone was "looking for Mr. Good Body," as one national magazine termed the trend of joining health clubs. The club replaced the singles bars as the after-work gathering place for young adults.
But lately, for some members, the allure of the health club has diminished. Some have decided that the social aspects of membership aren't worth the hassle of overcrowded parking lots and aerobics floors, or long waits for machines and showers. Others have simply gotten tired of the routine of darting from the office to the exercise floor. So many consumers are choosing to bring their workouts back home.
At-home training can be relatively inexpensive. For about $700--the cost of a one-year membership at some upscale spas--a consumer can outfit a personal gym with gear comparable to club equipment. Although consumer versions of Nautilus machines have long been among the most popular fixtures in home gyms, devices for aerobic exercise--treadmills, rowing machines and stationary bikes--are becoming more desirable. "Most people are now interested in machines that will provide cardiovascular conditioning," explains Douglas Brooks, a former associate professor of health sciences at the University of Michigan and now a full-time trainer based in West Los Angeles. "People have learned that you can't 'spot-reduce,' or lose inches from one part of the body by exercising only that part of the body. They know you have to burn calories with cardiovascular activity first and then tone muscles with calisthenics or weights. The aerobic workout has become the priority."
A stationary bike or rowing machine need not cost more than $350 to be effective, dependable and durable, Brooks says. But the fitness generation apparently is not scrimping on features.
Consider, for instance, the Liferower by Life Fitness, a $2,700 rowing machine with a video monitor that displays a challenge course while electronically controlling resistance and providing computerized performance feedback. Kevin Kroner, health and fitness buyer for the Sharper Image stores and catalogues, says more than 50 of the units sold in September.
When the same results can be achieved on a cheaper machine, why do people choose to indulge? "They're buying motivation and feedback. That's what keeps them interested. Otherwise, they get bored and stop using it," Kroner says.
The trend toward expensive equipment extends beyond rowers. Thanks to the surge in interest in walking for aerobic exercise, treadmills represent the fastest-growing category in the fitness-machine industry, says Dawn Munn, marketing manager of Precor USA, a manufacturer based in Bothell, Wash. "People want to be able to walk regardless of the weather," she says. Although some non-motorized treadmills are available for about $500, Munn expects that Precor's newest model, which provides electronic feedback of distance covered and walking speed, will be a best seller. Its price: $1,500. Treadmills in the $3,500 to $5,000 range report the number of calories burned during each workout.
Stair-climbing machines--around $300--which provide aerobic exercise and help tone the legs and buttocks, are now being sold for home use. Brooks cautions, however, that these machines should not be used more than two or three times a week to avoid undue stress on the kneecaps.
Stationary bicycles have been popular for decades with at-home exercisers. The newest are the recumbent or semi-recumbent versions, which allow the cyclist to recline or partially recline while pedaling. Manufacturers claim that the position puts less strain on the heart while providing a rigorous workout. The Life Fitness Lifecycle, which is ridden in the traditional position, is a computerized bike that offers nearly a million different pre-programmed rides, complete with simulated hills and valleys that are displayed on a computerized graph propped on the handlebars. It retails for more than $1,400.
"Consumers must understand that high-priced machines won't produce results that are different from what you get from cheaper versions," Brooks says. "It's the person who produces the results, not the equipment. But if all the extra gadgets and the comfort of the expensive models motivate someone to use it more, then maybe they're worth the price."
Hair and makeup: German / HMS Bookings; model: Monique Mannen / Vaughn Agency; equipment from the Sharper Image, Beverly Hills.