It wasn't so long ago that we thought the best way to exercise without going to the gym was to turn our bedrooms or living rooms into fully equipped home gyms. We pushed aside our stereos, TVs, even our beds to make room for everything from treadmills to stationary bikes to total gym machines.
For some, this approach worked - and still does. But some experts say they believe that increasingly, people are turning away from high-tech home equipment and getting back to the fitness basics.
"I think we went through an age of technology which we thought was going to put us in better shape but look what's happened: we're not," says Ken Locker, MA, ATC, a certified athletic trainer at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
As we became disenchanted with, or overwhelmed by, the equipment, many of us turned them into expensive clothes racks, says Locker, a spokesperson for the National Athletic Trainers Association. "Even when we had them in our homes, they were frequently inconvenient or even difficult to use, so we didn't use them -- at least not as often as we needed to," says Locker, who was an athletic trainer with the Dallas Cowboys during three Super Bowl seasons.
Moreover, says former Navy Seal instructor Phil Black, some home gym equipment became so advanced that it began to overwhelm even professionals.
"When I found myself getting confused in a fitness store and didn't know what to buy, I figured what chance does the average person have of finding what they need?" says Black, a personal trainer in San Diego.
The result, these experts say, has been a kind of low-tech backlash. Among the hottest workouts now, they say, are simple routines that use little equipment other than the body itself.
"The original weight machine was gravity, so if you work against gravity with activities such as push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, even walking, you have a pretty powerful way to get in shape," says Locker.
In addition to being simple, inexpensive, and easy to do almost anywhere, experts say the low-tech approach offers another benefit: It's the best way to increase our "functional fitness."
"Functional fitness is what you need for getting through your everyday life -- picking up that can of paint, getting down on your knees to get the dog's ball when it rolls under the sofa, taking your grandchild out of a car seat," says Black.
Personal trainer and fitness author Jeff Rutstein agrees.
"Fifty years ago, people were more active in the course of their daily living, so we could do all these things. Now we are a sedentary society, so as we age, we have to reteach our body some basic moves just to be able to do things that make up daily living," says Rutstein, author of Rutstein on Fitness.
This same low-tech approach has helped to build the Navy Seals into some of the nation's most powerful warriors, says Black.
"When you're deployed in jungles, deserts, and mountains, there are no Nautilus machines or Lifecycles," says Black. "We had to rely on body-weight exercises, like push-ups and squat-thrusts, and I think we proved they really work."
As macho as all this sounds, personal trainer Sarah Lurie, CPT, RKC, says activities that promote functional fitness may be even more effective for women than for men.
"One of the goals of functional fitness is to build core strength, which for women can be very empowering, simply because it enables us to do things that maybe we could not do before," says Lurie, director of Iron Core, a functional fitness center in La Jolla, Calif.
From flipping a mattress to moving furniture, she says, women love the power functional fitness workouts can provide - as well as the fluidity and flexibility they offer.
Low-Tech Doesn't Mean No Tech
Of course, even with a back-to-basics approach to exercise, you can get a little help from the fitness industry. Here's a rundown of some of the newest low-tech workout aids to help improve your functional fitness:
"You can quench your urge to gamble and get healthy at the same time."
1. Kettlebells. Based on a principle first used to train the Russian military, the Kettlebell is a piece of weighted iron shaped like a cannonball with a handle. The goal is to use the Kettlebell to build functional fitness, restore core strength, and tone every muscle in the body, all with a few simple moves.
"When you simply lift weights, you are isolating muscles and working individual areas of your body," says Lurie, one of a growing number of certified Russian Kettlebell instructors in the United States. "With Kettlebells, you are using your whole body to move the weight of the ball, so it gives you a superior workout to even a room full of fitness equipment. It strengthens core [muscles and] increases heart rate, all without building bulky muscles, plus it's very efficient for busy people."
The Kettlebells weigh anywhere from nine to 88 pounds. Most women use an 18- to 26-pound version; men generally use a 36- to 52-pound version.
How it's done: Holding a Kettlebell in one or both hands, you do a series of simple movements, such as swinging the Kettlebell between your legs, lifting it to shoulder height, or putting it behind your back and squatting. There are less than a dozen key moves altogether; each offers a full-body workout in minimal time.
Cost: About $129 for one Kettlebell -- and one is usually all you need. An instructional DVD will set you back another $15-$20. Kettlebell classes are available nationwide; they vary in price according to location.
2. The New Power Weights. A new generation of "power weights," unlike the ordinary dumbbells used for strength training, has emerged. Their main draw: Home users can stock a set of these weights in a package not much bigger than a shoebox. You can work your way up to a variety of weight-training combinations without having to store dozens of bulky dumbbells between your CD collection and your big-screen TV.
"They've very compact -- weighing between 2.5 and 125 pounds -- and [take] up almost no space, compared to a rack of dumbbells, which take up a huge amount of space," says Rutstein. "Plus they are also more comfortable and more convenient to use at home."
How It's Done: Either with the help of a weight bench or on your own, you lift the weights in various positions, helping to isolate and tone different muscles. You adjust the weight using pins that lock various levels of the square weights into a box-shaped configuration.
Cost: PowerBlock costs from $119 for a starter set to $349 for the elite trainer set. Select Tech by Nautilus (a different design with a similar principle) costs about $400 for one set of small adjustable barbells.
3. The Fit Deck. Love to play poker? You can quench your urge to gamble and get healthy at the same time with a workout aid called The Fit Deck. The concept is simple: A deck of 56 cards, most of which feature illustrated exercises, pointers on how to do them, and a suggested number of repetitions or a time frame for beginners, intermediates, and experts. The deck includes instructions for a variety of simple challenge games that provide a spontaneous, ever-changing variety of exercises.
"Think of the calisthenics you did in the fifth grade -- good clean fun that really worked to keep you in shape," says Black, who helped develop the cards based on the exercises he taught Navy Seals.
How It's Done: Each card displays an exercise - such as lunges or sit-ups - to be performed for a specific amount of time. A few cards are "jokers," which either let you skip an exercise (think "Get out of jail free" card) or make you double the exercise (think "Go directly to jail" card!) The cards are equally divided among upper, lower, and full-body workouts. To use, you simply shuffle the deck, then randomly choose 5-20 cards and start working out. (Ten cards will fill 10 minutes of exercise time, while 20 cards will fill 20 minutes, etc). Alternately there are simple instructions for various games you can play by yourself, or with two or more people. A slow-motion instructional DVD is available for those who need help with form.
Cost: $18.95 for one deck or $24.95 for the deck and an instructional DVD. Also available is the Fitness Deck Jr. for children, including a book of easy-to-learn games, for $14.95.
4. Bosu Balls. The Bosu Ball is based on the principal of the fitness ball, but is easier to use. It's shaped like an oversized beach ball cut in half, with the flat side attached to a wide, rigid base. This gives the ball stability, allowing users to easily perform a variety of muscle-toning routines, including stepping, lunges, and other moves while improving balance and flexibility.
"A Bosu ball is more stable than a regular fitness ball, so even if you are out of shape, you won't be rolling on the floor," says Rutstein.
How It's Done: After inflating the ball, you place the base on the floor. You bounce on the inflated area while performing a variety of calisthenic moves.
Cost: Approximately $99, plus $39 for the instructional DVD and another $10-$15 for a 4-pound weighted ball to hold onto while you go through the motions.