Till about five years ago no one could tell a good treadmill from a bad one. A treadmill was a treadmill as long as one could walk and run on it. Not any more. The modern cardio machine looks like something out of a science fiction film. At most gyms, you are spoiled for choice between high-tech treadmills, elliptical trainers, stair climbers, rowing machines and stationary bikes.
But choice brings confusion. Cardiovascular exercise is the best way to cut fat and build endurance, but not all cardio machines are equally effective or safe. We don’t have several hours to devote to exercise, so you want your equipment to produce quick, effective results. The best cardio machine for you depends on your fitness goals and the state of your health, but must burn calories efficiently, be easy on the joints, and help build muscle strength.
For example, treadmill running burns plenty of calories, but may be unacceptable if you have knee or back problems because of the pounding they take during a run. Elliptical trainers and stair climbers are easier on the joints, but are often boring and take too much muscle power.
Look at the box for a quick way to assess the right machine for you.
Each machine has its own benefits and drawbacks, so cross-training, or using more than one machine in your workout session is always a good approach.
Aim for 30-60 minutes of cardio three-five days a week. Your general strategy for all cardio machines should be to alternate intense and easy days, depending on how you feel. Always keep your focus on maintaining correct posture on the machine: For example, don’t hold the bars of the treadmill while walking or running—if you need to, then you are walking or running faster than you can handle. On the cycling machine, stick your tail bone to the edge of the seat and don’t slouch—your lower back to your neck should be in a straight line. Do not lean over the handlebars of the elliptical trainer, try and maintain a straight posture, engaging your core muscles.
Choose two or three machines and mix up your routine for variety and maximum training efficiency. For example, do 30-45 minutes on the treadmill three days a week, and cross-train between the elliptical trainer and the treadmill two days a week. While on the treadmill, incorporate Interval Training, i.e. walk at a steady but challenging pace for 20 minutes, then increase the speed walk or run for 5-7 minutes and then repeat, each time focusing on either increasing speed or duration.
Use target heart rate to determine exercise intensity. Your target heart rate should be 60% (lower end) and 90% (higher end) of your maximum heart rate. To calculate, apply this simple formula: 220–your age=estimated maximum heart rate (MHR). And MHRx0.6=low-end target heart rate (THR), while MHRx0.9=high-end target heart rate.
To burn fat, you should be between your low-end and high-end target heart rate. For accelerated cardiovascular benefits you need to be on the higher side of your THR.
Halfway through the workout, stop and measure your pulse for 10 seconds and then multiply by 6. This will tell you your exercise heart rate.
How they stack up
Treadmill: Treadmill running is better than rowing, elliptical training and stationary biking for burning calories and maintaining cardio fitness. While running, there is a period when both feet leave the ground, and it takes a lot of energy and force for the body to be airborne. On other machines you maintain contact with the equipment at all times. Treadmill running, though, may cause knee, ankle, back and hip pain, and is not advisable for someone with injuries in these areas.
Elliptical trainer: When it comes to joint health, this machine wins hands down. It works the entire body due to the pulling and pushing of the handlebars. It enables stress-free movements, minimizing jarring and excessive compression between the kneecap and the thigh bone. Performing high-tension exercises like stair-climbing or jarring exercises like treadmill-running can aggravate an already sore knee. Practise Interval Training by increasing the resistance or alternating high and low striding speeds. If you have a heavy lower body or a tendency to bulk up, then train at between 80-110 strides per minute (spm) at low resistance levels. If your goal is to maintain fitness levels or to gain strength and size, stick to a high resistance with an spm of 60-70.
Stair climber: This machine is great to build lower- body strength and a great butt, but is not recommended for anyone with a weak knee because of the high stress it puts on the kneecap. Stair climbers provide plenty of room for cheating, so it’s easy to get almost no exercise. If you hang on the railing too hard, you are robbing yourself of calorie-burning potential. Don’t take small steps; instead take big steps, working through the full range of motion of your legs.
Stationary bikes: The bike isolates and fatigues the thigh muscles, making it difficult to train as intensely as you can on the treadmill or the elliptical trainer. Interval routines are similar to any other cardio machine. Maintain 85-90 revolutions per minute (rpm) and increase rpms as you get fitter. Bikes don’t put much stress on the joints, but it is easy to lose form and posture—people start slouching when they get tired, making the workout less effective, and putting undue stress on the lower back.
Rowing machines: Though not seen as often, rowing machines provide excellent low-impact, whole-body exercise that builds arms, abdomen, back and legs.
Pull smoothly during rowing without jerking and maintain a flat back to protect the spine. Poor technique can lead to back pain. This is not the easiest machine to use since you need to learn the rowing technique properly, and you may need constant assistance to maintain form.
Sumaya Dalmia is a wellness consultant, fitness expert and owner of SD ACTIVE, a personal training studio in New Delhi.