It’s cold outside and there’s snow on the ground. Does this mean you can put your exercise routine on hold until the buds on the trees start to bloom? No chance-you’re not going to get off that easy. During these cold winter months, many people find alternatives to exercising outdoors. Some go to health clubs or the YMCA. Some swim indoors or go to aerobic classes. Others work out at home with an exercise video.

One alternative a lot of people turn to is an aerobic exercise machine. You yourself may have considered an exercise machine or, perhaps, with the holidays upon us, may have added one to your gift-giving list. An exercise machine might be the perfect gift for someone interested in becoming fit, even if that person is yourself.

Exercise machines are convenient because you can work out in the privacy of your own home-even the weather can’t stop you from exercising. And you don’t have to spend precious time traveling to a club.

If you’re an athlete, an exercise machine can help you stay in training during off seasons. For example, if your sport is sculling, a good rowing machine can keep you in shape when the cold weather has put a freeze on your workout.

Finally, many people use exercise machines year-round because they can read or watch television while they exercise.

If you’ve been to a sporting goods store, you know there is a variety of machines available. But before you run out to the store to buy, there are a few things you should consider.

One is cost. Home machines can be expensive, especially if you want the quality of machine you’d find in a health club. Some cost as little as $ 100, with others costing several thousand dollars. The differences are usually in construction and features added to the machine. For example, some of the more expensive machines have electronic gadgets that monitor your performance. Others add on “video-game” graphic simulators that can depict a variety of rides, such as a ride through the desert, mountains, or a city street. A lot of the difference in cost has to do with the quality of construction. Many times spending less on a machine isn’t a good bargain because the quality and performance of the machine are poor. But you can still get a good, inexpensive machine by avoiding some of the luxuries.

And then there is space. Exercise machines take up room. If you live in a small home or apartment, you may not have enough space for the machine. And storing the machine away in the attic or closet when you’re not using it may not be practical. It’s better-especially for the less motivated-if the machine is ready to use.

Many people end up dissatisfied or bored working out on a particular machine and give up after a few tries, only to be in the hole several hundred dollars. To save yourself this grief, borrow a machine or try one out at a health club before you buy. (Some health clubs allow you to pay by day if you’re not a member.) Don’t waste your money on a machine you won’t use.

However, if you find one particular machine boring, don’t assume you won’t benefit from another type of machine. For example, a stationary bicycle may leave your enthusiasm flat, but you might get a real lift on a cross-country ski machine. So, try out several machines before pulling out your credit card.

Another thing to keep in mind is what you want from the machine. For example, do you want to work the upper or lower body, or both? Are you looking solely for aerobic benefits? Are you choosing a machine to keep you in shape for a sport in the off season? How often are you going to use the machine? Thinking through these types of questions will be a real time-saver and help you find the machine that best fits your needs.

To help answer your questions, here are some facts on some of the more popular types of machines.

Stationary Bicycles

Riding a stationary bicycle can give you a great aerobic workout. It can also strengthen your legs and build muscular endurance.

Of course, riding a stationary bicycle won’t give you the same ride you’d get outdoors. You don’t have the scenery, the wind, or the hills. But you do have the convenience of exercising even when there’s snow outside.

Riding a stationary bike is like riding with the brakes on. Most add resistance either by a brake pad on the wheel or a belt cinched around a flywheel. You are able to adjust the resistance by tightening or loosening the tension on the flywheel.

New on the market are bicycles where the seats are low to the ground and you exercise in a recumbent or semi-recumbent position. With these bicycles your legs pump from a more horizontal position rather than being upright. Some advocates of these machines believe they give a person a better workout because the blood circulates faster and muscles tire less easily.

There are numerous bicycles available, with varying price ranges. When searching for a bicycle, be sure to look for good construction that will properly support your weight. One of the most important aspects to check for is the fit. The seat should raise high enough so that when you bring the pedal down, your extended leg is at a 15- to 20-degree angle. Riding a bike that is too small could put a strain on your knees and result in injury. The handle bars should also be high enough so that your knees don’t hit them.

Also, look for a bike where the controls for altering resistance are easy to reach. On some bikes the controls are so low that you have to stop pedaling to adjust them.

Make sure the seat on the bicycle is comfortable. Much of your weight is supported by the seat, so you’ll appreciate a well-padded seat after a few minutes of exercise. Also, check that the seat is well mounted and less likely to slip from where you adjust it.

Another feature you might consider is a speedometer and odometer. A speedometer tells you how fast you are going and the odometer tells you how far. These features are nice and are standard on most bicycles, but it’s more important to pay attention to your heart rate and how long you exercise. Check your heart rate regularly when you exercise. To help you monitor your time on the bike, a timer may be a feature worth looking for.

Another feature that comes with some of the more expensive bicycles, and with many other machines, is an ergometer. Ergometers measure how hard you are working by letting you know how much energy you are expending.

If you’re looking for a good machine, expect to spend between $400 and $ 1,000.

Rowing Machines

Rowing machines give you a good aerobic workout and help strengthen the back, shoulders, stomach, legs, and arms. Of course, proper technique is very important. It takes a while to catch on to the coordination required to row properly. Improper technique can cause injuries, especially to the back. For this reason, people with back injuries should not use rowing machines without first checking with their doctors.

While rowing, it is extremely important that your back is straight and that you push with your legs and gradually bring your arms in, rather than push off with your arms and back. If you feel any back strain, choose another form of exercise. Because technique is so important, you’re better off having an exercise physiologist or some other exercise professional show you how to use a rowing machine properly before starting out.

There are three types of rowing machines. One type uses pistons that look like shock absorbers to provide resistance in the “oars.” These ate usually smaller and easier to store than other machines. Unfortunately, many piston-type machines do not have controls for adjusting the resistance.

Another type of rowing machine is an oarlock rower. The “oars” are attached to the side of the machine and the resistance is created from a hydraulic or friction device.

The most expensive rowers are flywheel rowers. These simulate actual rowing because they don’t stop when you do, like the other rowers. They simulate gliding along the water, because the flywheel keeps spinning, which also makes it possible for you to work up momentum as you row. You can change resistance on these machines by adjusting the gearing of the wheel.

In your search for a rowing machine, look again for sturdy construction. Make sure the frame doesn’t bow under your weight. Also, the frame should be heavy enough so that it doesn’t move or jump along the room as you row.

Make sure the rower fits you. You should be able to extend your legs fully when you stroke. And you should not have to lean too far to reach the handles. Having to lean too far puts unnecessary strain on your back.

Make sure the seat is comfortable and glides smoothly on the track while supporting your weight. Actually sit down and try the seat before buying.

Other features available on some rowers are timers and counters that record the number of rowing strokes.

For a good rowing machine, expect to pay between $250 and $850.

Cross-Country Ski Machines

These are great for both upper and lower body strengthening and aerobic conditioning. Because it works both the arms and legs, many experts consider cross-country skiing the best overall cardiovascular exercise.

The machines have “poles” and “skis” that are designed to simulate the motion of cross-country skiing. Both the skis and poles can be adjusted to increase or decrease resistance. Some cross-country machines offer an electronic speedometer that shows time and distance, also.

If a cross-country ski machine is something you might consider, check the machine out thoroughly.

Make sure the skis glide smoothly without grabbing or sticking, and that the frame is sturdy. Check to see that the height and resistance of the poles are adjustable. Also, look for a machine with toe straps. Having your feet slip off during your routine could result in an injury.

Some cross-country machines can be expensive. However, you can get one that will provide a good workout for about $500.

Treadmills

A treadmill allows you to walk or run in place with the convenience of staying inside. A treadmill has a belt that moves at a fixed pace. Some treadmills can be adjusted to simulate running uphill.

Treadmills can be expensive, costing several thousand dollars. They are also more prone to breakdowns than are other exercise machines. So, make sure there is a good warranty to go with the machine. Some dealers will also offer service contracts for an additional fee. Such a contract may be a worthwhile investment.

Ask people who use treadmills, such as a health club manager or exercise physiologist, to recommend a reliable machine. Check to see that the bed of the treadmill offers stable footing that your foot can’t easily slip. You might want siderails or bars at the side to grab on to so you keep your balance. These especially are handy when you’re getting use to the treadmill. Also, be sure the controls are easy to reach so that you can increase or decrease the speed while working out.

Again, treadmills aren’t cheap.

Stair Climbers

The latest boom is machines that simulate climbing stairs. These machines can be expensive, so you might decide to hit the steps in your home instead and save the bucks.

Despite the expense, these machines do offer a great aerobic workout and work the lower body and back. And a stair climber is kind on the legs and joints because it is low impact and results in fewer injuries.

Some machines have basically a revolving staircase or just two steps hooked to hydraulics that offer resistance. Most stair climbers work by leg power and the force of your weight. However, there are climbers that have electric motors to control the speed and smooth the movement.

Whatever machine you do choose, don’t forget to exercise smart.

Remember:

* Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program. In fact, check with your doctor before investing in an exercise machine. You may have a condition, such as a bad back, that would prevent you from doing a particular exercise.

* Use good body mechanics in exercise. Keep proper form and don’t overdo your workout in order to race against the clock. If you’re new to the particular exercise, gradually increase your endurance. Making small improvements over time may be more beneficial and you’re more likely to avoid an injury that could set your program back several weeks or possibly months.

* Monitor your sessions at every workout. Check blood-sugar levels before and after you exercise. If your blood-sugar level is above 250 mg/dl, check for ketones. If you have moderate to high levels of ketones in your urine, don’t exercise. Exercising under these conditions could make your blood-glucose level rise even higher. (Talk with your doctor about what to do when ketones are this high.)

* Keep a diary. Knowing what your blood-glucose levels are at the beginning and end of each workout can help’ you monitor your diabetes care during your workouts. Also, record your “distance” and exercise intensity and chart your improvement. This information can help keep you motivated and can be useful to your doctor if you need to make adjustments in your diabetes regimen.

Be prepared in case of an insulin reaction. Have some form of sugar handy-hard candy, juice, or glucose tablets-in case a reaction happens while you are exercising. If you feel an insulin reaction coming on, stop immediately and treat it. Don’t wait until you finish your workout. n Warm up and cool down. As with any exercise routine, you need to warm up and stretch before you start working out on an exercise machine. Warming up will help your muscles prepare for stretching and help you avoid injury. Remember also to cool down after working out on an exercise machine. Many people forget and just hop off a machine and run to the showers. You need to cool down. A cool down helps you avoid dizziness and blood pooling in the legs.

You can cool down on the machine by gradually reducing the intensity of your workout. For example, on a stationary bicycle, pedal more slowly or reduce the resistance, or both. When you get off the machine, do a few stretching exercises. When you stretch, go slowly and don’t bounce or jerk. If you feel pain while you stretch, it means you’ve gone too far and could injure yourself.

* Wear shoes that fit properly. Just because you’re indoors doesn’t mean you don’t need the support and protection of good shoes. Regardless of the exercise, wear good shoes. Also, inspect your feet for blisters after your workout.

Whatever exercise you choose, stick with it. The cold weather outside isn’t an excuse to put exercise on the deep freeze. Exercise should be a year-round habit. The time you put in will benefit you greatly in terms of better diabetes control. You reduce the risk for heart disease and you’ll look and feel better about yourself. All of this translates into a happier you.

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