The next time you see one of those expensive, high-tech gym machines advertised on TV, remember this: You can’t spend your way to fitness.
Sure, that gym-quality treadmill or multi-piece weight machine might look good in your spare room or study. It can even be fun and motivating to stick to a fitness routine. But in the end, your success depends on you, not on expensive equipment or high monthly gym fees. Whether you have cash to spare or on a tight budget, you can build an entire home gym for a fraction of the price of one luxury machine.
Ask yourself some basic questions first. What kind of training are you going to do? How much space do you have? (For example, a single treadmill takes up about 30 square feet.) How much money can you spend? And perhaps most importantly if you are a beginner, are you physically ready to start exercising? Consult your doctor before starting any fitness program, especially if you have existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure or heart problems, or if you are at risk for any of these diseases. Come up with a plan and get your doctor’s approval before you start.
Basic (and inexpensive) strength training equipment
Next, make a list of the fitness equipment you need. No gym would be complete without something for doing resistance exercises. In a health club, that would mean an array of state-of-the-art resistance machines and some shiny new weights. In your home gym, a little improv can go a long way. If you are a novice weightlifter, you can start by lifting large cans of soup or plastic bottles or plastic milk jugs filled with water or sand.
Whatever you lift, make sure you use the correct technique. It’s the only way to get the maximum benefits without hurting yourself. If you don’t want to pay for a personal trainer session, rent an instructional video or pick one up from your local library. You may want to sign up for a trial gym membership — some are even free — to get advice on proper weightlifting techniques.
As your strength improves, you will probably want to buy real weights. While some weights are surprisingly expensive, you can definitely find bargains. Look for used equipment in classifieds online or in your local newspaper. Some sporting goods stores also specialize in second-hand equipment. You should be able to get hand weights (also called free weights) for between $4 and $150.
In addition to weights, you may want to buy some exercise bands. These inexpensive pieces of elastic can mimic the workouts of a Bowflex or other high-end weight machines. Again, an instructional video can help you get the most out of exercise bands.
Raising your heart rate and stretching
For the cardiovascular (also called aerobic) part of your workout, you have plenty of inexpensive options. For the benefits of a top-quality stair step without the $3,000 sticker price, you can pick up a set of step benches and exercise tapes for about $150. Resist buying a cheap step machine for a few hundred dollars. According to the American Council on Exercise, cheap machines in general (not just stair treads) are often of low quality and can wear out or break before you get your money’s worth. And don’t forget the cheapest option of all: real stairs!
You can also get a fun, effective cardio workout with a skipping rope. If you plan on jumping rope indoors, make sure your ceilings are high enough and watch out for lights and ceiling fans. People who don’t like jumping rope can try renting some dance or training videos instead.
Instead of buying a stationary bike, consider buying a trainer (a kickstand that allows you to ride a regular bike) for the bike already in your garage. Or better yet, put on a helmet and head out for your workout – that’s way more fun than riding a bike in your den.
Of course, there are reasons why you want to create a real mini-gym at home. A new baby, long days at work, or kids who need you until bedtime can make it hard to get any real exercise. If so, you’ll find that spending the money to buy a treadmill or an exercise bike — or both — is actually a good investment.
This is another case where a trial gym membership can come in handy. In addition to the chance to see what machines you like, it can also give you the chance to receive instruction on location at a fraction of the cost of a personal trainer.
If you invest in both a treadmill and stationary bike, you can cross-train by walking and cycling one night and running on the treadmill the next. And with your own personal equipment, your training times are more flexible: you can go for a jog or bike ride before dinner, after the kids sleep or while you watch your favorite program.
Again, check the internet for bargains at sports dealerships near you to stay within your budget. (You can find a good treadmill for under $600 at some store sales.)
You can also look for a reputable dealer that sells used equipment. Try the device before you buy so you know it works, what fitness benefits it offers, and whether it’s right for you. You’re more likely to stick with an exercise machine you like.
The Food & Fitness Advisor, a newsletter of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York, encourages you to ask any retailer about the equipment warranty and safety features. For example, make sure a treadmill has good shock absorbers to minimize possible injury. Also read how these safety features work before taking the machine home. (Some sports dealers will even deliver the equipment and set it up for you at home.)
And don’t forget stretching, which should be as much a part of your workout as building muscle and raising your heart rate. Stretching builds flexibility, keeps muscles from straining and shortening, and maintains range of motion. You can rent or buy a good video to help you learn the basics of stretching.
Finally, think about where you are going to exercise. According to the Food & Fitness Advisor, creating a pleasant environment for your workouts — in a room with a window, TV, or good sound system, for example — will make exercising more fun and desirable.
More cheap items to complete your home gym
These inexpensive items can add comfort and variety to your home workouts:
* An exercise mat makes it more comfortable to do sit-ups, stretches and yoga poses. (It will also help protect your floor.)
*If you’ve had the proper training, consider buying a weightlifting bench. You will feel more comfortable and you will be able to do more exercises.
* Finally, remember to invest in a good full-length mirror. After a few months of training in your new home gym, you will undoubtedly be pleased with what you see.
American Exercise Council. “How to design your own home gym.”
American Exercise Council. News release: “According to the American Council on Exercise, Americans want a flat stomach, strong muscles, and the right equipment.”
Newsletter Food & Fitness Advisor, Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “Creating a gym in your own home.”
Georgia State University. “Getting fit at home.”
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. “Selecting Home Exercise Equipment.”