In a refreshing New Year's consumer review of exercise equipment, Consumers Digest has taken an educated look at specialty equipment with what seemed to be an unbiased, thorough and thoughtful eye.
While equipment reviews by other publications are sometimes touted by manufacturers but also ridiculed behind the scenes for questionable results and methods, even manufacturers not selected as Best Buys by this Consumers Digest review can still point to it as an article filled with solid exercise and buying advice, as well as commendable choices overall.
Nevertheless, the most ecstatic among readers will of course be the 12 suppliers picked in four categories -- treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes and home gyms -- as the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me in each of three price classifications per category. Why? The bimonthly publication is said to have used and analyzed some 100 pieces of equipment to hone down the list to its top dozen.
"January 1 marks a new year for all of us, but it might also signal a new beginning and a new way of life for you if you've decided to start exercising," wrote author and reviewer Michael Bracko, an exercise physiologist based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who is also a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. "Only you can decide which piece of exercise equipment best suits your fitness goals, lifestyle, physical condition and, equally important, the available space in your home or apartment."
In each category, the Digest in its January/February 2004 issue opted against rating "apples to oranges" in terms of price, which naturally also translates into features and quality. Instead of overall ratings, it choose in each category what it considered No. 1 in "premium selection" ("full featured and priced accordingly"), in "mid-range selection" ("offers many popular features and good performance at a price below the top of the line"), and in "economy selection" ("offers satisfactory performance with basic features only at an advantageous price for cost-conscious purchasers").
In addition, although some publications either accept or even encourage communication from vendors, which doesn't appear much different than polling-place campaigning and is about as ethical, Consumers Digest only contacts vendors for basic data such as pricing and availability after the review is underway, then declines any other contact until the review is complete. It did not actually buy the equipment, but tests and uses it at a variety of specialty fitness and sporting goods stores.
However, one quiet wrinkle in this seeming lack of bias: Consumers Digest (issue price $3.99) only allows those companies selected as tops to use a Best Buy logo, name and tagline in their promotions if they buy into an intricate licensing package that includes substantial annual fees of several tens of thousands of dollars. That unfortunately raises questions about future bias based on whether a company opts in or out of the fee.
With those methods in mind, the best are, according to Consumers Digest:
>> Treadmills: premium, Precor 9.33; mid-range, PaceMaster Pro Plus II; economy, Schwinn 820p.
>> Ellipticals: premium, Life Fitness x5i; mid-range, Octane Q35e; economy, Tunturi C6.
>> Stationary bikes: premium, Bodyguard Fitness Organic Series V; mid-range, LeMond RevMaster; economy, Vision E3000.
>> Home gyms: premium, Vectra On-Line 1850; mid-range, Bodycraft XPress; economy, Tuff Stuff CFM.
"Less than 3 percent of all products reviewed by Consumers Digest are rated as a Best Buy," Alan Gore of Bodycraft told SNEWSÂ®. "We are flattered, and proud to have received another Best Buy rating on the BodyCraft XPress home gym."
Relative newcomer, elliptical-only company Octane Fitness, also told SNEWS the rating was a feather in its cap: "We are very excited to be recognized in a national publication like Consumers Digest," said Tim Porth, Octane's co-founder and vice president of marketing. "Independent research like this helps to validate our product research and development. It really pumps up our team and dealers."
Particularly refreshing were not only the credentials of author Bracko, but the emphasis the article also placed on overall education and sane buying advice. Sidebars in plain-speak steeped in science covered how to start an exercise program, how to choose equipment, and American College of Sports Medicine exercise recommendations.
"The most important question to answer is whether the piece of exercise equipment you are considering is something you will use on a regular basis," Bracko wrote.
Of course, it won't be all glee in the fitness industry over the review. Certainly some will still find fault in the methods. And others -- those left out or even panned -- will disagree with the choices. For example, a Keys treadmill feature is cited as exemplary, but no Keys product rated a Best Buy. And the Bowflex received a blow with the statement that the reviewer and magazine found it "among the most confusing ever sampled. As well, the quality of the workout is inferior to numerous home-gym options."
SNEWS View: All in all, we think the sanity with which the article is written and the information presented sheds a flattering light on the entire industry -- and will indeed send consumers to specialty fitness retailers since the product is nearly exclusively sold at those shops. That should mean more exposure for other specialty products and the stores in general. That's all positive. On the other hand, we quibble a bit with the one rating we perceived as "apples to oranges:" the stationary bike category. We won't say we don't like the LeMond RevMaster; we do like it. But to put an indoor cycling bike up against normal stationary bikes is a bit unfair overall. And some would argue the LeMond cycle -- although a good one -- isn't necessarily the best ride or the most adjustable of indoor cycle bikes. Now, about the publication allowing companies to pay it money -- lots and lots of it, as a matter of fact -- to use the rating. Sigh, that is a black spot indeed, and we wish that feature didn't exist. If someone earned a legit Best Buy, the company should be able to use it and not be forced to fork out wads of dough; the pressure among those chosen to pay for the prize will be great.