How to Buy Exercise Equipment on a Budget

How to Buy Exercise Equipment on a Budget

So you’ve made a New Years Resolution to get in shape, and you’re in the market for exercise equipment and/or videos. Heaven knows television is currently overrun with ads for the stuff. What should you buy? How do you know? How do you get the best results for your money? I’m here to help.

First of all, think resistance–weight lifting and similar exercises–versus cardio. Of the two, resistance is by far the more important, especially as we age. Resistance exercise combined with proper nutrition can not only slow but reverse osteoporosis, and it’s absolutely key to preventing the ravages of progressive muscle loss and the frailty it brings. Further, lifting weights will strengthen that most important of all muscles, your heart. As for fat burning, cardio burns fat while you’re doing it. Weight lifting increases metabolism for hours. If you’re going to do only one kind of exercise, make it some form of resistance.

Do you need a machine to do resistance exercise? It’s not essential. You can make a good start with a set of weights and some power bands. These are inexpensive and take up minimal room. The downside comes when you get strong enough to need heavier weights. Not only do you need to spend more money, you also eventually run into a safety factor: You should not lift heavy free weights without a spotter. This is one reason why people who seriously lift free weights work out at gyms.

You should be aiming at lifting heavy, by the way. My philosophy is that it is far, far better to curl 25 or 50 pounds 5 times than 5 pounds 100 times. “Light for toning” is a myth. If you want strong muscles and bones, you have to really challenge them. And no, you won’t end up looking like a bodybuilder unless you take up bodybuilding–and have the genetics for it, which you very probably do not.

(Parenthetically, I will make a plug for my friend Fred Hahn’s book The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution. That Nice Boy I Married and I have been doing Slow Burn on our Total Gym for a couple of years now, and think the world of it. Among other things, it lets us lift heavy–again, the best way to progress–without risking our middle-aged joints.)

If you have the space, I feel the Total Gym is an excellent piece of equipment, as I have detailed elsewhere in this issue. I haven’t tried the Bowflex, but a trainer friend of mine covets one. Either of these machines should let you progress without investing in more weights every couple of months, and lift heavy without worrying about dropping a weight on yourself.

I confess having done only minimal yoga and Pilates, but consider them to be forms of resistance using your body weight–same as, say, push ups–combined with stretching. My sister in law Liz is a yoga instructor and looks like ten million bucks, tax-free. Some day I’ll give it a shot, but I’ll probably go to a class rather than use a video; it’s complex enough that I’d want feedback.

Cardio is much-touted and therefore popular, but the value of what Mark Sisson has dubbed “chronic cardio”–spending 45 minutes on the treadmill, stepper, or elliptical–is questionable. More beneficial than tradition cardio is High Intensity Interval Training, aka sprints. Going flat-out for 30 seconds, catching your breath, then doing it again, is turning out to be one of the most beneficial forms of exercise, far better than steady-state running.

You needn’t run to do sprints, though. You can do pretty much any form of cardio hard and fast to get similar results; I’ve been known to do jumping jacks on my mini-trampoline.

Walk Away The PoundsWalking is wonderful, we evolved to walk practically forever, but running is another question. As a massage therapist, I learned that serious running has an incredibly high injury rate, and there is now discussion of it actually triggering the breakdown of muscle mass and the hoarding of body fat. Not good. Better to walk.

Walking outside is great fun, and has the added benefits of fresh air and sunshine. Walking on turf instead of pavement improves balance, too, because your foot had to adjust to the surface irregularities. But you may be reluctant to walk outside in winter–I am–and some neighborhoods are not walking-safe.

You could buy a treadmill, but they’re hugely expensive and take up a lot of space. I prefer Leslie Sansone’s Walk Away The Pounds videos. Leslie’s a bit perky for my taste, but you can get in a good walk in front of your television, with no big, expensive machine. And once you learn Leslie’s moves, you can do them in front of the evening news or the latest episode of the Walking Dead, if you prefer.

I do like cardio dance routines like Zumba, but then, I love to dance. (We have the original Zumba videos on VHS. It’s the only exercise video I’ve been able to get That Nice Boy I Married to do repeatedly. It’s fun!) Because you move in different directions, dancing doesn’t pound joints in the same way as running, and it’s a fun way to get your blood pumping. Again, all you need is a DVD player or a game system and a few square feet in front of the television.

Remember, none of these cardio exercises will strengthen muscles and bones the way resistance will. Walk or dance in addition to strength training, not in place of it.
”So what about equipment?” I hear you cry. I have a metric boatload of it:

I’m sure I’m missing something. Point is, I have a lot of exercise equipment. I also have a good-sized house, a lot of storage space, and a tolerant husband. I have all this stuff because I find that rotating between various exercises keeps me from getting terribly bored. For a few weeks I’ll be on the rider for 10 minutes two or three times a day, then I’ll bounce on the mini-tramp for a few weeks, and so on.

How do I afford all this stuff? Simple: Post Purchase User Neglect Syndrome, the well-known tendency for exercise equipment to become an expensive clothes rack by February. Do you have any idea how much good equipment is out there for a fraction of the original price? Amazon wants $300 for a new Ab Coaster; I paid $20. I paid $25 for my cardio rider, and saw one at the Goodwill the other day for $20. I had no clue what the whole body vibration platform was; I saw the thing at the Goodwill, knew Soloflex was a good brand, ran home and did my research. I got a $450 machine for $25. My weight plates all came from the Goodwill or Craigslist – or the ones that the previous tenant left in the basement of the house we rented twenty years ago. A majority of my videos came from the Goodwill and yard sales.

With this super-cheap stuff, I buy anything that strikes my fancy. If I find I don’t like it, I can always sell it again on Craigslist and get my money out, though I rarely do.

My new Total Gym XLS – the current infomercial model – ran me $350, instead of the $900 they’re charging at the Total Gym website. It had been used three times. I already knew I loved the Total Gym and would use it, and so was willing to put $350 into it.

Assuming you’ve got a smaller house than I, and want to spend your money more cautiously, here is what I recommend:

When you see that infomercial and a piece of equipment strikes your fancy, DO NOT PICK UP THE PHONE.

Instead, go online and read reviews at Amazon, fitness websites, etc. Be wary; some will actually be ads. I have lost my immediate lust for many gadgets just by seeing the awful reviews, though I’ve purchased some poorly-rated gadgets if they were cheap enough, just for variety. On the other hand, I have a list in my head of well-reviewed stuff I’m keeping an eye open for on the second-hand market. (I want a Fluidity bar.

Give some thought to your space issues. This is a big deal. Most of the machines boast that you can easily fold them up and store them. This is the route to gathering dust. If you don’t have room for the machine to sit there staring at you balefully, challenging you to use it already, skip it and get something smaller. (By the way, when people see an exercise machine in your family room, they will not think “How messy.” They will think “I ought to do that.”)

Do your research at Craigslist to learn the price range of your chosen machine on the after-market. When I bought my Total Gym XLS I’d been watching the market for a few months; I knew the average asking price for a used one was $500, so I snapped up $350 when I saw it. For a big investment, look not only locally, but in any city within striking distance. I drove 90 minutes to Louisville to buy my Total Gym. Worth it. (You can check eBay, too, but it’s not strictly local, and too often people are looking to make money, rather than just get rid of stuff.)

If the ad has been on Craigslist for more than a couple of weeks, consider negotiating on price; often people will come down. It rarely hurts to ask.

If you’re considering a video or set of videos, check your local library. Mine has a pretty good collection of workout videos. This way you can see whether the particular exercise and the instructor are good matches for you before you invest.

Only when you’ve found a good price on the equipment or videos you’ve researched should you pony up your hard-earned cash.

“But,” you say, “I’m full of resolution NOW! I need to strike while the iron is hot!” Truly, I recommend you start out with some dumbbells and a video or three–possibly, I repeat, from the library–or something on your game system. Make exercise a habit while you figure out what you can afford, what will fit in your home, and, most vitally, what you will actually use.

And a very Happy New Year to you and yours!

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