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To work out at home, try something round Or flat



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It's hard to beat weight machines, treadmills, stair-steppers and the like for a serious home workout, but those things take up space - especially when you backslide and no longer use them.

The next level of home workout stuff is usually much cheaper and a heck of a lot more compact. With that in mind, here are a few home gadgets that can help while staying out of the way.

- The Strength and Toning Deck of cards includes 50 simple exercises you can do at home.

Each card illustrates the move on one side and explains it on the other. Variations are included to make the moves more difficult or easy and to incorporate weights or tubes. The publisher, Chronicle Books, says personalized routines can be assembled by focusing on certain cards or by following numbered sequences on the cards. Suggested workout instructions are included in the pack.

The best thing about the deck of exercises, which sells for $14.95, is its compactness. It's about the size of your hand.

- Unique Fitness Mat is 100 percent polyurethane, which gives it a thick, sturdy feel. The product is intended to help the body absorb the stress, strain and injury that come from exercise. The top is elastic and the core is high-density foam.

They come in a number of sizes and dimensions, but the Unique Therapeutic Mat is about the dimensions of a bath towel. It is often used by people who stand all day to reduce the fatigue and discomfort in their feet, legs and back.

It's comfortable for doing sit-ups and following exercise videos. It had enough weight and grip to the floor to prevent it from sliding or curling at the edges. The company says they are especially good for weight exercises and high-impact workouts.

See HYPERLINK "http://www.icurethane.com" for details.

- The Soft Gym OverBall is the anti-medicine ball. It is, indeed, soft; gushy, almost. It's about the size of a volleyball, but lighter. What good can something like that be? The manufacturer, Gymnic, says it helps improve the "musculo-skeletal system."

One exercise calls for the user to hold the ball close to the chest, squeeze between the hands and then release. A variation calls for extending and bending the arms while squeezing. Other exercises involve squeezing the ball between elbows, behind the neck, back or knees.

I found myself mindlessly using it as I watched television, and I did it enough to feel a bit sore in my forearms.

See HYPERLINK "http://www.gymnic.com" for details.

-The FitBALL Roller, from Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products, is an inflatable hot-dog-shaped cushion that is, appropriately, a cross between a fitball and a cushioned roller. The equipment comes with instructions for a series of exercises designed to help work on strength, balance and flexibility exercises.

I used it to do sit-ups, laying it perpendicular to my body and wedging it against the small of my back. The idea was to protect my lower back and focus on my abdominal movement. This felt a little awkward at first, but I eventually got the hang of it.

To work on balance, I lay on the length of the FitBALL Roller and use the OverBall as a pillow to support my neck and head - the dot of the "I" in effect. The company says one can also sit on the roller to find better leverage for stretching, but I never found use for that.

See www.optp.com for details.

-The Whale Therapeutic Back Bench is, at $570, by far the most expensive item on this list, but is compact. By aligning your body along its arch and gently unfolding, you can stretch the spine and back muscles that get bunched during the day.

The literature from Bean Products says since the weight of the upper and lower body act in opposite directions while the body lies on the raised-back bend position, traction occurs and the spine elongates. That combination apparently reduces vertebrae and disc compression, and may relieve associated pain and discomfort as well as improve posture.

The user can control the intensity of the stretch by where he or she positions on the board, yet also protect the lower back. You can adopt various movements to stretch different joints and muscles. I didn't test this device, but the simple design seems to make sense and provide a safe stretch for those with back issues.

See HYPERLINK "http://www.beanproducts.com/" for details.

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(Richard Seven is a staff writer at The Seattle Times. Send questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition to him at: Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.)

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(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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