Posted On November 8, 2021

Exercise Machines: Why Pay Big Bucks when Free is Better?

At age 81 I am a registered member of the old school of fitness training. As I view the proliferation of new and improved fitness products I am routinely struck by how many of them provide a zero or negative return on investment. The buyer pays lavishly for something that could be obtained for little or nothing using a different strategy.

Im hard nosed when it comes to purchasing exercise equipment. I must calculate that there is a significant benefit before making any purchase. Here is a story that illustrates the process I have followed for decades and what I recommend to others.

Having been a runner since the mid-1960s I am always surprised by the publics embrace of treadmills. I am further surprised by the hefty prices (up to $12K) some of these gadgets command.

The argument for treadmills is always that they provide convenience. Some also provide an array of meaningless or inaccurate data (e.g. Calories burned) that reassure the trainee that their work has been for something important. Some also provide video streamed workout sessions that provide a structured workout and some connection with other users.

As part of the old school I am surprised that some people would choose to run on a treadmill as opposed to running outside.

OMG!!!! Run outside??? In.the weather??? On an uneven surface? NO TV????

Running outside provides a wonderful chance to experience what it feels like to be in a natural environment. (Note: It may not always be 65 degrees and dry). The feel of running outside when it is cold, wet, hot, cloudy, etc. is one of those intrinsically human experiences that is drastically diminished by substituting the artificial surface of a treadmill in a climate-controlled environment.

Ohrunning outside is free.

IMHO the treadmill television screen also detracts from experiencing what you are doing moment by moment. Instead of experiencing the feel of your run, your mind is diverted into following whatever is on the screen. In other words the screen helps you escape from the intense feelings of physical activity rather than being fully aware of what you are doing.

The late George Sheehan wrote extensively about the joy of running outside and how it felt so exhilarating. He articulated the spiritual connection that people can feel when they are able to fully experience the sensations of running in their natural surroundings.

I suspect that those who are confirmed treadmill runners will find my love of running outdoors either quaint or deranged. To them I say you will never know what it feels like to run in the winter at Chernobyl or run ON the surface of the C & O Canal in Washington DC. I could add a few thousand more unique experiences that have been part of my running encountering the late Nelson Mandella. (Story for another day).

In all fairness I should include stories about stepping in dog poo (also bear poo).as well as getting soaked, roasted and chilled. But.I enjoyed each run and felt privately content about having been fully aware of my experience each time out.

But my initial conjecture was that free can sometimes be better than expensive. So, lets look at what the hypothetical treadmill buyer might get that makes the investment worth it.

Convenience: I guess if you live on the 25th floor of a Chicago apartment house, running outside involves a couple of long elevator rides. Chicago winters are also renowned for being super cold. But the question remains what is the users individual cost/benefit of convenience?

Safety: If you live in an area where things get a little dodgy after dark, maybe training inside is a good idea. This is strictly a local calculation.

Skin in the Game: It is well known that if something is free people generally believe it has little or no value. If you can run outside for free, most people may regard this as a junk training. If someone spends $12K for a treadmill, by definition it is high value, and they will tend to use itat least for a while.

Apparent value: (As in there is less there than meets the eye). Some exercise machines provide a set of data about each workout that are eagerly gobbled up by the user. Unfortunately, most of this information is either inaccurate or of little value. The calories burned data is often wildly inaccurate and some of the other measures are of little use for getting fit. For example, measures such as pulse rate, blood pressure, etc. are of value if you are in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital. However, as a real time measure that is of value to building fitness, not much.

Community: Participating in streamed workouts with others is appealing to some people. There is a sense that you are all doing the training together. This may help with motivation or staying with the workout program. Each person must decide if this part of the training is worth it to them. My experience was that running with others was often enjoyable, but not a necessity.


The Bottom Line

Any time a person considers the purchase of fitness equipment, they ought to make their own personal cost/benefit analysis. The most important elements of this will be:

  1. What are the tradeoff options? Can this be done as well (or better) using a different strategy. (e.g. Run outside vs buy a treadmill)
  2. Will this device improve my ability to do something both important and very specific that I cannot do now? (e.g. A power rack dramatically expands the options for lifting heavy barbells).
  3. What are important data for me to track when I train with this device? (ex. Important data: miles run in a weight workout; sets, reps and weights used; volume of work performed each week; hours of sleep each night).
  4. What is the likely long term (years) return on this investment? How much improvement is possible for me using this gadget? How quickly will I outgrow it?
  5. Are the alleged benefits real or simply mirrors and smoke? (If it is too good to be true, it is too good to be true).

Lift Big,


Written by Richard

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