Exercising is a great leveller. No matter how tight your abs, you're still getting intimate with a stranger's sweat when you grip the step machine handles at the gym. Even if you have a space for your exercise equipment at home, it's no doubt too aesthetically challenged to show off to guests. Because, as a rule, home gyms are ugly. The design of most equipment is as evolved as a phytoplankton. And panting on a shaking plastic frame in a crudely painted boxroom is about as inspiring as, well, most gyms out there.
It doesn't need to be like this. Not according to design authority Philippe Starck, who believes it is possible to blend form and function everywhere, even when shifting flab. "Life is an impossibility carried out," he says. "Better perpetuate it. For this, we have to love life, to love ourselves at least 15 minutes per day. At home, at work. A few exercises and a good posture – elegant, obviously."
Obviously, Philippe. Still, fitting your own gym makes sense. If the location of your workplace changes, being locked into an expensive gym membership is annoying. Many gyms do not have the right equipment if you're training for a specific event. For anyone who works from home, an on-site gym is the ideal place to spend your lunch hour.
It is easy to buy workout equipment from large retailers such as LifeFitness or Technogym, but taking on your home gym as a design project is explored by just a few niche companies. "People are starting to realise that they are happy to spend plenty of money on a new kitchen or bathroom, so why not a gym?" says Mark Healy of Space Concepts, a high-end gym design firm which creates bespoke gyms for clients' homes and yachts.
Personal trainer Healy and his design colleague David Stammers use methods to transform dull gym equipment that sound like wizardry: different brands of kit can be transformed with chromium-plating, powder-coating and re-upholstering to co-ordinate with each other and with the feel of your home. "Anything can be done," says Healy. "I don't think enough thought is going into the aesthetics of equipment at the moment. But hopefully we're seeing the start of the end of boring-looking equipment."
Philippe Starck's collection of multi-purpose office exercise equipment for Italian company Alias is evidence of this, and solves the dilemma of the time-poor, health-conscious design obsessive. No doubt quite a small market, but his necklace and bangles which double up as weights, sculpted hand weights and the sleek wall bar for pull-ups and stretching open up a new landscape of possibilities for the home gym.
Another slick space-saver is the Ciclotte (Ciclotte.com), a stationary monobike that is ergonomic, tough and portable, and wouldn't look out of place next to your Egg chair or Barcelona sofa. If you can only spare part of a room for your gym, invest in a portable climbing wall. Treadwalls (Treadwalls.com), based in the US, makes tilting portable walls. Custom Holds (Customholds.com) and Holdz (Holdz.co.uk) both sell child-friendly holds to transform a house or garden wall into a climbing wall for the whole family. Or if you prefer a more traditional workout, the chic Tumidei XFit (Tumidei.it) acts as a a full body gym-in-a-box. It's not cheap, at more than £4,000, but includes a treadmill, exercise bench and dumbbells, a drill rest and a pop-out entertainment system.
On the off chance you don't yet own a yacht that's crying out for its own gym, Space Concepts work with all types of projects and budgets, and offers advice on equipment to people who don't have the funds to upgrade their workout space.
Matt Clough of Clough and Clough started off, like Healy, as a personal trainer, and designs gyms across Yorkshire and Cheshire. Clients include premiership footballers. He says you can start up a home gym from as little as £1,000. This might mean putting up with the ugly equipment you want to avoid, but he recommends Escape Fitness Escapefitness-.com) for its "curvy, slick designs – exactly what you'd expect from a high-end gym".
Nick Sadler noticed a gap in the market for decent home gyms after living in New York, where a gym in your apartment block comes as standard. His company Motiv8 fits gyms in private houses, luxury flat developments, schools and offices. He suggests economising by leasing equipment. At around £200 a month it could be cheaper than gym membership for the whole family.
A gym to suit your needs
Calling in the professionals rather than ordering in a cross trainer from Amazon will get you the gym you want, rather than a one-size-fits-all set-up which epitomises all the reasons you don't want to pay to visit a gym. "We often work with the whole family and discuss what they want out of the space," says Clough. "A racing bike for a triathlete, for example, rather than a room full of stuff they don't need. Or a Versaclimber (Versaclimber.co.uk), a treadmill for climbing, is popular with combat sportspeople, and you can fit a continuous pool into a 20ft space."
Sadler has fitted Concept2's SkiErg (Concept2.co.uk) for powder addicts, and Technogym's EXCITE Top to target the fitness needs of a keen sailor (Technogym.co.uk).
The most obvious way to drag a home gym up to 21st-century standards is by incorporating clever audiovisuals. Healy uses Sensory International (Sensoryinternational.com) to install systems that rival those of entertainment venues. "You don't want to be messing around with a CD player if you're sweaty," he says. "But the most important thing is for users to be inspired. The audiovisual aspect has to flow, so that they want to exercise." Clough uses Finite Solutions (Finitesolutions.co.uk) to install home cinemas in gym rooms and integrate iPods onto flat-screen TVs. Another hi-tech option is incorporating virtual reality equipment into the design, such as a bike programmed with famous courses, so you can cycle the Tour de France and even race a friend online while you're at it.
Space might be limited, or you might not want to waste expensive audiovisual gadgets on exercise alone, so make your gym work for its money. Space Concepts has fitted a Swissball holder that doubles up as an armchair, a padded floorwork area which works as a Wii Rock Band stage with a plasma screen and disco lights, a folding exercise bench that transforms into a nail-bar seat and hairdressing station, and even a boxing ring which turns into a dance floor for private parties.
Sadler works with The Open Living Company (Openlivingcompany.com) to create gyms inside garden sheds which often double up as office space, their use disguised with pretty paint, flowers and greenery.
Still not convinced? Think of the money. Christopher Bailey from estate agency Knight Frank uses a formula to work out how much value luxury add-ons actually bring to your property. Based on a study of 1,300 houses between 1995 and 2009, he worked out that a gym could add an astonishing £600,000 to a £2m house. If only I had known all this two months ago, when the sight of the ugly fitball in my newly painted flat became too much, and I was driven to stab it with a pair of scissors.
Space-concepts.co.uk; M8group.net; Cloughandclough.co.uk