Exercising Good Judgment: Top-Rated Home-Fitness Equipment

Elliptical Machines • Exercise Bikes • Home Gyms • Rowing Machines • Treadmills

Manufacturers are adding connectivity options to home-fitness equipment, and one mobile app even allows you to run the London Marathon in your own home. Meanwhile, companies are introducing elliptical/treadmill hybrids that reduce the impact on your knees.

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Life Fitness

Like most things nowadays, home-fitness equipment seems more connected by the minute. In the past 3 years, we saw an explosion of connectivity to home-fitness equipment, including the capability to store your workouts, compare your results with previous results and those of your friends and control your machine through a mobile device.

What’s good news is that prices remain stable in all categories and price ranges. In fact, we found that in many cases, you’ll receive better performance today for the same amount of money as you would have 3 years ago. For example, treadmill manufacturers added connectivity options to their models, increased the horsepower by up to 1 hp and expanded the length of the tread belts by a few inches to accommodate longer paces and faster running—for no corresponding price increase.

VIRTUAL PACE. Would you like to run in a world-famous race while you exercise on a treadmill in your own home? We reported on so-called virtual races 3 years ago, and 2 years ago they emerged in the form of two apps: RunSocial and Virtual Runner.

RunSocial is the only app that allows you to race in real time against other people who use the app. It provides mile-by-mile, high-definition footage of 15 courses, including the London Marathon and the Prague International Marathon, to an Apple iPad tablet computer or a high-definition TV that’s connected to your iPad. You can run in RunSocial races with TreadTracker ($130), which is a Bluetooth-enabled accessory that you place under your treadmill to track your real-time speed through the virtual race. Alternatively, you can use RunSocial’s built-in pedometer, which translates the vibrations from your treadmill into a rough estimate of how fast that you’re running. Finally, you can connect your RunSocial app to a Life Fitness treadmill that has a Discover (starting at $2,899) or a Track+ (starting at $2,999) console monitor. The app speeds or slows the video to match your pace on the treadmill and raises the incline to match the terrain in the video.

One note: RunSocial’s TreadTracker or pedometer works on any treadmill, but at press time, the app adjusts the incline and speed automatically on only  Life Fitness treadmills. We tried RunSocial, and it delivered an immersive, realistic experience. We just wish that it were compatible with more than just the iPad. RunSocial says it will add Google Android compatibility in 2016 but didn’t tell us when.

Outside Interactive’s free Virtual Runner app works with any treadmill on Android, Apple and Microsoft Windows tablets. The app provides footage of 40 courses and routes, which range from $3 for a 5K to $13 for a marathon. You adjust the speed of the video manually to match your pace on the treadmill. Alternatively, if you have a pedometer that has ANT+ wireless technology, you can plug an ANT+ wireless receiver into your tablet, and the Virtual Runner app will adjust the speed of the video to match your pace. Eventually, Outside Interactive wants to integrate the app into treadmills to control the incline and speed automatically, like RunSocial does, but the company couldn’t provide a timetable for when this feature might be added.

We’ll be interested to see what other interactive innovations are in store for treadmills down the road.

SOFTER SURFACE. The high injury rate that’s associated with running, which doctors and running experts typically say sidelines half of all runners each year for some length of time, is the impetus for a new breed of treadmill/elliptical hybrids that are called soft runners. These machines are designed to reduce the impact that can wreck runners’ knees. Five soft runners were introduced from two companies—Octane and Sproing—in the past 3 years, and we expect to see more such models in the next 3 years.

Octane’s Zero Runner ZR7 ($3,299) and ZR8 ($4,299) simulate a running motion by suspending you on individual footpads that don’t touch the ground. The footpads are connected to leg-like supports that have pivot points at the knee and hip joints. It’s sort of like an elliptical, but the footpads allow you more freedom to bend your ankles and knees than do elliptical pads. Because the footpads flex like an ankle does, the design allows you to flick your heel up and almost kick your own butt in a perfect running gait. The Zero Runner also has a large stride length (we got up to 50 inches at full speed, which is double the length of the best ellipticals), and we found that the Zero Runner thoroughly worked our core and legs.

NICE TECHNIQUE. Octane’s Zero Runner ZR8 simulates a running motion by suspending you on footpads.

NICE TECHNIQUE. Octane’s Zero Runner ZR8 simulates a running motion by suspending you on footpads.

Octane

“The Zero Runner’s unrestrained range of motion allows a runner the freedom to use good running technique, unlike steppers and ellipticals, which lock you into a contained motion with choppy strides,” says Ken Bob Saxton, who is an expert on barefoot, low-impact running.

Sproing’s three soft runners—the Runner ($5,499), the Trainer ($6,499) and the Pro ($7,999)—use a harness to tether you to a post as you lean forward and run in place on a 6-inch adjustable cushion of air and high-density foam. A monitor counts your steps and tracks your perceived distance and speed. The more expensive models include more sensors to measure the amount of power that you generate. We tried out the Sproing runners, and the motion feels like running in place in springy sand. We found that it takes a significant amount of work to get the hang of running while you’re tethered, but we didn’t feel any impact on our knees.

DIFFERENT MUSCLES. Functional strength training includes free-form resistance exercises that hit many muscles simultaneously instead of fixed-position exercises that work muscles in isolation. To replicate some of that functionality in a home gym, about half of all models now include adjustable-position pulley cables that have handles that slide up and down on vertical rails. (Roughly one-third of all models included a functional element 3 years ago.) Because you’re unsupported, each exercise becomes an all-body workout: You brace yourself to stay stable through the movement.

You now have to pay at least $2,000 for a home gym that includes a functional element, compared with $1,300 3 years ago. When we last looked at home gyms, you still could find an economy model that had a low pulley bar that allowed you to do two or three functional exercises. Today’s designs are more elaborate and allow you to perform at least five or six exercises.

Inspire’s FT2 ($4,595), which was introduced in 2015, allows you to do any functional exercise. It’s the only home gym that combines a functional trainer and a Smith machine, which is used to do Olympic-style barbell lifts safely.

OFF THE WATER. Rowing machines have seen a resurgence. Annual sales increased 20 percent to $74 million in 2014, according to Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which expects the growth to continue for the foreseeable future.

Rowing machines target your core and upper body and deliver a complete aerobic workout without impact on your feet or knees. The low-impact workout that rowing machines provide as well as the current movement toward low-impact exercises partially explains their resurgence. However, SFIA and other experts tell us that rowing machines mainly are “trendy” because of the machine’s widespread use in CrossFit and Orangetheory gyms and appearance on the Netflix TV show, “House Of Cards.”

We counted 14 rowing-machine manufacturers, which is up from 10 in 2013. Models start at $110, as they did 3 years ago, but we found that you have to pay at least $800 to get a machine that’s rugged enough to handle more than 220 pounds and provide a balanced, challenging and comfortable workout. Today’s rowing machines typically have none of the connectivity features that are prevalent in ellipticals, exercise bikes and treadmills, however.

The Inspire CR2 Cross Rower ($1,595), which was introduced in December 2014, takes the old-fashioned rowing machine to a new level. It’s the only rowing machine that has a solid bar that you pull and, more important, push for resistance instead of a chain or rope that you only pull. The seat moves in an elliptical motion, sort of like you’re riding a horse, instead of back and forth in a linear motion as do other rowing machines.

We tried the Cross Rower, and it takes a couple workouts to get used to the motion, but it provides a thorough low-impact workout. That’s good news for our feet and knees.

Roy M. Wallace has covered fitness equipment for 27 years. He is the Los Angeles Times’ fitness-gear columnist and the author of four books about fitness.

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