Gym dandy: building a home fitness centre

How to build a home fitness centre you'll actually use.

If the term “home gym” conjures up images in your mind of rusty barbells and a creaky old stationary cycle moldering away in a corner of your basement, I know how you feel. But working out at home doesn’t have to resemble a trip to the dungeon. Fitness buffs (and those who aspire to be) are beginning to realize that spending a bit more on your personal workout centre can transform a joyless routine into something you actually enjoy. The best news? Since the whole point of a home gym is to encourage you to exercise more often, you can regard the cost of painting and decorating your own private fitness facility as an investment in your health.

Just ask Louis and Jane Brownley of Toronto. When they decided to build a home gym in their basement eight years ago, they hired a personal trainer to help design the room and make sure it was a fun, practical space the whole family would enjoy. “We painted the room a bright color,” says Jane. “We also put a mirror against one wall with a ballet barre, installed a TV and stereo system and added some plants.”

The Brownleys didn’t ignore the actual mechanics of working out, either. Their 46-sq-m gym contains a recumbent bike designed for people, such as Jane, who suffer from back problems. It also holds a high-end treadmill for Louis’s cardio workouts, a full set of barbells for beefing up the family’s muscles and a yoga mat and Pilates ball for some serious stretching with a personal trainer three times a week. Total cost for this fully equipped (and very handsome) workout palace? About $13,000.

If that sounds pricey, consider that gym memberships can run about $700 a year per person. At that rate, a couple with two children can make a $13,000 home gym pay for itself in about five years. The trick, of course, is making sure that you will actually use the space. Here are some tips to help you get a gym that you will return to time and time again:

Get a pro’s opinion

Every gym needs two components, says Charles Kuntzleman, adjunct associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan. The first is a cardio machine such as a treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical trainer that can give your heart and lungs a good aerobic workout. The second is some type of weight-training device to help build muscle and bone density. Before you buy anything, spend $100 or so for a couple of hours with a qualified personal trainer. He or she can assess your fitness level and equipment needs.

Know your budget

Consider carefully how much you have to spend. “Exercise equipment doesn’t have to be expensive but it should be high quality in terms of safety,” says Tim Irvine, president of Totum Life Science in Toronto. “You can get a basic stationary bike, some dumbbells and a Pilates ball for under $1,000. But if you can spend more, especially for cardio machines, you should, because higher-end units will give you a more pleasurable ride.”

Location is everything

Many people find the thought of working out in their basement just too depressing. If that’s you, consider alternatives. Peter Beck, president of Swift Trade Inc. of Toronto, and his wife Sondra put a gym in the third story of their home five years ago. “The best thing we did was not putting it in our pretty dark basement,” says Beck, who has a personal trainer come to his home three mornings a week to put him and his wife through a boxing and weightlifting regimen. “It was a pain in the butt getting the fitness equipment up to the third floor but it makes such a difference. It’s become a pleasant, inviting routine for us.”

Pull your weight

The simplest weighttraining device is an inexpensive set of dumbbells or barbells. To get a full workout, you should also buy a good 91-cm workout bench with a reclinable back ($250 and up). If you want to get serious about muscle building, add a weight resistance machine that uses cables and weights to work your shoulders, legs and arms. Prices for a good universal home gym start at $3,000 for respected brands such as Vectra.

Don’t be seduced by infomercials

Don’t waste your money ordering gadgets for your home gym from a TV infomercial. Most televised tummy tighteners, ab workers and fat burners are overpriced disappointments. You can get a better workout by using a basic set of dumbbells and a mat. Televised gadgets are “wasted money,” says Jason Gee, a personal trainer and director of fitness at Personal Fitness Consulting in Toronto. “You’re better off putting that money towards a set of good weights or a better cardio machine every time.”

Test drive your gear

Before buying a stationary bike, treadmill or elliptical trainer, ask to try it out. Put on your workout gear and give the machine at least a 10-minute, full-speed trial. Pay attention to how smoothly the machine moves and how comfortable it is. Would you be happy to use the machine three times a week for the next decade?

If you’re not ready to commit, ask about renting before buying so you can assess a machine at your own pace. Don’t be surprised if you find that the machine that seemed fine at first strikes you as a bit cheap and underequipped after a couple of months of steady usage.

You’ll pay about $120 a month to rent a treadmill or $75 to rent a stationary bike. Boomerang, a subsidiary of Fitness Depot, will even absorb the rental charge into the final purchase price.

Go big if you are big

There is a direct correlation between price and quality when it comes to cardio machines. Especially if you weigh 115 kg or more, it’s smart to pay a bit more. “Cardio machines take a pounding,” says Irvine. “If you’re over 115 kg, you really need a higher-end commercial model. They have stronger motors and are built to take a lot of abuse.” If you’re buying a treadmill or a stationary bike, shy away from anything with too many bolts, which tend to come loose and make the frame shake and squeak. Consumer Reports rates the Schwinn 113 ($465) as a best buy in stationary bikes. For treadmills and elliptical trainers, stick with reputable models such as Precor and True and count on paying $2,700 to $5,000 for a model that allows you to adjust your program and platform.