This has been a good winter for the home gym business. Yes, a big warm-up started in February, but it was freezing cold well before the winter solstice. “We had our coldest spell in November,” notes Peter Sharpless, manager of Omni Fitness at the Princeton Shopping Center. The combination of cold and short days is what drives people from sidewalks and tow paths into showrooms full of treadmills, exercise bikes, and weight training machines.

“Our busy time of year is October through the end of April,” says Sharpless. But summer can be good too. “We pray for heat waves and rain.”

The home gym business is booming for reasons totally unrelated to the weather, too. Managers of area fitness stores say that time-pressed commuters are among their best customers. But an even bigger segment of business often comes from new moms. Neither a 12-hour day in Manhattan nor an infant on a schedule make it easy to get to a gym. The alternative is often some sort of home gym set-up. In newer homes, there is often an entire room full of aerobic and weight training machines — and sometimes multiples of each type of equipment, says Sharpless, who has observed that a number of central New Jersey families “have dedicated fitness rooms that put gyms to shame.”

But who hasn’t been to a home with a garage full of cast-off elliptical machines and NordicTracks? Who, in fact, has never — not even once — lived in a home where a treadmill served as a coat rack or storage platform for boxes of out-of-season clothing?

Are there ways to make sure that exercise equipment will not become a poor excuse for sculpture? Are there ways to try out the at-home fitness option without spending a fortune?

The Gym Source, with a showroom at 1325 Route 206, has a New York City division (212-688-4222) that offers an alternative to the straight-out purchase of an aerobic exercise machine, a piece of equipment that can easily cost $3,000. “We rent out treadmills, bikes, and elliptical machines,” says Helen Duggan. But, interestingly enough, she is not enthusiastic about doing so. “It’s expensive,” she says.

The rental for one piece of equipment is $495 a month, plus delivery and pick-up. Still, she says, there are some people who are willing to take on the expense. “It’s good for a short period of time,” she says. Again, new mothers are big customers. While they can put their children into gym nurseries when they are older, few gyms will take infants, and almost all gyms promptly summon mom as soon as her baby starts to howl — a not uncommon phenomenon in the very young.

Other rental customers are people who want to keep exercising through the worst of the winter, but who don’t want the equipment hanging around all year long. For them, says Duggan, a three-month rental can make sense. Anyone who wants two pieces of equipment can get the second piece at a discount. If one month is enough to convince a rental customer that he loves his machine, and wants to keep it, one month’s rent will be subtracted from the sale price.

Another option for those who know themselves well enough to guess that the thrill of jogging in front of the TV will not last forever, is buying used equipment. Fitness Lifestyles (www.fitnesslifestyles.com), which has a 50,000 square-foot showroom in a former department store in Asbury Park, is one of the few fitness stores that does a big business in used equipment. The store, the largest on the East Coast, according to fitness consultant Jacki Franz, does a big business selling to commercial customers, including schools and corporations. When these customers are ready to trade up, their equipment is often for sale in the store.

The stuff often isn’t pretty, says Franz, and it may be noisy, but for some people, it fills the bill. “I had a gentleman just before the winter,” she says. “He needed a treadmill. I thought it was loud, but he said ‘sounds great! I’ll take it!’”

Strength training equipment may be banged up after a stint in a school weight room, but, says Franz, “it will last through the next Ice Age.” Cardio equipment, on the other hand, is more of a risk when purchased second hand. “A lot depends on maintenance,” she says. “Did they lubricate it? Did they keep it clean? Was it kept in the garage?”

“We get the thing going,” she says, “but we don’t do a nose to tail. It would cost too much.” And cost is the appeal of the used equipment. It’s possible to buy a gym-quality treadmill that has seen better days for as little as $200, she says. New it would cost anywhere from $3,000 to over $6,000.

The store doesn’t always have a deep selection of every type of fitness machine, so Franz suggests calling ahead before driving over.

Whether an exerciser is buying new or used, Franz says that it is extremely important to talk with a fitness expert first, and to try out the equipment. “It’s sort of like buying shoes,” she says.

Who hasn’t fallen for a pair of stunning pumps, or exalted in finding a hugely discounted pair of wing tips, only to find the wretched footwear unbearably uncomfortable after just one evening? It’s the same with treadmills and elliptical machines and exercise bikes, says Franz. They have to fit well and they have to be comfortable. Franz is convinced that the whole treadmill-as-hat-rack thing has its roots in a bad match between man and machine — or a machine that is so badly made that it would not be a good match for anyone.

A treadmill, for example, has to be bouncy, or running on it will be like running on concrete, and shin splints could well occur. But if it’s too bouncy, using it will be like running on sand, and legs may become so fatigued that running will quickly become torture. One good test for a treadmill, says Franz, is to bounce a ball on it. If the treadmill shakes, it may be too bouncy. It if holds fairly steady, just dampening the impact, it may be just right.

But is a treadmill, any treadmill, the best thing to buy if an exerciser wants to keep up an indoor fitness routine, but has room for only one piece of equipment? If a choice between an aerobic machine — in the form of a treadmill, bike, or elliptical machine — and a weight training machine must be made, which is best?

“It depends on your goals,” says Franz, “but if you have limited space, I’d say go with strength.” Few people want to hear this, she finds. “They think weight is work, it’s boring, it’s just up and down, up and down. They think cardio is fun.” But, she points out, “you can go outside and do cardio.” For a well-rounded fitness routine, strength training, which increases lean muscle mass, is important. There are now weight training machines that will fit easily into a 4’ X 6’ room, she says. Space does not have to be the deciding factor.

Still, each exerciser is unique, and not everyone will want to follow Franz’ home gym advice. Franz, herself, likes to visit a commercial gym after a full day of selling gym equipment to homeowners, offices, and schools. Many of her customers tell her that they like to exercise in private. But Franz, who also has some exercise equipment at home, really likes going out to a gym. “I like being in a place where everyone is exercising,” she says. “I like not hearing the phone ring or worrying about having to read the mail.”

Crowded parking lots at every gym in the area prove that Franz is not alone. It’s harder to see the home gym movement, but area fitness stores confirm that it’s going strong. Until azaleas replace every last trace of ice and the sun stays out long enough to greet the crowd detraining from the 7:18 from Manhattan, home gyms are likely to be alive with the sound of whirring treadmill motors and clanking weights.

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