Marines still do pushups. Heavyweights jump rope. But these days more and more ordinary Americans are trying to get in shape with elaborate and expensive home exercise equipment. Last year, they spent $1.73 billion, triple what they spent in 1980.

Exercise machines are the latest stage in the fitness boom, and suitable for an aging, family-minded generation.Richard Miller, owner of Cutler Owens, the Gym Source, says his New York store began as a full-line sporting goods retailer that catered to runners and tennis players in the 1970s.

He started selling exercise equipment in 1981 and gradually eliminated everything else, concentrating on higher-end products.

``I figured the ultimate would be in the home,' he said. ``People were in the health clubs, they got married and had kids, and they are staying at home.'

In National Sporting Goods Association consumer surveys, retail sales of home fitness equipment grew 22 percent in 1988 and 19 percent in 1989.

The equipment accounts for about 15 percent of sporting goods sales, more than any other category except hunting.

The products range from a bottom-of-the-line exercise bicycle, for less than $100, to computerized treadmills for more than $3,000.

Some in the industry wonder if the growth can continue. How many people will keep sweating in the privacy of their homes? they ask. And if more machines end up in closets, will fewer new ones be sold?

Exercise equipment fads can be fleeting. Rowing machines were the rage several years ago; now, sales are slow.

Treadmills and stair machines are popular, but for how long? Several companies are bringing out weight machines, for those less interested in endurance than in strength.

Manufacturers have learned that buyers can be quick to rebel when they don't get results, said Wayne Sales, merchandise manager for sporting goods at K Mart.

In the mid-1980s, he said, sales stagnated. ``We saw a lot of equipment that was gimmicky.' Since then, he added, ``There has been a resurgence of basic, fundamental equipment.'

At Greensboro Sports Unlimited on Interstate 40 treadmills, stair-climbing and rowing machines, ``anything to do with air resistance,' are the rage in home fitness equipment, said Buzz Newman, a salesperson. ``Stair-steppers are good for runners, especially runners who have had damage or injuries to their legs. They provide a smooth, low-impact aerobic workout.'

Newman said the store is selling about four stair climbers a day. He said equipment that operates on the basis of hydraulics is selling well. ``That seems to be the big thing,' he said.

This year's hottest items - treadmills and stair climbers - can be modest or pricey, depending on your preference.

At Sears in Friendly Center, sporting goods supervisor Nancy Chanilo had more of the same story to tell about stair climbers and treadmills. Both are selling well, especially as colder weather begins to set in, she said. Sears sells seven different types of treadmills.

Pamela Miller, fitness editor at Sportstyle, a trade magazine, says consumers who are fickle about equipment usually retain their dedication to good health.

When they become discouraged with one machine, they try another, she said. But others in the industry fear that the boom will end as buyers consign their machines to the closet.

Manufacturers always stand ready to provide new products. Those companies that keep up with the trends lead the industry. Most are privately held, keeping even their sales figures to themselves.

But Sportstyle reports that Diversified Products of Opelika, Ala., was the industry leader last year with sales of $220 million, up 22 percent.

Weslo Inc., of Logan, Utah, and its sister company, Proform Fitness Products Inc., are growing even faster, with a 94 percent gain, to $204 million, last year.

These companies have prospered by offering a range of products at all prices. They rely heavily on the giant retail chains like Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the K Mart Corp., which account for an increasing share of the industry's sales. After the leaders, about three dozen smaller companies tend to be more specialized.

The largest of the more specialized companies is Nordic Track, of Chaska, Minn., a unit of the publicly held CML Group Inc.

Its machines mimic the action of cross-country skiing, allowing skiers to train without snow and lame runners to pile up their mileage without torturing their knees.

Nordic has relied exclusively on mail order, but it is about to open its first retail outlet in Washington. Nordic's sales have risen from $14 million in 1986, when CML took over, to $85 million for the year that ended in July.

Not every exercise equipment company can keep up with the industry's pace.

Last year, Escalade Inc., of Evansville, Ind., a maker of recreational products and office equipment, acquired 55 percent of Marcy Fitness Products, a financially troubled manufacturer of weight benches and related goods.

John Wilson, secretary-treasurer of Escalade, said Marcy had tried to expand too quickly and failed to control expenses. The takeover kept Marcy in business, but its sales failed to pick up, and the financial drain has left the parent company in the red.

For many home athletes, buying fancy machines is much less taxing than using them.

Do most buyers keep on rowing, running, skiing or lifting long enough to generate more sales? ``That is the proverbial question,' said Bill Smith, vice president of marketing for Diversified Products.

``Interest does tend to wane.' But in a survey, he found that equipment use remained surprisingly high, with more than half of all buyers remaining consistent users of the products.

Nordic Track attempted to telephone 1,209 buyers who had owned its machines for five years. Of the 207 reached, 69 percent said they were still using the equipment, averaging three and a half workouts a week of 25 minutes each.

Some say that boredom and flimsy low-priced machines threaten the industry's success.

Steve Onder, general manager of the Sports Training Institute in New York City, a personal training and physical therapy center, said the most popular, lower-priced equipment ``doesn't support a long-term training program.'

A cheap treadmill does not have a motor capable of turning the belt fast enough for jogging, he said.

Sebastian Di Casoli, director of marketing services for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, says some buyers give up when they find that the machines cannot exercise for them.

``A lot of people do it to relieve guilty feelings about their weight,' he said. ``It does get boring and many machines end up in the closet.'

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