A few years ago, in January, Barb Lito and her husband decided to bite the bullet and buy some home exercise equipment.
"We both had gym memberships, but with demanding jobs and family commitments, we were not making that time to get to the gym," said Lito, who works as superintendent of recreation programs for Newport News Parks and Recreation.
Their daughter, who was 10 years old at the time, was too old for the nursery but too young to turn loose at the gym.
Working out at home was getting more attractive. There, she or her husband could squeeze in a workout whenever they found a spare 30 minutes. "It was the convenience factor," Lito said.
So they canceled their gym memberships and headed to Sears where they spent about $2,000 on a pair of NordicTrack machines — an elliptical trainer and a treadmill.
Despite what cynics might be thinking, this story has a happy ending. Today, at least two years later, those machines aren't simply gathering dust in a corner.
Lito, her husband and her daughter have all used them to burn calories and build muscle.
"I love my stationary equipment," Lito said. "I like the flexibility. And in the long run, it's worked out well for us financially."
That doesn't mean that it's necessary to spend thousands of dollars to get a good workout at home. Local experts and enthusiasts we interviewed, including Lito, told us what to look for in home exercise equipment in all price ranges.
Let's start at the bottom and work our way up, beginning with what you tie on your feet.
Taking a jog around the block is one of the quickest ways to get started with an exercise program. Consider your feet before pounding the pavement too much, though. "If your feet are hurting, it's going to discourage you from running," said Mike Robinson, owner of Running Etc., a Norfolk shop specializing in shoes and other running gear. "If you can get your feet happy, that's one less excuse to keep you from going out the door tomorrow."
Joe Harney, president of the Peninsula Track Club, said shoes should be replaced regularly, too. He said a pair's effective life is about 400 miles. "When you see white on the edge of the heel, it's time to get a new pair. Otherwise, if you run enough, you're going to come up with pain somewhere. I can almost guarantee it."
Harney suggests buying two pairs at a time — once you find a pair that works well for you. "Companies change styles too much, you may go back to buy another pair and find they no longer make them."
A well-made pair of running shoes typically costs $50 to $125.
Mats and bars
"A lot of times you can use your own body weight," said Mark Palamarchuck, instructional program supervisor for Newport News Parks and Recreation. Pull-ups, chin-ups and sit-ups require nothing more than a bar or a mat. The bars are available from discount stores and often fit over door frames. A yoga-style exercise mat will cost $20 or less at a discount store.
"With free weights or a stability ball, there are a lot of things you can do without spending a lot of money," said Andre Moore, senior director of wellness and membership at the Newport News YMCA.
"With dumbbells, you have a choice of neoprene-covered or just iron," he said. "It's just personal preference and comfort." He said the price shouldn't be more than a couple of dollars per pound. "If someplace is asking you to pay $5 or more a pound, go somewhere else."
For those choosing how much weight to use, Moore suggested using this test: Do two or three sets of 12 to 15 lifts, such as a curl. "If you are straining on the last couple of reps, that's probably a good weight for you."
Typically, people just starting out use hand weights of 3-5 pounds.
Inflatable stability balls and old-fashioned weighted balls — also known as medicine balls — have rolled back into fashion among fitness experts.
The weighted spheres can be used to add resistance to a wide variety of exercises.
"They're tried-and-true and they work. I think people are realizing that," Palamarchuck said. "They're very versatile." He suggested using them with crunches or squats.
They're also readily available. You'll find them at sporting goods stores as well as big box discounters such as Wal-Mart.
Moore suggested beginners start with a 4-pound medicine ball. "Start with something lower than what you can handle, then increase."
Exercise experts also recommended using the inflatable stability balls. Look for models with an anti-burst feature and be sure to buy the right size ball for the user's height.
Recorded exercise programs offer workout expertise in a convenient digital package. They're not only for neophytes, either. Some workout DVDs, including the much-advertised P90X system, are intended for folks who have already established an exercise habit.
"The P90X is advanced type training. It's very, very intensive," said Moore, of the Newport News YMCA. "It's probably something you would work up to."
Mary Walker, who runs the Poquoson-based Take Charge Personal Fitness Training, recommended DVDs from the following exercise gurus:
•Leslie Sansone, whose titles include "Walk at Home"
•Kathy Smith, star of discs including "Dance Your Body Slim."
•Denise Austin, whose videos include "Three-week Boot Camp"
Mark Palamarchuck, with Newport News Parks and Recreation, suggested checking out exercise programs on cable television that won't cost you a penny extra.
Fitness video games
" Wii Fit" is the exercise system that seems to be hogging the spotlight these days. In October, Nintendo introduced "Wii Fit Plus," which offered an upgrade to the original set of interactive exercises.
"As far as entry level, I think it's great," Palamarchuck said. The Wii does offer a variety of activities, which can help fend off boredom, he said. "But personally, I wouldn't do it day in and day out. It's not enough for me. But it's a good way to start and it does help you set achievable goals ... It's a good alternate day. For example, if you don't feel like doing the DVD, it's a good thing to have as an alternative."
Mary Walker of Take Charge Personal Fitness doesn't discourage Wii use. "I've never tried it, but if it's getting people to move and think about exercising, it's fine," she said. "If it's getting people up off the couch, that's positive."
Starting from scratch with the Wii Fit Plus system will cost you at least $329.99. That sale price from the Nintendo Web site includes the Wii System and the game's newest fitness bundle.
The game "Dance Dance Revolution," also from Nintendo, isn't as trendy as The Wii, but it does offer a reasonable cardio workout, Palamarchuck said.
The Brittingham-Midtown Community Center on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News is equipped with Vision Fitness brand stationary bicycles. That brand is available for home use. Fitness Resource, a shop near Patrick Henry Mall, stocks a full line of Vision Fitness bikes, both upright and recumbent, meaning they are ridden from a reclining position. Those range in price from about $500 to $900.
The same shop also offers treadmills and elliptical machines. Ellipticals are similar to stair-stepping machines, but also works the arms.
"The elliptical is my favorite piece of equipment — you get both an upper and lower body work out," said Barb Lito, who enjoys exercising at home. "It's a good program to start on. You can change speed and incline and do interval training. But I love treadmills, too, because you can walk at first and build up slowly. But if you have any joint issues, then that might not be the right choice."
When buying exercise equipment, look for a model that comes with a heart rate monitor, Moore from the Newport News YMCA said. "Some also have a chart that shows you where you should be for fat burning or cardio training. That will help you fine tune your workout to help you reach the goals you want to hit."
Moore said that exercise machines often end up being more of a clothes hanger than anything else, so it's important to buy a machine you might actually enjoy.
"If you're not a runner, don't get a treadmill," Moore said. "If you have knee problems, an elliptical trainer would be better. If you're going to spend that kind of money, make sure you enjoy doing the activity. If you enjoy it, you're going to get good use out of it."
Every January our focus turns to improving our health and fitness in the new year so the Daily Press will be giving you tools to help you succeed in this endeavor. Every day this week, you will find a health or fitness story to help guide you: Sunday: We tell you about some great indoor play areas so you can encourage your children to stay active during the cold winter months. Monday: We talk with a dietition and give you tips for improving your nutrition. Tuesday: We tell you how to shop for a gym membership. Wednesday: We talk with a local retirement community chef about changing diet and eating habits as we age. Today: We detail five ways to get fit at home. Saturday: We tell you about saunas and spas and their role in our well-being. ONLINE. And all month, go to dailypress.com/health/ and click on Health Key headlines for loads of tools and information for making the new year a healthier one for you and your family.
Home workout tips Here's some general home exercise advice from Mark Palamarchuck, instructional program supervisor for Newport News Parks and Recreation. Find the right space Your workout area needs to have minimal distractions — get away from the cell phone or Blackberry. Look for an open space with adequate lighting. Most any clear floor space is fine — wood, linoleum or carpet, it really shouldn't matter. But try to stay away from concrete because of its impact. Schedule a time You should schedule and set aside a specific time that is meant for exercise. Actually write it on your planner. Vary your workout Try to get some kind of variety in your workout; otherwise boredom will come into play. Try to have at least two or three exercises you can rotate through. Watch for signs that you've over done it •Difficulty sleeping •Intense pain. Know the difference between aches and soreness and something more serious. If it hurts to do something where you are cringing in pain, it's not a good idea to do that anymore. •Headache •Nausea Make a playlist Choose music that you enjoy and that inspires you. Find a partner A friend or spouse will help keep you on track. Having someone else there sometimes is all the motivation you'll need. Once you're comfortable and, if time allows, enroll in a fitness class. Set achievable goals Start out slow and gradually increase your level of exertion. Consult with your doctor Be sure to talk to your physician before embarking on any challenging exercise program.