January normally calls for a new exercise programme, but can it be done at home? Our panel puts keep-fit videos to the test
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The Independent Culture
It's A familiar feeling: you hurry home from work to pick up your kit and head for the gym. You put the kettle on for a quick cup of tea and, before you know it, you're slumped in front of the TV. Exercise videos are made for these moments. In theory, they allow those of us who are sadly out of condition to shape up in privacy; to practise fancy steps which might leave us behind in a live class and to exercise at any hour of the day or night for a minimal outlay. In practice, they can rapidly grow dull and their on-screen health warnings are not merely for the frail and elderly - without the supervision of a teacher, there is a danger of damaging the body by repeating exercises in the wrong way.

We looked for videos covering a wide spectrum of exercises which would inspire viewers to participate and to re-play the video on at least half a dozen occasions. Our panel of testers ranged from Lycra-owning aerobics babes Charlotte Morey and Katy Brown (in their 20s) through well-intentioned Anna MacLellan, to a more mature section fighting a rearguard action against middle-aged decay - Anna Nicholas, Alan Stewart and myself. We asked personal trainer Mat Roberts of Mayfair to assess whether each exercise programme would eventually deliver results, as well as entertainment value, ability to inspire many re-plays and to motivate the viewer to do the exercises.


IMC, pounds 10.99

All the testers were outraged by this video, which features ex-Gladiator Diane Youdale in the first half ("Body") only to the extent that she excuses herself from exercise due to an injury. "Why not postpone production?" Anna MacLellan wanted to know, adding, "The only redeeming factor is that all the chaps who went out and bought it this Christmas hoping to see a semi-naked Jet jumping up and down will have been sorely disappointed." In the second half ("Soul") Youdale - a qualified counsellor - finds the strength to sit in an armchair and deliver a dreary, patronising talk on how to be happy. Of the first half, Mat Roberts said, "A terrible aerobics class that would take a room at least 20ft wide to perform - possibly the most boring video I have ever seen." Of the second half, Katy Brown reported "If it hadn't been for the exercise class it would now be in our compost heap."


VCI, pounds 10.99

"Why do soap actors do this?" was Mat Roberts' response to Coronation Street star Beverley Callard's (Liz McDonald) exercise debut. "This is naff basic aerobics." Other panellists were equally sceptical about "Rapid Results", but had to admit that, despite the "Northern, bland, bubbly" presentation, dated Eighties pop music and dull studio set, this is an energetic and easy to follow class. "It was a bit tacky but good fun," said Charlotte Morey. Other panellists approved of before and after footage of "real people" who had taken the class. Anna MacLellan did not: "Let's face it, we don't want to look normal after 10 months of intensive training, we want to look like supermodels."


Polygram, pounds 10.99

For panellists under the misapprehension that BLT is a sandwich filling, this new video from the old pro seemed no better or worse than any mainstream aerobic exercise tape here. The open-air settings in Tobago (nice location work if you can get it) pleased Anna Nicholas, although she, like the rest of us, tutted over the multi-coloured Lycra worn by Mr M and "friends". Mat Roberts and the gym-goers wondered how much more mileage there could be in "the same old boring exercise routine that this guy has pedalled for years" and tried to decide whether the fact that the class is led not by Mr Motivator but by "some terrible, unprofessional others", was annoying or "a form of respite".


Astrion, pounds 13.99

Deeply trendy and not without substance, according to Mat Roberts, facial exercises can help to tighten sagging jowls, baggy eyes and other signs of ageing. This hour long video of facial exercises, designed and narrated, although not demonstrated by the still beautiful, ex-Page Three model, aims to teach exercise routines for different areas of the face. Anna Nicholas suggested "How to look like a complete halfwit!" as the subtitle, while endless "goldfish impressions" produced by Johnson's hapless assistants caused Katy Brown to award points for entertainment. Other panellists were cynical, wondering if genetic influences might account for Ms Johnson's youthful appearance.


Warners, pounds 10.99

Stunning photography in the White Sands desert, a "clan of Adonises" and soothing, Eastern-influenced music all put this yoga video in a class of its own and helped to make it our winner. Its crowning glory is Ms McGraw, whose inspirational physique ("I want to look like her when I grow up" said Anna MacLellan) and modest acknowledgement of her strictly amateur status, whilst performing the yoga postures brilliantly, endeared her to the panel. More importantly, perhaps, the yoga ranges from the simplest exercises to very difficult, leaving testers "relaxed, stretched and calm", but keen to improve by watching again. Mat Roberts said that "yoga is notoriously difficult to teach on video, but this is well narrated and instructed [by a yoga master] as well as being enjoyable."


VCI, pounds 10.99

As well known for her Hip and Thigh Diet as her series of exercise videos, Rosemary Conley exudes a professionalism and intelligence which earned her respect among panellists. This latest programme, divided into separate mini-workouts for different parts of the body, was thought "mumsy, nice, cosy and safe" as well as "clear and comprehensive" (Alan Stewart). He also wondered "who chooses the settings for these videos? This one looked like the inside of a Roman villa gone wrong." Mat Roberts was sceptical about "its claimed aerobic effect, as the intensity is low" - an assessment thought by other testers when they assumed the video's market was "women of a certain age".


VMA International, pounds 12.99

With better credentials to promote harmony between the "spirit and a fit and healthy body" than most exercise programmes, this sincerely meant, if soporific video describes, in monologue, the life's work of septuagenarian Gerda Geddes, a revered teacher of contemporary dance in London and master of t'ai chi. Too bad that the testers (all keen to learn something of the martial art) were left feeling bewildered and, alas, bored by the lack of basic instruction. "The start is slow, the sound quality is poor and the exercises are never clearly explained," said Anna MacLellan, summarising many similar complaints. Mat Roberts thought the poor production and disjointed presentation a shame, "because t'ai chi is beneficial in many ways as an aid to both relaxation and circulation." "It seems more relevant to people looking for stress relief than no-nonsense exercise," said Alan Stewart, adding helpfully, "But it might be good if combined with the Kama Sutra."


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