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At home in the gym

Maybe it's the thought of everyone and their grandchild touching the free weights with their sweaty hands. Or maybe it's that you don't want to have to get dressed up to work out. Or the gym isn't open when you get off work at 3 a.m.

There are as many reasons to work out in a home gym as there are unused gym memberships. Whatever your reason, more and more people are turning the spare bedroom, garage or office into home gyms.

Laurie Kelley of Lakewood, Wash., and her family had always gone to the local gym. But when they moved into a new home, it already had a gym with mirrored walls. They bought some fitness equipment and gave it a shot.

"We find ourselves working out more because of the convenience of it being located right in our own home," Kelley said. Her husband, son and two teenage daughters enjoy the convenience of having two treadmills, an elliptical, stationary bike, stair climber, bench press and free weights just downstairs.

Aside from around-the-clock hours and safety for her family, there's an added bonus: "Who cares what we are wearing, and we don't have to have all that small talk so early in the morning!" she said.

But, as anyone who's ever bought a stationary bike-turned-expensive-coat rack knows, creating a home gym is more than just dialing the 1-800 number on the late-night infomercial.

What do you really need? And, with limited space and a budget, how do you create an environment that's inviting and safe for your home workouts? (In other words, a room you'll actually want to use.)

For these answers and more, we polled local gym owners and fitness professionals. Read on for tips and tricks for creating your own home gym.

GETTING STARTED

First thing's first: A home gym is in the eye of the beholder. Any space dedicated to fitness, whether it's a few rubber bands and a balance ball or a cache of treadmills, is a home gym.

And anything that gets your heart rate up is a workout, from sit-ups and push-ups for free to core workouts on a $15 balance ball to running on a $2,000 treadmill.

So which do you need? The short answer: Whatever you'll use.

"You have to be thoughtful about your purchase," said Karen Kelly, a recently retired Tacoma, Wash., police officer who built a home gym when odd work hours and a creepy early-morning encounter left her with no other options.

For 20 years, she shopped carefully, buying high-quality equipment she knew she'd use. Some of it was expensive - she bought an elliptical before they were even commercially available for about $4,000 - and some were much cheaper, but every purchase was something she had tried and knew she'd use.

(OK, there have been a couple of mistakes. She learned, for example, that she wasn't cut out for stationary biking.)

She estimates she's spent the same or less on her home gym than she would've on a membership.

Unlike Karen Kelly, people often buy fitness equipment thinking that, once they have it, they'll use it. Not so, says Naomi Beebe of Tacoma, a certified personal trainer.

"You're not buying discipline," she said.

With that in mind, take stock of what you enjoy doing. If you like climbing stairs, check into stair climbers. If you treasure low-impact workouts, an elliptical might be a good choice. And if you're happy just running or walking, a treadmill should do the trick.

If you like watching TV or listening to music, put a TV in the room. Halfway through "American Idol," you'll have worked up a good sweat.

Laurie Kelley's family has both a television and an iPod dock in their home gym, making it easy for every member of the family to find something that gets them motivated.

"Occasionally, we miss a trainer yelling commands, but then we just turn up MTV really loud," she said.

GO WITH QUALITY

Once you know which equipment you need, it's time to shop.

Fitness equipment has come a long way in the last 20 years, according to Damian Kelly, a fitness consultant for Precor Home Fitness in Tacoma. Precor is a Woodinville, Wash., company that sells elliptical machines and treadmills.

But herein lies the problem: With greater variety comes greater confusion.

With treadmills and ellipticals ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, its difficult for consumers to know what they need.

For treadmills, experts once recommended checking the motor's horsepower. Thrifty manufacturers used to install cheap motors that would break down if given too many good workouts. Now, he says, those troubles are largely gone. But they've been replaced with shoddy treadmill "decks," the portion that supports the belt - and your body weight.

If the deck is too flimsy, it'll wear thin and won't fit the belt any onger. Once that happens, the belt starts to break down, then the motor.

But all of this depends on what you're doing with the machine, he said.

"If you're going to walk, you don't have to spend a ton of money," he said, because the machine doesn't take as much of a beating. "But with running, you'll want something that's going to treat your body right."

The most important thing is using the equipment before you buy it.

"You've gotta look past the 90 seconds that you're trying it out and consider, can I use this for 30 minutes?" he said.

He said its also important that machines carry a "lifetime" warranty, which typically means 10 to 15 years.

When testing an elliptical machine, pay particular attention to how it feels. Are there any places where it catches? Are there moving parts exposed? If so, what maintenance is required?

DESIGN WITH SENSE

Once you have all of your equipment, it needs to be organized in a way that makes sense for the space.

Karen Kelly, the retired police officer, was working with a bedroom-sized space. To save space, she put the elliptical and treadmill side by side and positioned them facing the front of the room. She bought a multi-use weight bench that fits perfectly in the corner, and a weight tower with a slim profile.

But it's also important to consider safety and practicality. Ellipticals and treadmills should be far enough away from the wall to prevent any moving parts - the machine's or your own - from testing the drywall. Exercise balls should not be behind the treadmill: They can get caught on the belt and sucked under the treadmill, to startling effects!

And, equally important, everyone who uses the gym needs to have room to exercise. For example, in a family-oriented room, it's important that the leg press can fully extend while someone is using the floor space for core exercises, for example.

Karen Kelly knew she'd be using her gym solo or with one other person most of the time, and for that it works just fine. But for Laurie Kelley's family, there needs to be a bit more room between machines to allow breathing room for everyone.

With that taken care of, there's only one thing left to decide: Are you a mirror person or not?

Before you decide, keep in mind that mirrors in gyms aren't just for self-admirers. They can be practical if you use them to assess your form.

"If you look like you belong on the cover of a brochure when you're doing an exercise, you might be doing it right," Beebe said. But there is truth to her joke: If you can't see what you're doing, you might not be able to tell if you're doing it correctly - and might have a better chance of getting injured.

And who's going to use your gym then?

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