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Months after COVID-19 first began spreading in the U.S., many states have loosened their lockdowns. Gyms are reopening, though often with new restrictions in place, in many states already and are set to open soon in others.
But as the coronavirus crisis continues, you may be questioning whether you want to risk entering a crowded indoor space full of shared surfaces, where everyone is breathing heavily. Indeed, researchers in South Korea examined one outbreak tied to a group of fitness centers and concluded that “the moist, warm atmosphere in a sports facility coupled with turbulent air flow generated by intense physical exercise can cause more dense transmission of isolated droplets.”
Another study released June 25, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found zero cases of the coronavirus among 1,896 Oslo residents who returned to gyms that had strict rules in place for cleaning and distancing. The authors caution that these results may not apply to areas with more COVID-19 in the community. And they cannot show whether the virus might have spread within a gym if one or a few of the people in the study had become infected elsewhere.
So while exercising outdoors is free and easy, perhaps it's no surprise that fitness equipment sales have also been surging—for everything from dumbbells to high-end cardio equipment.
The U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines (PDF) recommend doing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (half that amount if it’s vigorous) and at least two whole-body strength training sessions each week. That's achievable at home, even with a very basic setup.
“There’s a misconception that you need all sorts of snazzy equipment at home, like what you see at the gym, but that’s just not the case,” says Michael Piercy, M.S., C.S.C.S., an American Council on Exercise master trainer (he teaches other trainers) and owner of The LAB in Fairfield, N.J. “You can get a great workout with just a couple of pieces of equipment.”
Your Goals and Your Space
Before you start thinking about your budget, there are two key factors that will be different for everyone considering setting up a home gym: your goals and the physical space you have available.
“Start at your fitness goals,” says Peter Anzalone, who tests exercise equipment at Consumer Reports. “You want whatever equipment you’re purchasing to be able to support those goals.”
While a well-rounded program is important, some people may be more focused on strength or cardio. Or perhaps you just need variety to keep from getting bored. Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a master trainer in San Diego and author of "Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple" (Human Kinetics, 2019), suggests trying to recreate what you were doing at the gym, at least as much as possible.
The next thing to think about is space. You can get a lot done in a 6x6-foot area, including strength moves, some general calisthenics, and stretching or yoga.
For most cardio machines, you’ll need about 6 to 8 feet by 4 feet for the machine itself. With a treadmill, you’ll want a couple of feet around the perimeter and 6 feet behind it for safety, says Anzalone. A treadmill also needs sturdy floor support to handle the vibration and pounding.
Once you know what you're looking to achieve and where you can make a little room to move, you can set yourself up for success at any budget.
If You Want to Spend $15 to $1,000
At a minimum: Invest in a yoga mat (from $15), which you can use for yoga, stretching, and floor exercises.
Then, for strength training, add two sets of dumbbells ($30 and up, depending on the weights), one lighter and one heavier, McCall says. For a little more versatility, he also recommends adding a two-arm resistance band that you can attach to a door frame (from $20). “It acts like a cable machine at the gym,” says McCall. “You can do a lot of exercises from a standing position vs. seated, which engages muscles from your shoulders to your hips.”
Cardio machines are hard to afford with a limited budget, but you can find indoor stationary bikes for less than $500 and rowing machines for less than $800. Quality varies, and CR does not currently test these machines.
If you already have an outdoor bike, mounting it on a bike trainer ($100 and up) lets you easily convert it into an indoor cardio machine.
A jump rope (from $10) is another versatile option with a small price: It can provide an excellent cardio workout (and is good for circuit training), as long as you have high ceilings or outdoor space.
If you're considering buying a used treadmill, see our tips for choosing one that is likelier to last. Quality treadmills for less than $1,000 can be hard to come by, but if that is all you want in your home gym, CR recommends several treadmills right around this price. The Nautilus T616 ($1,000, shown) is durable, well-constructed, and easy to use.
If You Want to Spend $1,000 to $3,000
Keep the mat, weights, bands, and jump rope, and add a stability ball or a ball-bench hybrid (you can lift it, use it as a weight bench, or stand on it). McCall also recommends a suspension trainer (less than $200), such as the TRX, which anchors in a door frame and adds an extra stability challenge to body weight exercises.
For cardio, you have a few more options in this price range. With treadmills at this price, says Anzalone, expect a little more horsepower, a slightly thicker deck, a slightly larger running surface, and more connectivity (like Bluetooth) options than you'd get with the least expensive models.
You can get a fully featured folding treadmill (good for tight spaces) like the Sole F80 for about $1,500. It comes with a chest strap heart rate monitor (key for tracking your intensity and progress over time) and a variety of exercise programs.
An elliptical can also be a smart addition for low-impact cardio. Within this price range, you can get a relatively heavy-duty machine with options for resistance, a wide variety of exercise programs, and nicer displays than you'd find with the least expensive models, Anzalone says.
The Schwinn 470, $900, is a solid machine that comes with 11 different incline levels to help customize your workout. And the price is a relative steal—less than half that of some similar models.
If You Want to Spend $3,000 to $8,000+
Plan for all of the above resistance training equipment, but expand your weight collection. If space is a concern, look into adjustable dumbbells that range from 3 to 50 pounds in one compact set.
You don’t need a multi-gym, a large piece of equipment that allows you to do different strength moves with a range of weight (usually in a seated position).
“I think even at high budgets, functional equipment options (dumbbells and a suspension trainer) add more value, versatility, and bang for your buck than a multi-gym,” says Piercy at The LAB in New Jersey.
If you do want to go the multi-gym route, he recommends a cable-based machine, which is more versatile and challenging.
Looking for more instruction for your weight workouts? Interactive home gyms such as Mirror and Tonal ($1,500 and up), where a virtual trainer (via a large display) walks you through moves for a variety of workouts—including Pilates, boxing, and yoga—are designed to make it feel like you have a trainer in the room with you.
Add a fitness tracker or smartwatch if you want to monitor your stats during exercise and track your progress over time.
With cardio machines in this high-end range, you’ll get larger, high-definition displays on treadmills and even access to live content, meaning you can take classes in real time with other people around the world.
The Peloton Tread treadmill, $4,300—top-rated by CR's testers—does this well, with a wide variety of content (provided via a built-in app, $39 per month) for running and walking, yoga, weights, and more. If you’re missing the social aspect that a gym provides, this option can be very appealing. (Deliveries of the Peloton Tread were temporarily suspended in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The company has resumed deliveries to certain areas.)
When it comes to high-end treadmills, Peloton is not your only option. Our treadmill ratings include sturdy, versatile models from Precor and Sole.
Pair your weights, virtual classes, and treadmill with a bike or rower ($500 and up) and you’ll start to wonder why you ever left your house to go to a gym at all.
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