Take it away: why fitness machines turn into clothes hangers

Martin Mooradian meant to use his exercise machine. He really did. But you know how it goes.

"You need to stop what you're doing for the day, change your clothes and go," he says. "It's like getting ready for a social event."


"I don't have the time."


"It's boring."

So, the Johnston, R.I., man ended up using the giant contraption, which he bought used from a friend for $800, "maybe" once. This month, he put it up for sale, for $375.

"This is not the first time I've done something like this," Mooradian says, remembering a bench press he bought and never used. "Maybe it's just me."


Doug Belyea makes a living selling used exercise equipment on eBay.

"How many times have you gone to someone's house and seen a stairstepper or something like that in the corner?" he says.

"It's more of a towel rack than anything."

So, why are so many well-meaning people stuck with these ugly, hulking machines? The exercise scholars have the answer: people really want to exercise, but they're just not ... ready.

"Sometimes, people think that by buying the equipment, that's going to motivate them to exercise," says Prof. Deb Riebe, of the exercise science and physical education department at the University of Rhode Island. "They say, 'If I spend that money, of course I'm going to exercise.'"

Thinking vs. doing

"They're using the equipment as the commitment," adds her colleague, Prof. Bryan Blissmer.

That's sort of what happened to Jose L. Guerra of North Providence. He bought an expensive Bowflex system with every intention of getting fit. He used it for a month.

"I wasn't planning on wasting close to $1,300," he says. "I was planning to use it."

And he stopped using it because ... ?

"When I bought it, I didn't have the time to use it at all, and then I moved and it doesn't fit in my apartment," he says.

Is that all?

"I guess you could say I'm lazy," says Guerra.

The Bowflex is now sitting in his parents' basement "collecting a lot of dust." Guerra hopes to sell it for $800 or the best offer he gets.

Riebe would say Guerra, like many would-be exercisers, has a time- management problem.

Belyea says it's human nature.

"They're sitting on the couch and they see an ad [for exercise equipment]. . . . They're feeling fat, they're feeling old and they think it's a good idea. Then it shows up at the front door and they get tired just setting it up and they sit back on the couch and watch TV again.

"It's easy to think about working out. It's a lot of work doing it."

Belyea, who runs his business out of his home in Massachusetts, knows what he's talking about. He once bought a Bowflex, but never found the time to use it. So, he started selling them instead. He unloads about 300 secondhand Bowflex machines on eBay every year and supports his family with the profits.

He's so successful that he says he gets furtive phone calls from people trying to move in on his gig, which earns him about $950 for machines that originally cost about $2,000.

The best intentions

It's easy to say that people who spend more time selling than using their exercise equipment are lazy, but Blissmer says there's actually a psychological syndrome at work.

"People are at different levels of readiness to change or take action," Blissmer says.

He credits University of Rhode Island professor Jim Prochaska with conceiving a five-stage theory to explain those levels. It's called the transtheoretical model and it applies to any task:

Stage one. You're on the couch, thinking more about Cheez Doodles than exercising.

Stage two. It crosses your mind that exercise might just do your beer gut some good.

Stage three. You do some research on exercise, looking for something you could tolerate.

Stage four. You actually do the exercise.

Stage five. You're still doing it, and have been for longer than six months.

The problem, Blissmer explains, is that people buy equipment when they're only at stage two.

"They're committed to the idea," he says.

But ideas can be dangerous, especially when they come from TV, says personal trainer Doug Perron.

"Infomercials aren't selling the equipment," he says. "They're selling the idea of being fit, and they're doing an awfully good job of it. They're selling beauty."

And it's unlikely that the people happily exercising in the commercials got so buff using just the machines they're hawking, he adds.

Joe Mastrati, owner of Second Time Around Sports, in Cranston, R.I., has been selling used sports and exercise equipment for 12 years, and he's still amazed at the stuff that comes into his shop.

He's seen many a treadmill "with coat hanger marks on it" along with exercise systems with packing slips still enclosed. He once got a Bowflex that was still in the box.

"I don't think he felt like putting it together," Mastrati says of the original owner.

Not that he's judging -- Mastrati has a dormant elliptical trainer of his own at home.

Has he used it?

"I got on it" once or twice, he says.

Delayed gratification

There's a way to avoid getting stuck like this. But it involves something Americans aren't very good at: delayed gratification.

You have to resist the urge to dash out, credit card in sweaty palm, the day you decide to get in shape.

Maybe you could just join a health club for a month. That way, when it hits you that exercise can be hard and boring, you haven't blown thousands of dollars. And you've discovered which machines you'd never use at home.

"You might find out that you don't like running, but the elliptical machine feels pretty good," Blissmer says.

But say you're really ready to start exercising. You know what you want to do, and that you're ready to actually do it.

You start calling people who are selling used machines or you go to a store like Gym Source, in Warwick, where the machines can cost up to $7,000. It's a seductive place, with freshly dusted treadmills that smell of new plastic and rubber sort of an alternate version of the new car smell.

You know, as you fold your credit card receipt, that you're going to use your new machine for a long, long time.

Unless you stick it in the basement.

"The number-one reason why people don't use their home equipment is because it's in their basement," Perron, the personal trainer, says. "It's dusty, the laundry room is down there and a million other things and you're looking at them."

Distraction isn't the only problem with basements. There's also the out of sight, out of mind issue.

"Put the exercise equipment in rooms you're going to use," says Rena Wing, a psychiatry professor at Brown University.

But even that's not foolproof. Amy Shores, of Lincoln, moved her treadmill from the basement, where it was near a TV, to the bedroom. And that gave her a new excuse.

"It faced a wall, and I never used it," she says. "It was just too boring ... It has had clothes draped over it, I confess."

Still, some equipment is just too annoying to use, no matter where you put it.

"The worst thing is the stuff that folds up and goes underneath the bed," Mastrati says. "It's a whole new project to go underneath your bed, get it out, open it up."

Or there's the stuff that's supposed to be convenient, but adds work to the workout.

"You do one exercise and then you need to make adjustments before you do another one," Riebe says.

And some of the equipment just makes people crazy.

Wes Cotter, director of communications for the Gilbane Building Company in Providence, doesn't use his exercise bike very often because he has to constantly recharge its batteries.

"It's a pain in the neck," he says.

Staying the course

So, is there anything that inspires people to use their exercise equipment?

It turns out there is: a hired hand.

"People need proper guidance," personal trainer Perron says.

You could say Perron is the exercise muse for John Silva, of Pawtucket.

Perron set up a personal gym for Silva that includes a treadmill, weights and a Bowflex. It cost about $3,500, Silva says.

He uses it three times a week, and now sees Perron every other week for inspiration.

"If I didn't have Doug there continually changing my program, I probably wouldn't use it as often as I do," Silva says. "I know I'm going to see him twice a month. If I'm not fit, it's going to be painful."

Rhonda Kyle, the owner of Achieving Fitness in Lincoln, also makes sure her clients use their equipment. Her 12-week personal training program, which costs $299, includes regular phone calls, e- mails and visits from her.

"Accountability is everything," she says.

She recently spoke on the phone to a client who didn't want to use his treadmill.

He had all kinds of excuses for neglecting his indoor equipment, including the bad weather. By the end of the conversation, he was talking as he trudged.

"I usually stay on the line until I hear the machine going," Kyle says.

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