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October 06, 1991|THERESE IKNOIAN | Iknoian, a San Jose-based free-lance writer, is also an experienced fitness instructor who is working on a master's degree in exercise physiology. and

Even as we flop on the couch, the potato in all of us is grabbed by promises of quick and easy fitness advertised by hard bodies selling workout equipment on TV and in magazines.

"Better toning than 45 minutes of aerobics!"

"The intelligent sit-up!"

"Just five minutes, twice a day!"

"The world's best aerobic exerciser!"

The claims are hard to ignore. They make fitness sound so painless, so enjoyable, so simple. All you need is that one piece of equipment--a ski simulator or rubber bands, a pulley or a plastic seat. So you dial those operators-standing-by and place your order, hoping that this one gizmo will do away with your flab.

And with that, you've added to the rising sales of home-exercise gadgets. In 1989, the American public spent $1.73 billion on fitness equipment, according to the most recent figures by the National Sporting Goods Assn. That's 19% more than was spent in 1988, and that figure is most certainly low because those numbers include mostly high-ticket items rather than low-tech equipment.

How effective and safe are the devices that grab our attention on late-night commercials? Can you, too, look like those gorgeous hunks advertising the Soloflex weight machine? Is the Abdomenizer really a cure for the spare tire around your middle? Will NordicTrack make your stomach shrink from pouch to pancake as the pictures show?

We've taken a look at eight kinds of home exercise equipment commonly advertised on TV or in magazines. With the help of a few personal trainers, strength-training experts and exercise physiologists (see end of story), we've analyzed the devices for effectiveness, safety, construction and ease of set-up and use. We also added a few tips or warnings where needed.

No matter what you buy to help you reach your fitness and health goals, remember this: The equipment won't exercise for you, especially if it's tucked behind the couch or in a closet. You need to be diligent about scheduling a time and a place to exercise, following your plan and keeping a log of your workouts. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that you exercise your cardiovascular system at least 20 minutes, three days a week and that you work your muscles at least twice a week, each time doing a minimum of eight to 10 exercises involving major muscle groups such as the back or chest.

Here are our evaluations of the advertised devices:

ABDOMENIZER and SIT 'N TONE--The theory behind these molded plastic seats is a good one. They're designed to protect your lower back by keeping it pressed down on the plastic as you do sit-ups, and to keep you from rocking or doing full sit-ups. But they won't make the exercise any easier and they won't magically "firm both upper and lower abdominals," as the box claims. If owning a piece of plastic will help give you the discipline to do daily abdominal exercises, then buy it. Otherwise, follow these directions for a safe, simple curl: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor, then curl your shoulders and upper back off the ground, while pressing your lower back into the ground with your abdominals. Release slowly back to the ground, then repeat. Support your head with your hands, and don't let your lower back leave the ground. This version will save you the $20 cost of the seat.

STOMACH ELIMINATOR and GUTBUSTER--These gizmos are foot-long springs with toeholds on one end and a handle on the other. To exercise you sit on the floor with your feet attached to the device, then lean backward against the tension. The device basically pulls you back to your starting position, and that is exactly the problem, says Wayne Westcott, strength-training consultant for the national YMCA: You are working as you pull backward, therefore straining your back, not busting your gut. Contrary to their names, they do nothing for your stomach--certainly don't eliminate it--and may be hard on your lower back. In addition, springs on some of the tension devices have been known to snap into the faces of users. At $10 to $20, don't bother.

FIGURE TRIMMER, WAIST BURNER and EXERTONER--This gimmick has been around for years, and its claims to "melt fat away" and "trim inches from your waistline" are among the most overblown of all such boasts. Made of two ropes or cables attached to pulleys, this piece of equipment hooks onto a doorknob. You lie on your back, put your feet through loops at one end of each rope and your hands through the other end, then alternately raise and lower your legs and arms. You end up looking like a dying cockroach flailing on its back. You aren't using your abdominals; you are adding undue stress to your lower back and, if you aren't breathing harder (which you probably aren't), you aren't burning excess calories. According to exercise physiologists, it is impossible to "spot reduce." To burn extra calories, you have to raise your heart rate and keep it raised for 20 to 30 minutes. Wiggling on the floor won't do it, so why spend $10 to $20 to look like a dead bug?

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