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FITNESS

Whatever-- Just Do It

Run, row, pedal, climb or ski--when picking an exercise machine, the most important thing is to get a move on

January 12, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The holidays are behind us, but not before leaving six to eight extra pounds. (That's how much experts tell us the average person puts on during the seasonal eating.)

For most of us, it's go time--as in go-to-the-gym time.

Because everyone seems to be in a perpetual time crunch, the key question is: Which gym machine offers the best workout in the least amount of time?

The short answer, unfortunately, is none.

Some studies show--all things being equal--that treadmills burn the most calories, while others say stair-climbers. Still, other research gives high marks to rowers and ski machines as the best overall body workout--but even they don't burn calories as efficiently as some other machines.

But, fitness experts say, in the long run the differences among the most common aerobic machines at gyms--treadmills, stair-climbers, stationary bikes, skiers, and rowers--are negligible.

"The bottom line is that you enjoy what you do and do it regularly," said Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. "It's silly to try and do something that might burn 3% or 5% more calories if you don't like it and won't stick to it."

However, there's little debate that a regular exercise program greatly benefits mind and body. It helps control body fat, increases resistance to fatigue, decreases tension and improves mood.

An aerobic exercise program entails working out regularly--at least three times a week for 15 to 20 minutes. According to fitness industry experts, nearly half of those who work out regularly do so on home or health club cardiovascular equipment.

When it comes to sustaining a regular program, it's hard to beat the convenience of gym machines--once you get to the gym. No muggers, no bad weather, no excuses--just hop on and go. Machines have the added advantage of providing a low- or no-impact workout--an important consideration for aging enthusiasts and others coping with nagging sport injuries.

Of course, like most things mechanical, the mighty machines can also be unbearable bores. Luckily, most health clubs are equipped with all kinds of modern bells and whistles--TVs, music, reading trays--to keep our minds off the humdrum task at hand. Beyond that, fitness trainers recommend dividing up your workout between two machines to break the monotony.

What follows is a guide through the maze of gym machinery. The best advice is to try them all and decide for yourself. The rating is 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest.

TREADMILLS

Sweat factor: 4.5

Niagara Falls time. Bring a towel.

Shape-up factor: 4

Treadmills work primarily your leg muscles--quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Your hip flexors and glutes (gym slang for "rear end") get an excellent workout too. Minimal upper body workout.

Boredom factor: 4.5

Though boredom is often in the head of the beholder, treadmills are generally regarded as the most boring machine, especially on the lower settings. It's usually harder to read on a treadmill than other machines, and you're at the mercy of your club's sound and television systems.

Cheat factor: 4

While it might not be very thrilling, it is difficult to cheat on a treadmill. Depending on where you stand, you might be able to lean on the console, but even this requires a certain athleticism. Either you keep up with the workout or you fly off a la George "Jane, stop this crazy thing!" Jetson.

Tips and Tricks

Be careful after dismounting. Dizziness can occur. It's a form of mild seasickness, but this fades away after a couple of workouts. If you have injured knees or ankles and are determined to use a treadmill, don't run; instead, increase the grade and walk faster.

STAIR-CLIMBING MACHINES

Sweat factor: 4.5

Niagara Falls revisited. Keep that towel handy.

Shape-up factor: 4

Leg muscles get the best workout, but stair-climbers are famous for shaping glutes. Don't expect your upper body to get buff on a stair-climber.

Boredom factor: 3

Not exactly a thrill ride, but at least the up and down motion of step walking offers some variety over walking on a treadmill. Newer models of stair-climbers make it easy to read during exercise.

Cheat factor: 2

The great drawback: It's so easy to skirt a good workout by putting your entire upper body weight on the console. Another favorite cheating method is locking elbows, which also takes a goodly portion of body weight off the machine. An alternative to cheating is lowering the difficulty setting.

Tips and Tricks

Hold only the handrails to balance yourself, and take full strides, not baby ones, an approach favored by the elbow-lockers. The interval training setting provides an excellent workout, mixing a steady pace with short bursts of sprints.

BICYCLE MACHINES

(upright and incumbent)

Sweat factor: 3

Don't expect a geyser.

Shape-up factor: 3

Your legs will definitely feel the burn. A terrific lower-body workout.

Boredom factor: 3

A time when going around and around and around in circles really isn't so bad. One of the easier machines to read on.

Cheat factor: 3.5

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