The Physician and Sportsmedicine
Menubar Home Journal Personal Health Resource Center CME Advertiser Services About Us


Choosing and Using Exercise Equipment

Bryant Stamford, PhD


Home exercise equipment is a huge industry, and the buyer's choices are vast. If you are among those searching for the right piece of equipment, consider some of the pointers below.

Making a Good Buy

Before you buy, ask yourself:

Will I use the equipment regularly? Perhaps the most critical issue is your commitment. Be prepared for buyer letdown.

Will the piece help me meet my goals? Disregard false claims, like those that say abdominal exercise machines melt flab from your waistline. Also, be wary of hype regarding calorie burning. A reasonably fit person can burn about 400 to 600 calories per hour in rhythmic exercise that involves major muscle groups (especially the legs).

Is the equipment well made? It's hard to tell from just looking. Wear your workout gear to the store and put the machine through its paces. It should feel solid and durable.

Is it comfortable? A machine can be well made but still feel awkward. During your in-store workout, pay attention to how your lower back, joints, and muscles feel. A seat should stay comfortable during a long exercise session. Bars or pull-handles should be padded and feel comfortable, even after many minutes. Also, note things like noise level and ease of using the controls.

What type is best? Test each type of exercise device and choose the one that feels best. Some equipment works both the arms and legs, which burns more calories but may not feel right to you. Walking on a treadmill can be just as good if you add a few dumbbell exercises.

Do I have room for it? Having to store the equipment, or worse, having to disassemble it, will be a deterrent. Also, exercise equipment can be noisy and bother people nearby.

What's the best deal? Expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars or be disappointed. Nonmotorized treadmills, for example, are inexpensive but may be clunky to use. But spending several thousand dollars is not necessary. Some machines cost more because they measure heart rate, calories burned, time elapsed, etc. These are nice features, but not absolutely necessary for most people. Programmable machines that can automatically adjust the workload may not be worth the price, since manual controls, if accessible, work just as well.

Here's the scoop on each piece:


Why buy? You can walk, jog, or run on a treadmill. Walking stresses the joints least, but jogging and running will burn more calories per minute.

Choosing it. The treadmill surface can be hard. If you plan to run or jog, investing in a surface with more give is worth it. Other pointers:

  • An inclined, motorized track is an important option because walking briskly uphill can provide the same intensity as jogging. A 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-horsepower motor is best.
  • If you plan to walk only, you can get by with a narrower and shorter treadmill belt, but it should still be at least 5 feet long.
  • Make sure the handrails can support your weight should you lose your balance.
  • Some treadmills come with resistance levers for upper-body exercise. But they may feel awkward during a long workout.

Using it. Holding the handrails reduces the workout intensity. Once you have mastered the technique, keep your hands off the rails whenever possible. When walking or running on a slant, maintaining good posture with only a slight bend at the waist is best for your back.

Stationary Bike

Why buy? Exercise bikes provide fairly intense workouts with little stress to the knees. They also tend to be relatively inexpensive.

Choosing it. Bikes that have electronic brakes adjust pedal resistance automatically to keep the workload constant as pedaling speed changes. With mechanical brakes, the work rate increases as pedaling speed increases. Thus, you can make the workout harder by either adjusting a resistance knob or pedaling faster.

For a mechanically braked bike, make sure you can easily adjust resistance with just the twist of a knob. Avoid bikes that add resistance with rubber pincers that grip the wheel, because the result is often a jerky ride. Look instead for bikes that use either a friction belt or wind resistance. Other considerations:

  • A recumbent (reclining) design reduces strain on the low back.
  • Some models offer arm cranking. Arm-plus-leg exercise burns more calories and causes less fatigue per calorie burned.
  • Racing handle bars, which require bending forward quite a bit, may feel uncomfortable for casual bikers.

Using it. For highest efficiency:

  • Position handlebars comfortably.
  • Set the seat height so that your knee is bent only slightly with the pedal at its lowest point.
  • Use pedal clips, which allow your legs to pull as well as push the pedals.

Rowing Machine

Why buy? Although rowing may appear to work mostly the upper body, a proper rowing stroke gets 75% of its force from the legs. Rowing, though, is often perceived as the most boring of indoor exercises—perhaps because it requires an unfamiliar movement, or because it's difficult to row and watch TV or read. Whatever the reason, consider this concern before you buy.

Choosing it. There are two basic types of nonelectric rowers: hydraulic and wind resistance. The latter offers a more natural feel, as do electric rowers. Choose a rower with a seat that moves back and forth freely, and that has uniform resistance throughout the rowing motion.

Using it. Sit upright to avoid back strain, and don't overarch your back as you complete each stroke. Keep your elbows close to your body when pulling.

Cross-Country Ski Machine

Why buy? The cross-country skiing action engages the upper- and lower-body muscles more vigorously than any other exercise machine. This generally means more calories burned per minute, especially when the front of the machine is raised to mimic uphill skiing. Also, impact forces to the body are low.

Choosing it. Buy a skier that allows separate adjustments for upper- and lower-body resistance.

Using it. Learning to coordinate movements takes time, but most people should be able to master the technique.

Stair-Climbing Machine

Why buy? You can get an intense workout without exposing your legs to severe impact forces.

Choosing it. Some models have linked pedals in which pressing down on one forces the other one up. Unlinked models provide a more natural rhythm.

Using it. Stepping height ranges from about 2 to 18 inches. Keep the pedals in the midrange without touching the floor. Other tips:

  • Stand upright for back-friendly climbing, and keep your knees over your feet.
  • Keep your feet flat on the pedals to reduce stress on your Achilles tendon at the back of your ankle and heel.
  • Hold the handrails lightly for balance to get the best workout.

Exercise Rider

Why buy? This hybrid provides a combination of rowing and leg pressing movements, offering a workout for the whole body. The average person should get a good workout on the rider, but highly fit people probably won't get a high-intensity ride. Also, like the rower, the exercise rider can be boring.

Using it. To avoid knee stress, don't bend your knees more than 90° at the bottom phase of the motion. And when pulling, straighten to an erect position. Avoid arching your back.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Stamford is director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He is also an editorial board member of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.