HOME STYLE : Sweating It at Home : For Some, Personal Gyms Work Out Best

Vista resident Mike Vuytowecz heads for his garage four times a week to exercise. But instead of jumping into the car and driving down the freeway to a nearby health club, Vuytowecz cranks up his stereo and stepsonto a cross-country ski machine he assembled in a carpeted area next to his parking space. The branch manager of a mortgage company decided to build his in-home gym a year ago.

"I wanted to start working out, but didn't want to deal with going to a gym," Vuytowecz, 34, said. "With the hours I work (a minimum of 60 per week) and my schedule, 5:30 in the morning is the only time I knew where I'd be. I exercise for an hour, and by 7:30, I'm showered and ready to go to work."

Vuytowecz, who went from a seven-year stint as a golf and ski instructor to a desk job, supplements his upper- and lower-body, at-home workouts with tennis, basketball and swimming on the weekends. His wife, Martha, also uses the equipment at home, so is able to work out without having to hire a sitter for the couple's two young children.

As exercise gyms became more crowded and health club memberships lay dormant, more and more people began discovering the convenience of an in-home workout center.

"People began realizing, 'Hey, I'm not getting to the gym,' " said Adam Brown, owner of Health Yourself in Encinitas. "They started doing more at home like working from in-home offices and watching movies (on VCRs). The next step was to work out at home."

Health club quality workout machines have become more affordable, prompting more people to condition at home, Brown said.

Health Yourself, which sells top-of-the-line exercise equipment, has installed in-home gyms in some 80 residences in the Rancho Santa Fe area alone since the business began 19 months ago.

Vuytowecz installed his in-home gym in his garage with Brown's help. The cost of the renovation, including indoor-outdoor carpeting, a stereo, a multistation gym and a cross-country ski machine, was about $4,000, Vuytowecz said.

"A home gym is a one-time investment," said Thomas von Meer, co-owner of Progressive Sport Products, a specialty equipment sales company in Solana Beach. "It is not just the outlay of cash. Time is valuable. You can spend a lot of time at a club waiting for machines, plus the time it takes to get there. The home gym is almost as much an amenity as a family room these days."

For the convenience of working out at home, health enthusiasts have discovered that a small space--part of a bedroom or a section of a garage--can be converted into an exercise area. Brown recommends a 10-by-10-foot room as the ideal size for an in-home gym.

"Realistically, people need to allocate one-half of a small bedroom," von Meer said. "How much space they're willing to commit is indicative of their commitment to fitness. If you put the equipment in a dark corner of the garage, it probably won't be used."

Most experts agree that the right environment is what keeps people working out.

Von Meer's suggestions include placing exercise machines in brightly lit rooms that have good ventilation. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors add a motivational touch, and the room should be carpeted to cushion the equipment and to keep sweating individuals from injuring themselves on a slick floor. Entertainment, such as a television, radio or tape player, can also help.

"Cardiovascular exercise is monotonous," von Meer said. "If you can get on a treadmill and watch the news, time goes by in a heartbeat."

According to von Meer, an in-home gym can start with one piece of equipment.

"You can spend $100 or up to $40,000, with a lot of room in between," he said. The difference in price depends on the number and the quality of the equipment, as well as the extent of the room renovation.

Exercise equipment most often purchased for the home falls into five categories: treadmills, stationary exercise bikes, multistation gyms, cross-country ski machines and stair-climbers.

Types of equipment to consider when purchasing machines include those that offer cardiovascular workouts, strength training and flexibility exercises, von Meer said.

The most popular piece of cardiovascular equipment is the stair-stepper or stair-climber, which carries a price tag of $300 to $3,000 at specialty fitness equipment stores.

Less expensive models, starting at $100, can be purchased at sporting goods stores, according to Rick Yantz, sporting goods manager for the Cal Stores in Escondido.

"If a guy loves to walk, I recommend a treadmill," Brown said. "If he has problems with his lower back, there's a recumbent bike that offers orthopedic back support. It's also popular with women because it burns fat from your hips and buttocks at a 40% rate over a stationary bike."

Unlike a traditional exercise bicycle, which is pedaled in an upright position, the rider reclines on a recumbent cycle, with his or her feet slightly in the air. Exercise bicycles like those in health clubs range in price from $300 to $2,700.

Quality treadmills cost between $1,000 and $4,000, with less expensive models starting at about $550. Treadmills are used to firm and tone an individual's legs plus provide a cardiovascular workout.

Multistation gyms, some with as many as 18 exercise combinations, including leg pulls, arm curls and presses, are priced from $1,000 to $2,500, von Meer said.

Most exercise equipment in specialty stores comes with a one-year warranty on all parts and labor. Specialists will often service the machines and demonstrate workout routines at customers' homes.

At sporting goods stores, the warranty is usually 90 days, and the purchase price often includes setup of the machines. An extended warranty with in-home service on certain equipment, such as treadmills, is available.

Although sporting goods stores have sold exercise equipment for years, experts note phenomenal growth in the higher-priced specialty equipment market in the past few years. About 400 to 500 stores operate nationwide, but Brown predicts there will be more than 3,000 within the next four years.

"Exercise is not a fad," Brown said. "It's here to stay."

"You want to make your investment work for you," Health Yourself salesman Paul Saccento said. "If you spend money on equipment, you want to use it. There is the guilt factor at work. It's also a family thing to do, to work out together. Our most popular customer is age 40 to 55. Their children are of an age where they're starting to exercise. It gives them a common link and quality time with their kids."

Still, some would-be health enthusiasts do have problems with motivation.

Rather than see their equipment gather dust in a corner, some hire an in-home personal trainer, often through a health club. For fees of $40 to $70 an hour, trainers will work with clients in their homes gyms to develop individual training programs.

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