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Choosing an exercise machine without breaking the bank

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012

Can't squeeze into your jeans• Not happy with what you see in the mirror• For consumers whose New Year's resolution is to eliminate unwanted inches and pounds, Consumer Reports has the skinny on shopping for home exercise machines such as treadmills and ellipticals.

CR recently put 35 treadmills and 18 elliptical exercisers through their paces. The top-rated nonfolding treadmill, the Precor 9.31, costs a cool $4,000 and offers excellent construction. But consumers on tighter budgets can find solid choices in the nonfolding Sole S77 at $1,900 and the folding ProForm Performance 600 and Horizon T202, both $800. All three are CR Best Buys.

The top-scoring elliptical, the Octane Fitness Q37ci, costs $3,100 and is solidly built. It has four heart-rate programs, comes with a chest-strap heart-rate monitor and earned very high marks for safety. If you don't need the heart-rate monitoring and can forgo certain other features, CR recommends the Octane Fitness Q37c for $500 less.

Also tested were 10 regular pedometers, three GPS watches and three cellphone apps that claim to measure steps and distance through your phone's movements. The Sportline Step and Distance SB4202 ($5), a conventional pedometer available at Walmart, is a CR Best Buy. The Mio Trace Acc-Tek ($35) and the Omron GOsmart Pocket HJ-112 ($30) are also recommended. As for cellphone apps, the Accupedo-Pro pedometer widget (for Android) at $4 and the Pedometer Pro GPS+ (for iPhone) at $3 are CR Best Buys.

And for the first time, CR is sharing Ratings data from subscribers who have purchased home exercise machines. Owners of 1,302 elliptical machines and 1,891 treadmills reported on overall satisfaction and problems they experienced with the most common brands. Owners were highly satisfied with their purchases overall, but there were brand differences. Solewas the top-rated treadmill brand, whileProFormrated lower than all other elliptical brands. Among elliptical exercisers,ProFormreceived more complaints than other brands about being difficult to adjust to the needs of different users and having a poor range of workout options. NordicTrackscored substantially worse than the other brands for being bulky and difficult to set up. There were no differences among treadmill brands in the rate of problems.

TECHNIQUES TO RAMP UP YOUR WORKOUT

CR's technical fitness experts have logged hundreds of hours and thousands of miles testing treadmills and elliptical exercisers. Here are some of their tips for adding some sizzle to your home (or gym) workout:

• Try an interval program: Alternating between high and low intensities can burn more calories than a similar duration of exercise at a single intensity.

• Don't lean on the machine: Don't put your weight on the hand rails of your treadmill or elliptical because that reduces the workout you're giving your muscles. If you're having trouble balancing, lower the intensity.

• Squat while you pedal: This is only recommended for advanced users. Want an extra workout for your quads and butt• Try exercising in a squat position when using the elliptical. To prevent injury, keep your chest upright and your back flat, and don't let your knees go past your toes.

• Side step: This technique is also for advanced users only. It's a little tricky and should be done with some supervision, at least the first few times. But it's worth the effort if you aspire to work your inner and outer thighs. With the treadmill off, stand sideways with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and torso tilted slightly forward. Start the machine at its slowest speed and walk slowly, stepping sideways without crossing your legs. Increase the incline for more of a challenge.

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