No matter what your health and fitness goals are, cardio plays a key role in achieving them. It can help you lose weight, reduce high cholesterol and the risk of type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure and improve your heart health, says Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness Studios.
"Sometimes cardio exercise means someone is getting off medication [for high cholesterol or high blood pressure] because their heart is stronger and healthier," she says.
There's no shortage of ways to get in a good cardio workout, especially if you're a gym-goer. Cardio machines, including the treadmill, rowing machine, elliptical, recumbent bike, air bike, indoor cycling bike and stepmill all offer heart-pumping workouts.
The key to an effective cardio workout, Roser says, is to spend time in your target heart rate, which varies based on your fitness level and goals. For moderate-intensity exercise, your heart rate should be between 50 and 70 percent of your max (220 minus your age), according to the American Heart Association. More intense workouts will have your heart rate between 70 and 85 percent of your max.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 150 minutes — 2.5 hours — of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week.
The good news is that no matter what machine you choose for your workout, you can get a effective workout. Here's how to decide which ones works best for you.
The treadmill is one of the most popular cardio machines for anyone looking to start moving more, Roser says. That's because power walking and running are effective ways to burn a large number of calories.
It's also extremely versatile. You can run on a flat surface or increase the incline to mimic walking uphill, Roser says. And you control the speed, speeding up or slowing down gradually, instead of coming to a dead stop, which can be dangerous if your heart isn't used to that.
For those who are looking to run faster, the treadmill is your best bet in terms of cardio machines, Roser says, emphasizing the benefit of increasing the speed and incline. That said, the treadmill, like all cardio machines, does help move you along, making the effort easier than if you were running or walking outside. And if you have knee, hip or ankle issues, you might want to opt for a lower-impact machine like the elliptical or bike.
Is the Treadmill Right for You?
- Pros: burns lots of calories, versatile workout, helps you train to run faster
- Cons: higher-impact workout, not as challenging as running outdoors
The elliptical is a favorite for people who want a low-impact activity, whether they're recovering from injury or working out at eight months pregnant. So if the treadmill is too tough on your knees, the elliptical can be a better option for you.
However, it can be easy to fall into "vacation mode,", Roser says. "Everyone is just cruising, reading books and magazines," she says. "The machine is really helping you move; it's pushing your legs. For an intermediate to advanced athlete or someone who is trying to lose weight, this might not be the machine for them."
If you do want a harder workout, you'll need to really up the resistance and up the incline, Roser says. The machine may also need to be adjusted to accommodate a woman's smaller frame, she says. The pedals, for example, tend to be set for male riders and are too wide for women. Check to make sure the pedals keep your feet at hip's width.
Is the Elliptical Right for You?
- Pros: low-impact workout, works upper and lower body simultaneously, good beginner machine
- Cons: easy to "phone it in," not a "one size fits all" machine, harder to get an intense workout
The stationary (indoor cycling) bike is designed for longer workouts that can simulate the outdoors, not unlike a treadmill for runners and walkers. "Indoor cycling, like a Spin class, is great for losing weight and building cardiovascular endurance," Roser says.
The bike is also an excellent low-impact cardio machine that can really rev your heart rate. But like all cardio machines, you need to make the workout challenging, by increasing the resistance and riding hard. And if you sit all day at a desk, sitting to complete your workout may not be ideal.
As for recumbent bikes, unless you're recovering from injury like a torn ACL or are over 70, it won't give you much of a workout, Roser says. Your legs are stretched out almost completely straight, and the movement is slow and methodical. For older people who may not otherwise be active, this movement is better than nothing, Roser says.
Is the Stationary Bike Right for You?
- Pros: low-impact workout, targets your lower body, cyclist can train indoors
- Cons: prolonged seated or hunched over position
On an air bike, the handlebars move, like an elliptical, rather than staying stationary like the indoor cycling and recumbent bikes. This means you're getting a full-body workout.
Air bikes are designed for short bursts of intense physical activity, often part of strength-training or circuit workouts, Roser says. "It's good for intervals between strength training, like CrossFit," she says, adding you shouldn't spend more than 30 to 60 seconds on it at a time.
So if you're looking for a longer, steady-state cardio workout, you're better off on an indoor cycling bike or treadmill.
Is the Air Bike Right for You?
- Pros: full-body workout, good for circuit training
- Cons: not meant for longer workouts
Like the air bike, the rowing machine is designed for a quick, full-body workout. When done properly, the workout is about 60-percent legs and 40-percent arms, Roser says.
"Nobody should be able to do more than 10 minutes on the rower," Roser says. "If you are, you're doing it wrong. It's meant to be an all-out effort." In other words, the rowing machine is not meant to be done leisurely on front of a TV screen for long periods of time.
"You can compare a [quality] workout on the rowing machine to cardio sprints," Roser says. "The nature of the workout — stretching out your back — is great for people who are hunched at computers all day."
Is the Rowing Machine Right for You?
- Pros: low-impact and full-body workout, good for shorter workouts
- Cons: not meant for longer workouts, requires more coordination that other machines
The stepmill, often known by the brand name StairMaster, is very effective at burning a lot of calories over a short period of time. The bad news is it's extremely unforgiving on your knees, Roser says. "A lot of personal trainers hate the stepmill," she says. "There's constant strain and pressure on your joints."
But, she points out, if you're a runner or someone who likes to tackle an incline and don't have access to hills, the stepmill can be a good way to get climbs in, if you keep it to once a week.
Like all machines, though, you can run the risk of going too easy. "You really have to pump it up," she says. "It should be the same as running up a set of bleachers. And it's very rare to see someone do that correctly."
If the stepmill is your workout of choice, the key is to only loosely hold the handlebars, Roser says. That forces you to really work your lower body to get your heart rate up.
Is the Stepmill Right for You?
- Pros: burns lots of calories, targets your lower body, good cross-training option
- Cons: higher impact on your knees
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