To exercise at home, or away?

Fitness has become more than a fad for Americans. Many people take brisk walks to keep in shape, while others are spending more money than ever on health-club memberships to get a good workout.

But which is most cost-effective - buying your own equipment and exercising at home or joining a gym?

Americans spent $5.8 billion on home gym equipment and $11.8 billion on the health-club industry in 2000, according to reports from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).

So, which of the two is the better investment?

According to those who work in the industry, anyone deciding between a health club and home exercise equipment should consider his or her personal lifestyle and exercise goals.

"What you'll use more is the better deal," says John Ladd, sales manager of the Wellbridge Fitness Center in Cambridge, Mass.

"Some people who join health clubs are looking for something more than just their regular [exercise] routine, which has gotten boring, or they're ready to move to the next level [of workout intensity] and need some instruction," says Mr. Ladd. "People busy working ... with families, on the other hand, they might not have time to go to the gym and would prefer home equipment."

With the aging of the baby-boomer generation, gym membership of older clients has increased. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, patrons age 55 and older made up only 9 percent of the health-club population in 1987, but represented nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of all members by 2000.

In contrast, the usually dominant 18-to-34 age group, at 53 percent of all members in 1987, accounted for only 31 percent of gymgoers in 2000.

"The 20- and 30-year-old population has dipped because Generation X is smaller and isn't as big a market [as baby boomers]," Ladd says.

Sales manager Mike Crum of Precision Fitness Equipment, a small New England chain, has observed similar trends in home-gym sales.

"The majority of people who purchase the big-ticket items like treadmills or [weight] machines are in their 40s and 50s. They're buying for themselves and their families," he says.

But who's getting the better deal? In terms of absolute price, home gyms and exercise machines require more up-front money, but may be the better long-term buy, because they require only a one-time investment.

Popular equipment includes elliptical machines ($600-$3,600), treadmills ($600-$4,300), stationary bicycles ($300-$3,000), multigyms ($800-$4,000), and free weights ($4 for a pair of dumbbells, up to $220 for a full set).

But according to Mike May, communications director of the SGMA, the 32.8 million Americans who had health-club memberships in 2000 spent approximately $360 each, on average, for one year of access to all of those machines at their local gyms. So in as little as two years, a home-gym buyer could save a significant amount of money by avoiding annual club fees.

In addition, personal-gym buyers do not have to pay for transportation or child care, and can exercise at any hour of the day, in the privacy of their own homes. The potential distractions of such an environment, though - including phone calls, children, and household chores - may present drawbacks.

Health clubs are an alternative for people who need a separate space to focus on fitness.

"Going to a gym can be stress-relieving because you're getting away from environments that cause stress - including the home, sometimes," says Ladd. "Unless you're really motivated, you might buy a StairMaster or a treadmill, and it'll end up collecting three inches of dust."

Fitness centers now offer services for members of all ages and interests. Most are equipped with a wide variety of machines to suit the diverse preferences of their clientele. Staff members are trained to explain how to use the equipment properly - a service that home gyms cannot provide.

Health clubs also often offer classes in such areas as aerobic dance, yoga, and "spinning," as well as personal training and nutritional-counseling services for no extra charge.

For the 20- and 30-year-old age groups, the environment provides a place to meet other people while achieving and maintaining good fitness levels. For clients in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond, clubs can provide a motivational atmosphere to put them on the path to better health or to refine old exercise routines to better suit an aging body. They also offer more accessible advice.

The monthly fee and the level of personal attention available varies from gym to gym. National mass-market fitness chains with rates of $20 to $50 per month offer lots of equipment to a large membership, but personal training and other services may not be as tailored to suit every age group.

Pricier clubs with monthly rates of $60 to $80 usually have fewer members than their less-expensive counterparts, yet attract a more diverse clientele with more amenities.

Clubs in the $90 to $120 range target a niche market, offering high-end services and instructors to those with special needs.

No matter what a club offers, potential members need to feel that the environment and services suit them individually, or paid gym time will go unused.

Spotting the differences Health club

Pros:

* Support of others - exercising with people with similar interests helps create a motivational environment without home distractions.

* Variety - plenty of machines and classes to choose from.

* Instruction - free classes, personal training, nutrition counseling, hands-on explanations of how to use equipment properly and efficiently.

Cons:

* Monthly fees.

* Transportation required.

* Child-care facilities not necessarily available.

* Public environment may intimidate the self-conscious.

Home gym

Pros:

* One-time fee gives you unlimited use of equipment.

* Convenience - no need for baby sitters or transportation; available any hour of the day or night.

* Privacy.

Cons:

* Boredom and lack of variety can make it easy to fall out of personal-exercise routine.

* Requires floor and/or storage space.

* Distractions - phone calls, children, chores.

* Equipment can break down, leading to costly repairs.

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