Selecting Exercise Equipment

Because winter weather makes it more difficult to exercise outside, many people consider purchasing indoor exercise equipment to maintain their fitness program. Unfortunately, not all of the exercise products available for home use are particularly useful or durable. Worse yet, some carry a high risk of injury, especially for individuals with predisposing problems such as sensitive shoulders, lower back weakness, or poor balance. Let’s take a look at the benefits and disadvantages of several popular home exercise machines to help you with your purchasing decisions.

Exercise Cycles

Time-tested, tried and true, it is hard to beat a well-designed exercise cycle for a safe and effective home training device. A major advantage of cycles is the body support you receive from a sturdy seat. This is very important for persons who are overweight, in poor physical condition, or unsteady on their feet. Another plus for cycling is the externally applied resistance. Rather than working against your bodyweight, which may be too difficult for many people, you can easily adjust the work tension to an appropriate effort level. Also, the resistance can be conveniently changed throughout your exercise session, with less tension for your warm-up and cool-down segments, and more tension during the mid-ride.

The pedaling action is a normal and comfortable movement pattern, that involves the large muscles of the legs, thighs and hips. When positioned properly on the cycle, there should be little stress on the knees, lower back or shoulders, making cycling a relatively low-risk indoor exercise activity.

In comparison to other types of exercise equipment, stationary cycles are generally less expensive and more durable. A good cycle will function well for decades, with little more than some occasional oil applications and resistance pad replacements. Also, cycles have rather small space requirements.

If you like to read while you exercise, cycling is one of the few activities in which your upper body and head remain motionless, making it easy to focus your eyes on written materials. All things considered, a good indoor cycle is my first recommendation for at-home exercise equipment.


Certainly, the most natural physical activity is walking, and a visit to any health club confirms the popularity of treadmill walking as the premier indoor exercise. If you do not have difficulty walking outdoors, then you should soon become just as comfortable on a well-constructed, motor driven treadmill. Although balance and concentration are clearly more critical when the treadmill belt is moving under your feet, most people quickly acclimate to treadmill walking.

Like cycling, this indoor activity addresses the large muscles of the lower body, but it involves upper body action as well. The effort level may be increased by speeding up the belt or by raising the incline so that you are walking uphill.

The major disadvantage of training on a home treadmill is the purchase price. It is almost impossible to find a treadmill with sturdy construction, sufficient motor power, stable belt function, and smooth operation for less than $3,000.00. Less expensive models rarely hold up to the constant landing forces produced by your bodyweight against the belt frame and motor. Non-motor driven treadmills are almost always problematic and not recommended.

If you can designate enough money and space for a quality treadmill, you should not be disappointed with this indoor exercise activity. Just be sure to buy one with a fine reputation and a good warranty.

Step Machines

Step machines provide a fairly demanding workout, because you must lift your bodyweight against gravity throughout the training session. If you have difficulty climbing stairs this is not the best choice of indoor equipment, but if you desire a more challenging form of exercise it may be ideal.

When performed properly, meaning with an erect body posture and without leaning on your hands or arms, stepping provides excellent exercise for your legs, thighs, and hips. Leaning forward reduces the exercise effectiveness and can cause damage to the nerves in the hands and wrists.

Motorized step machines are typically durable enough to withstand the bodyweight forces encountered with every leg movement. Unfortunately, non-motorized steppers generally lack the sturdy construction and functional capacity to hold up satisfactorily under regular use.

If you are pretty well-conditioned and can afford a well-constructed motorized step machine, then you should attain much physical benefit from this indoor activity. Otherwise, you would probably be better off with a different equipment selection.

Rowing Machines

As an overall exercise, it is hard to beat rowing. In addition to the aerobic benefits of this vigorous physical activity, the rowing action involves the muscles of the legs, thighs, hips, lower back, upper back and arms. Although rowing requires quite a bit of lower body and upper body coordination, most people can master the action with proper instruction.

If you are not reasonably fit, rowing may be a little too physically demanding for a beginning exercise activity. Also, if you suffer from low back problems, it may be best to choose a less stressful exercise.

From a practical perspective, rowers that use wind resistance are much more realistic than those that incorporate hydraulic resistance. Although rowing machines are relatively affordable, most models require more floor space than cycles and steppers.

Ski Machines

Like rowing, cross-country ski machines involve both upper body and lower body movements. They also require a learning curve to master the coordinated arm and leg actions. The overall effect is an excellent aerobic workout, with very low impact forces. Nonetheless, experience indicates that this is one exercise you should feel comfortable performing before you purchase the equipment. Cross-country ski machines can be reasonably priced but they do require a fair amount of floor space.


The so-called riders that have been highly-advertised and extremely popular over the past few years generally require too little effort from a cardiorespiratory perspective and cause too much stress from a musculoskeletal perspective. More specifically, the repetitive flexion and extension of the hip and back presents unnecessary injury risk, and is certainly not a recommended activity for persons predisposed to low back or hip problems.


In the final analysis, the best exercise equipment is that which you are most likely to use on a regular basis. Just be certain that the activity you select emphasizes rhythmic action in the major muscle groups and has a low injury potential. If you are just beginning, consider that simpler may be better in terms of the exercise movements and performance requirements.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books on fitness including Building Strength and Stamina, and his most recent publication, Strength Training Past 50.

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021