It's time to take action on that New Year's resolution to get fit or shift a few pounds, and the gym seems the obvious choice. But the idea of collective exercise leaves many of us in a sweat before we've lifted a finger. And it's expensive.
Training at home seems a far less daunting experience, and even buying top-end equipment can still be cheaper than a year's gym membership. The problem is that in your sitting room there are no friendly staff to let you know that you're in danger of a heart attack if you keep doing it that way. Once you've decided that a home-based workout is your preferred plan of attack on those love handles, you're on your own. Doing your research and picking the right equipment for your fitness, training aims, available space and budget is crucial – as is being very sure about how to use your new machines.
"Before you buy any equipment, be honest about how often you're likely to use it," says Martyn Hocking, editor of Which? magazine. "Make sure the machine you choose is right for you. You're far more likely to stick with a machine that makes exercise interesting, so resist the urge to buy the very cheapest model and get one with at least a few different programs."
Those who are out of the habit of keeping fit, or who are older or frailer, may opt for an exercise bike. They are usually lighter and take up less space than more complex equipment. Both upright and recumbent bikes primarily work the lower body but still affect the heart and lungs, and so can be used for endurance training and to burn fat. On a recumbent bike you are leaning back, closer to the ground, so these may be better for people who are a little unsteady on a taller bike; recumbent bikes tend to be more expensive. Research by the consumer group Which? found the Tunturi came out on top, not only among recumbent bikes out there but among all the home exercise equipment they tested. With an overall score of 81 per cent, Which? gave the bike top marks for durability, accuracy and ease of programming, with comfort and assembly also rated highly – and so it should be, for £586.
But it's not all about the money. The highest-rated upright bike, which also joins the Tunturi at the top of Which?'s overall table, costs a mere £175 (versus the lowest-scoring bike, which would extract almost £600 from your wallet). The York Fitness Anniversary c201 was commended for its durability, accuracy, comfort, and interest factor, as well as ease of programming and assembly – and it is more than £400 cheaper than the Tunturi.
Then there are cross or elliptical trainers. These offer a more challenging overall cardiovascular workout, aiming to combine the effects of a treadmill, step machine and exercise bike, and are good for both weight loss and improving fitness. Because the movement is smooth, these machines are good for people with joint or other skeletal problems. Again, York Fitness comes out on top in this category, according to Which?, with the Diamond X302 at £429. It gets top marks for durability, accuracy and comfort, and also scores well for ease of programming and assembly. Plus, with four out of five for interest factor, there's plenty of display info to keep you occupied.
One cross trainer to avoid might be the Motive Fitness X1 Manual Magnetic. It is £30 more expensive than the York trainer, is difficult to put together, according to Which?, and fails to score highly for interest factor.
Where to buy
You can buy some fitness equipment direct from manufacturers, for example York Fitness at www.yorkfitness.com; York also offer second-hand or refurbished equipment at a discount. Others, including Tunturi ( www.tunturi.com), don't sell direct to the public, but you can download user manuals and other information from their sites.
Large retailers, including high street names such as the sports superstore Decathlon and the department store John Lewis, stock a huge range of fitness equipment. And you can buy online from the likes of www.amazon.co.uk www.exerciseequipment.co.uk and www.fitness-superstore.co.uk.
Check price comparison sites such as www.pricerunner.co.uk, www.keloo.co.uk or www.whichcompare.co.uk to ensure that you get the best price on your purchase, especially as large pieces of fitness equipment usually cost several hundred pounds. Be careful to take into account the cost of shipping, as these are large and heavy items.
Things to consider
Be realistic: Choose an exercise goal that will push you but is achievable – you're far more likely to keep at it.
Condition: If you are unused to exercising or have a medical condition, consult your doctor before buying equipment or starting a training regime.
Space: The layout of your exercise area can dictate what equipment you can use properly. Measure up before buying.
Warm up: ...and cool down as part of your programme, to help you avoid injury.
Second hand: Pre-owned equipment can save you hundreds of pounds. Best disinfect it first though.
The Insider is written in conjunction with the consumer group Which?. For more information on the best exercise equipment, visit their website at www.which.co.uk. To get three issues of Which? magazine for £3, call 01992 822800 and quote INADVICE.