TRIED & TESTED / The leaner machines: All manner of devices promise fitness to those who exercise assiduously at home. Our panel put seven of them through their paces

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THE latest thing to be talked about in the world of physical training is the virtual reality exercise machine. It gives people the illusion, for a price, that they're out running in the park with their personal trainer or cycling with a pacemaker - but without ever having to venture outdoors. An absurdity, perhaps, but machines for those who want the convenience of being able to exercise in their own home whenever they fancy, and whatever the weather, are becoming more sophisticated.

To try out the equipment, we went to the fitness floor at Lillywhite's - a sports store in central London. Which machine you choose depends on what type of fitness you want to build up. Is the main priority aerobic exercise (to raise the pulse rate and keep the heart healthy), or toning and trimming muscles to get into better shape?

Many machines try to keep up the user's motivation with display screens showing how many calories they are burning up, or how many miles they have covered. More expensive models than the ones we tested - though most in our survey were far from cheap - have built-in computers. These can be programmed with factors such as age, weight and activity level and will change the resistance level at intervals sothat at times you have the impression of, for example, riding on your bike up and down a hill. On a more mundane level, make sure before buying that there is room at home to keep these large-scale pieces of gadgetry.


Anne O'Dowd, fitness consultant with the National Register of Personal Trainers in London; Michael Dalton, singer in The Rocky Horror Show (and a client of Anne O'Dowd); Ian Mahoney, director of Cannons Sports Clubs, also in London.


The panel gave the machines marks for how durable they were; how well they could keep up people's interest; how effective they were at raising aerobic fitness and at toning muscles; value for money; and safety. Ultimately, they were considering which they would buy for their own use if they could have just one.


pounds 699

The machine works the upper body as well as the legs, and is one of the most effective for aerobic exercise as well as muscle toning. It could take a bit of time to get used to the cross-country skiing action, which needs balance and co-ordination. 'Great exercise for cardiovascular development and will also help to tone legs and arms,' said Ian Mahoney. Anne O'Dowd commented: 'Not for the beginner; more suitable for intermediate or advanced levels.' The machine is almost 6ft long and 6ft high, though not as wide as some other types of machine. The gradient at which you 'ski' can be made steeper and the resistance level higher.


pounds 799

This, like the ski machine above, got top marks for both aerobic exercise and muscle toning and was our overall winner. 'Good cardiovascular exercise and also excellent for toning the legs, back, arms and shoulders,' said Anne O'Dowd. A display screen provides information such as how many strokes the rower is doing per minute, and emits a rhythmic bleep, like an electronic cox. Ian Mahoney liked this: 'Plenty of information on display to maintain interest. Smooth rowing action similar to the real thing. The seat is hard, which may put people off long periods of exercise.' Although the equipment is about 6 1/2 ft long, it folds up neatly.


pounds 399

The bike gives you a good workout, although not as effective as the ski machine or rower. Even at its hardest setting, this bike would not tax a seasoned exerciser and the panel thought it would be most suitable for a beginner. A display indicates the time and distance that you have 'cycled', the user's pulse rate, and the calories used. 'This makes the machine more challenging to use and gives a target to aim for,' said Anne O'Dowd. The testers were agreed, however, that the particular type of pulse monitor on this bike (which clips to the ear), tends to be inaccurate. It might be better to buy a Polar heart monitor which is strapped to the chest instead (although at about pounds 80, they don't come cheap). The bike has a magnetic braking system, which gives it a smoother ride.


pounds 75

This is a sloping board on which you lie to do sit-ups to flatten abdominal muscles. Our panel gave a clear recommendation to avoid it, especially beginners. They felt it would be much safer to do sit-ups lying flat on the floor, since lower back injuries are a possibility with this type of board. 'Not for a total novice,' Anne O'Dowd warned, 'though for more advanced students it's not necessarily damaging if you have a strong back.' Don't be tempted to buy this to fight a flabby tummy. For a flat stomach, Ann O'Dowd advocates a combination of good diet, aerobic and floor exercises. This board is not suitable for aerobic exercise.


pounds 275

The equivalent of climbing a never-ending staircase, this type of machine is particularly good for firming up bottom and thighs. It is especially popular with women. 'Good cardiovascular exercise which will also tone the legs and buttocks. The user's position is comfortable, with good hand rests,' said Ian Mahoney. People tend to use machines like these badly, leaning their shoulders forwards and sticking their bottom out, but the position of the handle rests helps you to keep the correct posture. 'Very fluid movement allows you to achieve a good workout,' said Michael Dalton. A bit wobbly, despite having a framework to stablise it.


pounds 1,999

An expensive alternative to going out for a run, and better for aerobic exercise than for keeping muscles trim. 'It's a lot of money,' said Anne O'Dowd, 'but you do pay a lot for this type of machine.' (It's worth noting, however, that the same model is discounted at Lillywhite's to just pounds 1,150.) Michael Dalton nevertheless likes it: 'Easy to follow instructions and safe to use,' he said. The maximum speed is 10mph, which our testers thought would only suit beginners. 'Neat machine to get people into running, but cheaper to go to the park,' said Ian Mahoney. Lillywhite's says these machines sell well to companies which install them in the office for staff use.


pounds 499.95

When the sweaty atmosphere of the gym palls, you can pump iron at home for the cost of a year's subscription to an upmarket health club. The multi-gym is excellent for firming up muscles but won't do much for aerobic fitness. 'Allows you to do 12 or 13 different exercises,' said Michael Dalton, 'so it's good value for money. But these machines often end up as clothes racks as it's difficult to maintain interest.' Anne O'Dowd commented: 'Great for muscle toning and building; combined with an aerobic exercise you get a total body workout.' It didn't score quite as well on safety as most of the others. It's a good idea to get proper advice on how to use this type of machine - or at least read the manual carefully - to make sure you are doing the exercises correctly and don't overdo it.

Stockists: Precor (phone 0734 733994 for details); Tunturi (0602 822844); Kettler (0527 63344); Marcy boards are available from Lillywhite's, John Lewis, Harrods, Olympus and specialist sports equipment stores.

Prices given are recommended retail prices, but substantial discounts are available at some sports stores.

Next week: coffee makers

(Photographs omitted)