New Consumer Reports fitness equipment reviews will inevitably spark lively debate

Nothing says "Happy New Year" more than the arrival of fitness equipment reviews in the venerable Consumer Reports magazine -- and the ensuing vibrant debate about the pros and cons of the reviews. This year, as in last, the fitness review section in the February issue, just out to subscribers in late December, is large. The 2009 section took eight pages, 12 if you count the section on dieting and strategies to stay thin.
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Nothing says "Happy New Year" more than the arrival of fitness equipment reviews in the venerable Consumer Reports magazine -- and the ensuing vibrant debate about the pros and cons of the reviews.

Of course, Consumer Reports (CR) isn't the only source of reviews that consumers read with gusto. Others out recently, albeit not as broadly distributing in mailboxes around America as CR, but just as hotly debated, are those by Treadmill Doctor and relative newcomer Fitness Professor. (Click here to see an Oct. 29, 2007, SNEWS® story about the roll-out of the Treadmill Doctor pay-per-click ad program with its 2008 reviews, and click here to see a Dec. 3, 2007, story about the launch of Fitness Professor a year ago.). SNEWS will take a look at the reviews on these and other fitness-centric Internet sites in another story.

Consumer Reports has a cache, however, that spread into the bowels of middle America, especially as those ever-chubbier Americans seek a quick fix. This year, as in last, the fitness review section in the February issue, just out to subscribers in late December, is large. The 2009 section took eight pages, 12 if you count the section on dieting and strategies to stay thin.

In the past, engineers at the magazine, run by the non-profit Consumers Union, have told SNEWS that it has not only expanded the section, but also moved into higher-priced equipment based on high reader interest in the topic. Click here to see our Jan. 4, 2008, report on last year's ratings.

Get real on TV gear

For the second consecutive year, the section kicks off with a look at infomercial machines, calling out what CR says are ones that work vs. "duds." The magazine said it used a panel of consumer testers who looked at ads, used the equipment (with $40 to $2,500 price tags), and then reported on their experiences. CR also tested muscle activity and calorie use on the pieces, compared to standard equipment or no-equipment workouts.

Included were the Ab Rocket, Rock-n-Go Exerciser, Red Exerciser DX, Bowflex TreadClimber TC5000, Cardio Twister, Tony Little Rock 'n Roll Stepper, Perfect Pushup, Perfect Pullup, and the Fluidity Bar. The least expensive was the $40 Perfect Pushup and the most was the $2,500 TreadClimber. The Rock-n-Go -- a saddle-like device you sit on as it gyrates -- was said to make users feel ridiculous or even "creepy." Some were said to be somewhat effective, but in many cases less than the standard. "The reality" for the TreadClimber as stated by the magazine was that it did indeed burn twice as many calories as a walk on a flat treadmill at the same speeds, but that users needed to watch out for tripping.

Editors also took a look at what it assembled as a home gym for less than $100 which included a stability ball, rubber resistance tubes or bands, dumbbells, an exercise mat and a DVD.

Treads, ellipticals, bikes

Forty pieces of equipment were studied for the review, including eight non-folding treadmills, 15 folding treadmills, eight ellipticals, five recumbent bikes and four upright bikes.

>> Non-folding treadmills – "Recommended" are the Landice L7 (1st) and the SportsArt TR32 (3rd) with the "Best Buy" going to the PaceMaster Platinum Pro VR, which was in 4th overall. The Landice was in the top spot for the fourth time in four years. Not on the list at all were any Vision models, where last year the company had two listed, including the T9200 as the Best Buy.

>> Folding treadmills – Recommended models were the Bowflex 7-series (1st and a repeat of last year), Proform Crosswalk 580 (10th), Gold's Gym Maxx Crosswalk 650 (13th) and the LifeSpan TR2000 (14th). The category's Best Buys were the Epic View 550 (3rd overall and a repeat of last year) and the Sole F63 (7th overall). The SportsArt TR21f snuck into second above the Epic. Called out for its unique design was the Lifespan as being a very compact folding model for smaller spaces.

>> Ellipticals – Perhaps most surprising was Precor's non-appearance, falling off totally after a repeat last year of its lock on the top spot with the 5.31. Life Fitness last year dropped to fourth with the X1 from a second for the X3 two years earlier in the last elliptical rankings, but also didn't make it onto this list. Octane also disappeared from the rankings.

Diamondback's 1260 Ef was not only in the top spot but also called out as Recommended; in second was the SportsArt E83, followed by LifeCore's LC985VG, which also took a CR Best Buy.

>> Recumbent bikes – New to this year's list, Spirit's XBR25 was first and took the Best Buy. None others were even checked off as recommended.

>> Upright bikes – Also a new category, Schwinn's 130 was listed as Recommended in the first place but none were listed as a Best Buy. In second was a bike (CO-BU130) from Omega Fitness out of France.

Heart rate monitors and pedometers

Also included in this issue was a page on monitors for your heart rate and steps.

The heart rate monitor category was broken into three sub-categories for modes with chest straps, those that use a wrist-top monitor a user must touch, and finger models. None received Recommended or Best Buy ratings. Top of the line for those with chest straps was the Timex Personal Trainer 5G971, followed by the Acumen EON Basix Plus, the Omron, HR-100 and the Reebok RS1. Last of the five listed was the Polar FS1. The magazine noted that all will give accurate readings.

The Sportline Solo 960 was the top pick and LifeSpan's finger touch monitor was noted as convenient albeit less accurate.

Six standard step and distance pedometers were ranked with the Omron HJ-112 in the top spot with a Best Buy, with Accusplit's AE190XLG in second. Among speed and distance monitors (those using a GPS and more popular among runners than walkers), two were listed with the Garmin Forerunner 205 coming out head-and-shoulders above the Timex Ironman 5E701 with an overall score of 85 to 69.

The issue and its rankings are only available to subscribers. Go to www.consumerreports.org to find out more.

--Therese Iknoian

SNEWS® View: Two years ago, the magazine had a total of two pages on equipment; last year, it had 10 editorial pages. CR is indeed taking its readers' interests to heart. We know this report will raise all kinds of discussion (feel free to click below to input your feedback in the SNEWS Chat to share with others), but as always we are pleased the magazine is looking at higher-end pieces. There are a few glaring omissions. For example, we are perplexed why Octane didn't make it onto the elliptical list or why Precor and Life Fitness fell off totally. Not as if CR will tell you the why's or wherefore's of its picks. That's all part of the mystery.

After you've had your say in our Chat area, below, click here to find a SNEWS Training Center piece for retailers, "Tips on dealing with customers bearing product reviews from websites, magazines" in our Sales Techniques category. It offers some tips on how to address all those queries you'll get from customers, whether you carry the equipment recommended or not. It's time to make sure you and your staff are fully prepped.

--SNEWS Editors

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