If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most powerful drugs ever invented, according to Consumer Reports.
Chances are, you've heard many variations of that sentiment. It's not hype. A 2010 review of 40 studies in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, for example, found that being active can help prevent about 25 conditions. Other research suggests that exercise can cut the risk of colon cancer by 60 percent, Type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, heart disease by 40 percent and Alzheimer's disease by 40 percent. Another study, which compared regular exercisers with couch potatoes, concluded that each minute of physical activity added an average of 7 minutes of life span.
Yet powerful evidence isn't powerful enough: Just 20 percent of Americans say they get the recommended amount of aerobic and strength exercise.
"Convenience and proximity are key predictors of exercise," says Carol Ewing Garber, associate professor of movement sciences at Columbia University and president elect of the American College of Sports Medicine. So it makes sense that working out at home ups the odds not only that you'll become active but also that you'll stick with a routine.
Consumer Reports consulted with experts to help you pick the machine that will best help you reach your health goals.
Goal: Just start. Because everyone knows how to walk, a treadmill may be the least intimidating machine for a beginner. But if you have hip, knee or back problems, consider an elliptical trainer, which is easier on your joints. Or think about activities that gave you pleasure earlier in life. If you liked bicycling as a child, consider indoor cycling. If you remember fond days paddling on a lake, maybe give rowing a chance.
Goal: Weight loss. Losing weight requires more exercise than getting fit does — about 3 1/2 to 5 hours a week (plus diet changes). So it's important to get a comfortable machine. A treadmill can be a good choice. But for people who are heavy or have back, knee or hip problems, a non-impact elliptical might be better. And competitive or easily bored types might opt for a spin bike or rowing machine.
Goal: Kick it up a notch. Interval training, which involves alternating intense bouts of activity with slower recovery periods in the same workout, is the top fitness trend for 2014, according to the American College of Sports Medicine survey of 3,815 fitness professionals. The workouts can be challenging, but they also let you cut exercise time while maintaining or even increasing the health benefits. You can do intervals on any cardio machine, but spin bikes — which have a weighted flywheel directly linked to the pedals — are well-suited to the technique.
Goal: Total body toning. No piece of cardiovascular equipment builds as much strength or muscle as weight machines, free weights or exercises like squats or pushups. But if you want a little toning with your cardio, Consumer Reports notes that an elliptical is a good choice. Pushing the handlebars works your triceps and chest and pulling works your back and biceps.
Goal: Cross-training. It can make sense to balance your workouts by pairing exercises that involve different muscles groups. That's especially relevant for runners. Cross-training can also help prevent sport-specific injuries. Any machine that complements your normal activity can be a good choice for cross-training.
By the editors of Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org).