How to Buy Exercise Equipment You'll Actually Use

So you've decided that exercising at home is the way to go, and that you're ready to splurge on a piece of exercise equipment.

But which one?

We sought advice from four personal trainers and two fitness equipment stores to help you decide what's right for you.

What to Get

Home exercise equipment generally falls into two categories:

1. Treadmills, stationary bicycles and elliptical trainers work your cardiovascular system, strengthening your heart and increasing your endurance.

2. Multi-function home gyms and free weights increase your strength, decreasing fat and building muscle.

Several of our experts recommended cardiovascular equipment as the place to start.

Lisa Ragsdale, co-owner of Home Fitness Exercise Equipment, and John Pryor of Health Strategies favor a treadmill.

"Everybody likes to walk, and the biggest majority of the population can walk," Pryor said.

And "it's easy to learn how to use a treadmill," Ragsdale said. "The treadmill is probably the most versatile piece we carry, and also for women it's probably best because it's load-bearing," so it helps preserve strong bones.

She likes it over elliptical trainers or stationary bikes because a treadmill won't let you slow down unconsciously, as you may do with the others when you begin to tire.

Brandon Bally, store manager for Mid-States Fitness Equipment, recommends a treadmill or elliptical trainer, both of which are easy on the body and effective at keeping heart rates up.

Brenda Devaney of Genesis Health Club took a different approach: "Buy one that you know you'll use," she said. "The bike is as good as the treadmill is as good as the elliptical trainer. It's just whether you actually get on it."

Eric Wilson of Fit Physique picks a Bowflex because it offers strength as well as cardiovascular possibilities. Ray Preszler of Fitness 2000 also suggests multipurpose equipment, such as a NordicTrack ski machine that provides a total body workout.

Devaney, Pryor and Bally suggest having some dumbbells to go along with cardiovascular equipment, so that you can do strength training as well. Morning television shows or videos often provide how-to advice on using weights, Devaney said.

What to Look For

You get what you pay for, the experts said.

Before you buy, try out several brands of a treadmill or elliptical trainer or whatever you decide on. You'll notice differences in how smoothly the machine works, how loud the motor is, how solid the equipment feels.

Shake a machine, bounce on it and play with the features, even if you draw strange looks from other shoppers. If you're shopping with your spouse, and you have to yell at each other to be heard while the equipment is being used, is that a selling point or a drawback?

We'll not recommend one brand over another. All we'll suggest is that you choose a piece of equipment on which you feel comfortable while you're using it.

Bally, of Mid-States Fitness Equipment, said the differences among brands of equipment are like the differences among cars: A Lexus won't feel the same as a Geo.

Within a brand, the differences between the top of the line and the bottom will have more to do with motor sizes, warranty terms and length, treadmill width and "bells and whistles."

More expensive equipment, for example, is more likely to have heart rate controls that will speed or slow the machine to keep you within your training zone.

And check on service: Who will you have to call to fix it if something goes wrong?

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