HEALTH HORIZONS : FITNESS : Putting It to the Test : HOW GOOOD IS THE EXERCISE EQUIPMENT HAWKED ON LATE-NIGHT TV? ARE THE DEVICES TRULY EFFECTIVE, SAFE AND EASY TO USE?

Even as we flop on the couch, the potato in all of us is grabbed by promises of quick and easy fitness advertised by hard bodies selling workout equipment on TV and in magazines.

"Better toning than 45 minutes of aerobics!"

"The intelligent sit-up!"

"Just five minutes, twice a day!"

"The world's best aerobic exerciser!"

The claims are hard to ignore. They make fitness sound so painless, so enjoyable, so simple. All you need is that one piece of equipment--a ski simulator or rubber bands, a pulley or a plastic seat. So you dial those operators-standing-by and place your order, hoping that this one gizmo will do away with your flab.

And with that, you've added to the rising sales of home-exercise gadgets. In 1989, the American public spent $1.73 billion on fitness equipment, according to the most recent figures by the National Sporting Goods Assn. That's 19% more than was spent in 1988, and that figure is most certainly low because those numbers include mostly high-ticket items rather than low-tech equipment.

How effective and safe are the devices that grab our attention on late-night commercials? Can you, too, look like those gorgeous hunks advertising the Soloflex weight machine? Is the Abdomenizer really a cure for the spare tire around your middle? Will NordicTrack make your stomach shrink from pouch to pancake as the pictures show?

We've taken a look at eight kinds of home exercise equipment commonly advertised on TV or in magazines. With the help of a few personal trainers, strength-training experts and exercise physiologists (see end of story), we've analyzed the devices for effectiveness, safety, construction and ease of set-up and use. We also added a few tips or warnings where needed.

No matter what you buy to help you reach your fitness and health goals, remember this: The equipment won't exercise for you, especially if it's tucked behind the couch or in a closet. You need to be diligent about scheduling a time and a place to exercise, following your plan and keeping a log of your workouts. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that you exercise your cardiovascular system at least 20 minutes, three days a week and that you work your muscles at least twice a week, each time doing a minimum of eight to 10 exercises involving major muscle groups such as the back or chest.

Here are our evaluations of the advertised devices:

ABDOMENIZER and SIT 'N TONE--The theory behind these molded plastic seats is a good one. They're designed to protect your lower back by keeping it pressed down on the plastic as you do sit-ups, and to keep you from rocking or doing full sit-ups. But they won't make the exercise any easier and they won't magically "firm both upper and lower abdominals," as the box claims. If owning a piece of plastic will help give you the discipline to do daily abdominal exercises, then buy it. Otherwise, follow these directions for a safe, simple curl: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor, then curl your shoulders and upper back off the ground, while pressing your lower back into the ground with your abdominals. Release slowly back to the ground, then repeat. Support your head with your hands, and don't let your lower back leave the ground. This version will save you the $20 cost of the seat.

STOMACH ELIMINATOR and GUTBUSTER--These gizmos are foot-long springs with toeholds on one end and a handle on the other. To exercise you sit on the floor with your feet attached to the device, then lean backward against the tension. The device basically pulls you back to your starting position, and that is exactly the problem, says Wayne Westcott, strength-training consultant for the national YMCA: You are working as you pull backward, therefore straining your back, not busting your gut. Contrary to their names, they do nothing for your stomach--certainly don't eliminate it--and may be hard on your lower back. In addition, springs on some of the tension devices have been known to snap into the faces of users. At $10 to $20, don't bother.

FIGURE TRIMMER, WAIST BURNER and EXERTONER--This gimmick has been around for years, and its claims to "melt fat away" and "trim inches from your waistline" are among the most overblown of all such boasts. Made of two ropes or cables attached to pulleys, this piece of equipment hooks onto a doorknob. You lie on your back, put your feet through loops at one end of each rope and your hands through the other end, then alternately raise and lower your legs and arms. You end up looking like a dying cockroach flailing on its back. You aren't using your abdominals; you are adding undue stress to your lower back and, if you aren't breathing harder (which you probably aren't), you aren't burning excess calories. According to exercise physiologists, it is impossible to "spot reduce." To burn extra calories, you have to raise your heart rate and keep it raised for 20 to 30 minutes. Wiggling on the floor won't do it, so why spend $10 to $20 to look like a dead bug?

JOE NAMATH'S POWER BANDS--Broadway Joe is hawking a loop of rubber tubing about 12 inches in diameter with a padded cuff attached to each side of the circle. You wear a cuff on each ankle or on each wrist, attaching it with Velcro. That leaves you with the rubber tubing stretched between your limbs, and the rubber provides resistance as you lift your legs or pull your arms apart. The package, costing about $30, comes with a 30-minute demonstration videotape. The concept of using rubber for resistance during upper- and lower-body toning is a good one. With the Velcro attachments, the bands stay put on your legs or arms, and you can modify the exercises by pushing or pulling on the rubber more or less, depending on your strength. But attaching the bands to your ankles for running and jumping for cardiovascular conditioning, as the video suggests, is ill-advised. The bands on your feet could trip you, and the added resistance will fatigue anyone but the most advanced exerciser after a couple of minutes. Remember, to get any benefit from aerobics, you need to do at least 20 to 30 minutes. Go ahead and use the bands for toning but skip them for jumping and dancing. Sorry, Joe.

EASY GLIDER--The adage "You get what you pay for" holds true here. For $60 or so, this ski simulator that's advertised on TV seems like a great deal. You shuffle your feet back and forth, while pushing and pulling on arm poles that stick up from a platform, thereby exercising both your upper and lower body. But for that price, you get a cheap, wobbly, squeaky device made of aluminum and plastic. One user said he broke it the first time out. Other well-made ski simulators that resemble the Easy Glider (many made by Fitness Master) cost from $300 to $600. One advantage of such units is that the arms fold flat for easy storage. The concept of cross-country skiing for full-body exercise is a good one, but put your money into a piece of equipment that will last.

NORDICTRACK--In contrast with the Easy Glider, NordicTrack is a durable ski simulator. Learning to coordinate your limbs is the trick. The Nordic Co. pioneered cross-country-skiing simulators 15 years ago and has sold more than 500,000. The track is promoted as the perfect aerobic workout because it demands work in large sweeping motions by both your legs and arms. Studies show that NordicTrack users are very fit. "It does everything it says it does," Westcott says. Although its promoters say, "If you can walk, you can NordicTrack," it's not as easy as all that. It takes practice and coordination to keep your hips pressing forward against a pad while you push with your feet and swing your arms. Don't get this machine unless you're willing to work hard and practice. "It's not the type of thing where you can prop up a newspaper and ride," Westcott says. The NordicTrack is well made of oak and metal, and the mechanism runs smoothly and quietly. Get personal instruction or order the instructional videotape. A few tips: Stand up straight; take small steps to start; don't use the arm cables when you begin. Remember, the motion is like walking, with opposite arms and legs moving forward and backward. Three last words: patience, patience, patience. Cost: $400 to $1,300, depending on materials used.

NORDIC FITNESS CHAIR--Here's a chair that fits right into any office or den, available in everything from leather and oak to an executive swivel model. By lifting a couple of arms on the back, you transform it into a home gym. The arms, which lock into five positions from straight up to straight down, have pulleys and handles. While sitting in the chair, you do a series of exercises from biceps curls to shoulder raises, all based on the safe, isokinetic principle of exercise: The harder you pull or push, the harder the contraption works against you. Because it has no weights, the chair can be moved easily. Its arms glide smoothly, adjust simply and lock into place without complicated levers and knobs. The chair, priced from $500 to $1,200, is anatomically designed for good back support. Sounds perfect. Well, almost. Westcott says that the chair could be easily forgotten as an attractive piece of furniture. You can't merely yank on it a couple of times between appointments--you must dutifully schedule 15 minutes or so of uninterrupted strength conditioning. A good piece if used properly and regularly.

SOLOFLEX-- Although not the only home gym on the market, this machine made its mark nearly 10 years ago with classy TV and print ads featuring some of the most gorgeous bodies in the business. The Soloflex uses "weight straps"--thick, dense rubber loops that hook over pins on the machine. When you pull or push a lever, you are pulling on resistance provided by the rubber. The sleek, self-contained unit is made of sturdy steel and--with two extra attachments--costs $1,050, a bit expensive. The problem, again, comes in learning how to use the equipment. Between exercises, you have to rearrange a rather confusing web of levers, arms, pins, bars, bands and bench. Most exercises are simple to perform, but a few--such as the bench press--require a Houdini-like contortion to wiggle into position. The Soloflex isn't recommended for beginners but rather for people familiar with the principles of exercise and weights. If you're able to spend the money and willing to spend time learning adjustments, the Soloflex could be your home gym. No, the gorgeous body in the ad doesn't come with the machine. You have to work for that.

If you're thinking about exercising at home, you must be committed to it. Without the discipline of classes, clubs and companionship, sticking with home exercise is tough no matter what equipment you buy. Westcott says the dropout rate for home exercisers is about 50%. That means that a lot of stationary bicycles, videotapes and weights--bought with the best of intentions--are gathering dust in a corner or in a closet. "A person has to be motivated and have a little bit of understanding," Westcott says. "Be sure you try something before you buy."

Try before you buy. Think before you buy. And talk to your friends, your doctor and a fitness professional before you buy.

Consultants for this story included: Wayne Westcott, strength-training consultant for the national YMCA and a past fitness consultant for the President's Council on Physical Fitness; Paul Wright, exercise physiologist and former general manager of the Gold's Gym & Fitness Center in Pleasanton, Calif.; Bill Murray, a private trainer and competitive bodybuilder; Steve Sokol, exercise physiologist, holder of more than 20 world fitness records and national fitness consultant for a number of organizations and companies, including Nordic, and Steve Pandolf, a manager of Fitness Concepts exercise equipment.

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