The machines are getting smarter.
A treadmill can track your heart rate and automatically turn up the intensity if you're not working hard enough. A stair-step machine catches cheaters who lean on the handrails in order to seem to weigh less. And today's stationary bicycle ratchets down its degree of difficulty to compensate for the out-of-shape.
Some of these features are familiar to people who frequent well-to-do health clubs. What's new is that consumers will now find such features on exercise equipment for the home.
Manufacturers, having established a reputation supplying health clubs, are rapidly expanding into the home fitness market. Irvine-based Unisen, which makes Star Trac equipment, one of the best-selling treadmills in the world, in January introduced an in-home treadmill and stair-step machine.
Tectrix Fitness Equipment, also based in Irvine, has been scaling down the size of its ClimbMax stair-stepper to fit easily into a den or bedroom. Life Fitness, maker of the 15-year-old Lifecycle, said that it will introduce nearly a dozen cycles and other workout machines for home use within the next year.
Home gyms are becoming more popular for several reasons. The population is aging, and health clubs are perceived as places for the young. Aging baby-boomers have grown up with the conviction that energy and stamina are gained by regular exercise. And the physically fit have grown accustomed to the commercial machines they use during gym visits.
"Six million folks are leaving health clubs each year," said Michael Blyth, executive vice president of marketing for Life Fitness. "That gives us an opportunity to capitalize on our name."
While a constant stream of new members keeps the health club population steady at about 16.5 million, he said, the number of home gyms has grown 34%, from 6.1 million to 8 million, in five years.
While "home gym" sounds elaborate, the setup can be as simple as a single machine that gives its user a cardiovascular workout--raising the heart rate to at least 60% of its maximum performance. Doctors recommend such exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes three times a week.
Shari Lewis bought a treadmill in January to encourage her husband to exercise more. The couple, who live in Corona del Mar, are in their 50s.
She bought the Star Trac 900, Unisen's first treadmill priced under $3,000 (it's $2,995), and placed it three feet from their bed, "in front of the TV." She said that got her husband's attention. "He can't ignore it this way," she said.
She added that she and her husband avoid health clubs. "There would be no way my husband would go before work or on his way home," Lewis said. Besides, she said, "people in the gym are all in their 20s--real buff or tall and thin."
Home gyms may well be the answer for some, but only those prepared to pay some money. One of the better, professional-quality machines can cost anywhere from $1,600 to $3,200. Buyers of a simple stationary bike can get away with spending less than $300, however, and some well-made treadmills sell for as little as $450 to $500.
While equipment manufacturers--and celebrity Jane Fonda, who is hawking a portable treadmill via infomercial--turn their eyes toward the in-home exercise market, there is a naysayer among the crowd.
Harvey Lauer, president of the influential research firm American Sports Data Inc., said that the upswing of the past five years is beginning to level off. "Home fitness has hit a bit of a plateau," said Lauer, whose company is based in Westchester, N.Y. "Some items are up; some are down."
Lauer sees treadmills and recumbent bicycles, on which riders do not sit erect, as the hot, new in-home equipment.
Unisen is with him on that prediction. The company leased a second warehouse this year to produce its treadmill and stair-stepper for home use. Opened in 1978 with three employees, Unisen now employs about 150 people and reports annual revenue of $35 million.
The company has made a name for itself among commercial customers. It ships to 55 countries and has sold four treadmills for use in one of the world's most posh hotels, the Regent in Hong Kong.
When it was redesigning its commercial machine for home use, Unisen altered the look and electronic capabilities. A focus group set the company straight, though, and the machines were eventually made to resemble the commercial version.
"We gave them the rhino gun, and they took it and shot us," said Jim McPartland, executive vice president. "They wanted the machines they saw in the (health) clubs. They got conditioned to those."
Tectrix is counting on its retail version of ClimbMax to find its way into homes. The company began selling a scaled-down version, for $2,095, in October, 1992.
Steven Russell, director of marketing for Tectrix, said that stair-step machines appeal to the younger end of the baby-boom generation--people in their 30s and 40s.