Home fitness machines can be a convenient way of integrating exercise into your life, without the expense of gym membership or the self-consciousness of working out in front of others.
We asked readers who own exercise bikes, treadmills and elliptical trainers about their experiences with equipment designed for home use, including what makes for a good or bad purchase decision. With your help, plus information from our overseas counterparts who've tested this equipment, we've put together some tips on what to consider when buying home fitness equipment.
Why go out to work out?
Many readers in our survey pointed out you can exercise for free – cycling, walking, swimming – and saw little point in buying exercise equipment. Or you could go to a gym where there's more variety and better equipment, as well as company.
But others suggested many good reasons for using home exercise equipment, including:
- parents with small children able to work out at home when the kids are in bed
- difficulty of fitting in a visit to the gym (or no gym nearby)
- being able to exercise in private
- living in a neighbourhood where it's unsafe to go out to exercise after dark, or with no proper footpaths
- the convenience of getting straight out of bed, onto the treadmill and into the shower before breakfast
- combining exercise with watching TV or reading time
- being able to exercise any time in any weather
Exercise machine hire
If you're not sure which, if any, home exercise equipment is right for you, you could try hiring first. In fact you might prefer not to buy at all. Simply hire a series of different types of machine over time so you don't get bored. There are plenty of hire companies out there.
Hire prices range from around $100 to $200 per month for a treadmill, depending on the features and maximum speed. Bikes and elliptical trainers are more like $80–$120, with prices as low as $50 for basic bikes.
If there's only one of you using it, that may be more expensive than the average gym membership, but you'll get a much better idea of what it's like exercising in your own home (the good and the bad). It gets cheaper if you hire for a longer term, and many companies will let you deduct some or all of the rental money you've paid if you decide to buy the machine.
Plenty of people realise they've made a mistake buying exercise equipment if they're not getting much use out of it, or it's just too big for their home. The Trading Post, eBay and other second-hand markets are a good place to look if you're considering buying a used machine. If you look around at new models first to find out what features you want – and perhaps even which model – you may find exactly what you're after second-hand, for less money. Check it out for faults, wobbles and rattles before you buy though.
How often will you use a home exercise machine?
In our survey, people who'd bought exercise equipment in the previous 12 months were typically using it three to four times a week. However, use tended to drop off over the years and by the five-year mark about half of our respondents who'd bought treadmills and three-quarters who'd bought exercise bikes were no longer using them.
Most people were satisfied with the machines they'd bought, especially those who'd bought treadmills (87% were satisfied, compared with 77% of people with exercise bikes or elliptical trainers). Not surprisingly, the more satisfied people were, the more likely they were to still be regularly using the machine.
The main complaints or reasons for giving up using home exercise equipment were:
- boredom or loss of motivation
- not being able to watch TV as planned, because the machine was too noisy
- taking up too much space
- niggling faults with the machine, or breakdowns
- poorer quality machines than those you find at the gym
Treadmills are the most popular home exercise machine. A treadmill is a continuous moving belt, usually powered by a motor, which you run or walk on. You can adjust the intensity of the workout by altering the speed or the incline. Various surveys – including our own – have shown that compared with other equipment, they're more likely to be used regularly and for a longer time.
They're easy to use, versatile – in that they can be used by people of varying levels of fitness – and can be combined with hand weights for an arm workout. Because you're doing weight-bearing exercise, it can help prevent osteoporosis too.
They're relatively expensive, and lower-priced models may not be very well-constructed or suitable for running. Non-folding models take up a lot of space.
"Good variety of programs, which makes it less boring. Easy to use and not hard on my joints. Convenient to have at home and I can exercise in any weather."
"Too noisy, takes up too much space, no automatic gradient [incline] control."
What to look for
- While horsepower isn't the be-all and end-all of treadmill performance, it's often recommended you look for one with at least 2.0hp continuous-duty (not peak) power.
- Belt width of at least 45cm, especially if you plan to jog or run. There should also be enough room on the side panels (either side of the belt) for you to easily stand on them and perhaps quickly jump onto them if you suddenly feel out of control.
- As for length, the faster you run, the longer your stride. Make sure it's long enough to accommodate the stride of all users at their top speeds.
- A motorised or power incline is most convenient as you can adjust the incline while exercising. Manual incline means you have to set it before you start or stop, get off and adjust it in the middle of the workout.
- A 10% maximum incline is quite common, but for more serious hill work look for 12% or 15%. If you're very unfit, note that some cheaper models won't decline completely flat.
- Speed adjustment look for keypad controls, including up/down buttons, rather than a slide switch. Instant speed keys allow you to quickly change the speed to preset levels, and are useful if you want to chop and change speeds (interval training) or want a brief slowdown while you have a drink of water or take a phone call.
- Check the maximum speed. For walkers and slow joggers a machine that goes up to 10 or 12km/h may suffice. More serious joggers and runners should get one up to 16km/h, or even 20km/h.
- A safety key plugs into the console with the other end clipped to your clothing. The machine won't operate unless it's plugged in, so if you fall or can't keep up, the key pulls out of the console and the belt stops. If you have small children, you can hide the key so they can't start the machine.
- For more information on buying a treadmill, read our Treadmill buying guide.
Cross-trainers (or elliptical machines)
Elliptical trainers are like a cross between a stair climber, ski machine, treadmill and a cycle, where you step on large platform-like pedals, and moving handles provide an upper-body workout.
Because your weight is partly supported, the main advantages are a low-impact workout, so there's less stress on your joints, and a good workout for less perceived exertion.
Lower-priced models may not be well-constructed and have a jerky up-and-down motion rather than a loping run. It might take a while to get the hang of the action. And unless they fold somehow, they take up a lot of space.
"I love the leg workout I get with the elliptical movement. It also gives my arms a good workout. I had to quit running after 13 years and this is a terrific substitute."
"It took up too much space to put it in an interesting place to use, and it was difficult to move around, especially through doorways."
What to look for
- Check the height of your ceilings tall users may hit their heads on low ceilings.
- Fixed and moving handles. Make sure the moving handles don't hit you in the arms if you're holding the fixed ones.
- Wide pedals with safety rims on both sides are generally safer and more comfortable.
- The stride length should be long enough for all users some are too short for many people.
- The action and 'feel' can vary from model to model, so try out different ones before you buy.
- If you're likely to need to move it around, check it can be moved (wheels help) and can fit through doorways.
- If space is an issue, see if you can get one that folds or can at least be moved out of the way.
- For more information on buying an elliptical cross-trainer, read our Cross-trainer buying guide.
Exercise bikes provide a good cardiovascular workout as well as lower-body conditioning. You can get the traditional upright bike, or a recumbent cycle (you lie back in it) that's lower to the ground, with pedals out in front rather than straight down.
Exercise bikes are good for unfit or overweight people as they're weight-supporting. Recumbent cycles have a bucket seat with back rest, giving even more support and putting less strain on back and knees (and making it easier to read while you cycle). Some even have arm rests.
Can be quite dull, especially cheaper models with fewer bells and whistles to entertain you, and may become uncomfortable after a while. Recumbent bikes can take up a lot of space.
"My bike has a lovely smooth, quiet operation and I enjoy setting myself distance goals and achieving them. I'm so motivated when I finish my ride, I usually throw in a few stomach crunches as well!"
"The bike was great and I lost weight initially and firmed up my legs. But I stopped using it because my husband complained about the noise it made, and the seat was extremely uncomfortable after half an hour of pedalling."
What to look for
- Quite a few survey respondents complained the seat was uncomfortable, especially after 20 minutes or so. You could try replacing the seat, or buying a gel seat cover from a bike shop.
- If more than one household member is using it, check you can easily adjust the seat height (or the distance of the seat from the pedals for recumbent bikes).
- Magnetic resistance (to make cycling easier or harder) was considered quieter and smoother than air resistance or a tension band or belt.
- If necessary, check the bike can be easily moved from place to place – look for wheels on the base, especially if it's a heavy model, and check it can fit through doorways.
- Straps on the pedals help keep your feet in place and assist on the 'up' pedal.
- Some machines have a maximum weight limit for users, so check this if you're overweight.
Other things to consider
Get a machine with a good warranty, or if possible an extended warranty. Quite a few people in our survey experienced breakdowns or even minor niggles that reduced their enjoyment and use of the machine. Although many of the problems could be fixed under warranty, the waiting time and hassle involved were still inconvenient.
Try it out
There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between models, so try the machine in the shop for around 10 minutes (wear suitable clothes and shoes when you shop). Test it out at different speeds to get a feel for the sturdiness of the machine; check for shakes and wobbles, creaks, rattles and overall noise; and try out the controls and see how easy they are to operate.
If more than one person will be using the machine, you should all try it, particularly for bikes and elliptical trainers where stature can affect comfort and usability. All this of course means don't buy an exercise bike on a whim when watching late-night TV. If you wake in the morning still thinking it's a good idea, get out and shop around.
A non-folding treadmill, rower or elliptical trainer can take up as much floor space as a sofa. A folding treadmill will save you some space, and if it's easily moved out of the way when folded, so much the better. On the other hand, if it's out of sight, will it also be out of mind and sit unused in a cupboard?
Feedback about speed, distance travelled, time, intensity/wattage, RPM and calories/kilojoules expended can be useful and provide incentive and motivation. Some machines record the information so you can monitor your progress over time, or you could use a notepad and pen. Note that calorie counters are only a guide, because people of the same age, gender and weight can still have different metabolisms.
Some home exercise machines don't account for differences in workout intensity, so a slow, easy bike ride for 20 minutes appears to burn the same calories as a hard, fast 20-minute ride. When you're testing machines in-store, try altering the resistance and/or speed and see if the calorie count changes too.
Heart rate monitors
A built in heart rate monitor will help you gauge improvements in fitness and therefore help with motivation. Some machines can even automatically vary resistance or speed and therefore your workout intensity according to your heart rate. Chest-strap monitors are considered more accurate (and less fiddly) than thumb or hand-grip monitors.
The maximum speed on a treadmill or resistance on an elliptical trainer or exercise bike should be high enough to still give you a hard workout as you get fitter. This can be hard to judge at the start, when even the easiest level is a challenge. But rest assured, stick with it and you'll quickly improve. Take a fit friend shopping with you to test the upper limits, if necessary.
When our overseas counterparts have tested treadmills, bikes, elliptical trainers and rowers, they've almost always found that quality comes at a price. Of course there are exceptions, with a few relative bargains among the top performers, and some expensive duds. But generally speaking, machines at the top end of the market are better built, sturdier (cheap models can feel flimsy and wobbly), have better durability and fewer faults, offer better features, are less boring and perform more like commercial gym equipment.
Some features are useful, but some are gimmicky or turn out to be less useful than you might think. A variety of programs will help vary your workout and keep you interested. A drink holder is a good idea, a caddy for a TV remote or phone might be useful and a rack for hand weights might be appropriate. As for a book rack, some of our respondents thought they were great, others found it difficult to read and exercise at the same time. An inbuilt fan, TV and console backlighting will add to the price, but perhaps not to the functionality. An online support service or 'club' with downloadable programs, races against other users and rewards for milestones can help add and sustain interest.
Learn how to use it properly
If you've never been taught how to use the equipment properly, you increase your risk of injury and may not get the maximum benefit from exercising. If you used exercise equipment in a good gym, you'd normally be taught how to use it correctly. If you're not confident, consider hiring a personal trainer to teach you how to use it and establish a program for you; a one-off expense that could prove worthwhile.
If you have a short term goal, such as weight loss or 'getting fit', your needs will probably be different from someone with a longer term goal, such as 'I need to integrate more exercise into my overall lifestyle'. Equipment for short-term goals could be cheaper and less sturdy, while for longer-term goals you'd benefit from a better-quality machine with a lower boredom factor.