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.
The key to an effective cardio workout, Roser says, is to spend time in your target heart rate, says Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer and owner of Holly Roser Fitness Studios.
Your target varies based on your fitness level and goals, but for a very simple estimate for moderate-intensity exercise, aim to be between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is the number 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 good news is that there are all sorts of ways to get an effective cardio workout, including using a wide range of machines, both at home and at the gym. And thanks to improved technology and affordable models, you have more options than ever. Here's how to decide which cardio machines work best for you and your fitness goals.
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 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 accessible ways to burn a large number of calories.
The treadmill is also extremely versatile. You can run on a flat surface or increase the incline to mimic walking uphill, Roser says. And you can control the speed, ramping up or slowing down gradually.
A perk of a treadmill, versus outdoor running, is you're not committed to any particular distance; if you need to stop, you're already at home.
Some models also come equipped with built-in coaching. You may not have a group to run with outside, but high-tech features on the Peloton treadmill, for example, give you access to live classes with an instructor and other runners. You can also train for races with programs from training app Zwift, which connects via a fitness tracker to treadmills so you can run with others virtually.
In addition, most of the treadmills you see today have motorized belts, which allow you to control the speed and incline, but there are also non-motorized ones, which you control manually by walking or running.
"On a traditional treadmill the belt is always moving, but on a non-motorized treadmill, you're causing the belt to move," says Chris Gagliardi, a certified sports and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and the scientific education content manager for the American Council on Exercise. "As you speed up, it moves faster, and as you slow down, the belt slows down. It's more similar to running on the ground, which doesn't move."
While running or walking on a motorized treadmill has its benefits, using a non-motorized treadmill can help improve your speed and endurance because it forces you to recruit more of the muscles in your legs, core and arms to power your strides, according to a small March 2019 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
"You can sprint on a non-motorized treadmill, but you have to push a lot harder [with your legs] to increase intensity," Gagliardi says. They also take a little getting used to and could challenge your balance if you're new to non-motorized treadmills.
Is a Treadmill Right for You?
- Pros: Burns lots of calories, versatile, helps you train to run and walk faster
- Cons: Higher-impact workout, not as challenging as running or walking outdoors
Shop These Treadmills
The elliptical is a favorite for people who want low-impact cardio, whether they're recovering from an injury, working out at eight months pregnant or just looking for something a little gentler. If the treadmill is too high-impact for you, the elliptical may be a better option.
However, it can be easy to fall into "vacation mode" on the elliptical, Roser says. At many gyms, "everyone is just cruising, reading books and magazines. 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 want a harder workout, you'll need to really increase the resistance and incline," Roser says.
If you're using an elliptical with handles and pedals, you can adjust the settings to use different percentages of upper and body force to target those areas differently, Gagliardi says.
"In addition to increasing the elevation, resistance and stride length, you can also focus on increasing and decreasing the steps per minute [for a more intense workout]," he says.
Elliptical machines come in a front-drive or rear-drive system. Rear-drive ellipticals (meaning the flywheel, which creates resistance, is located on the back) have more options for adjusting stride length, while front-drive machines tend to have more incline options, Gagliardi says.
You may need to adjust your elliptical to fit your body frame size. The pedals, for example, tend to be set wide and may need to be moved in for riders with smaller frames. Check to make sure the pedals keep your feet at hip's width.
Like today's treadmill options, higher-end ellipticals offer on-demand workouts with scenery that will keep you engaged for a better workout. Programs like iFit, for Nordic machines, not only offer high-production video of trails and roads, but allow instructors to remotely adjust your machine's settings — no more slacking on the elliptical!
Is an 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
For another great low-impact workout that will get your heart pumping, indoor exercise bikes can simulate the experience of cycling outside or in group classes. Just like a regular bike with different gears, exercise bikes have resistance knobs, which you can adjust to make your workouts harder and more intense.
"Indoor cycling, like a Spin class, is great for losing weight and building cardiovascular endurance," Roser says.
While cycling will primarily work your quads and glutes, using your core will help improve your form on the bike, especially during jumps from the saddle.
Stationary bikes, namely the Peloton, were among the first cardio machines to bring an outdoor workout inside with virtual rides and instructors. But you don't need a pricey Peloton to access its streaming workouts — just an app and a subscription.
Other bikes, like those from NordicTrack and Schwinn, offer workouts with and without instructors. Schwinn's bike adjusts the workout based on the user's heart rate to avoid complacency and coasting.
To more closely mimic an outdoor ride, most stationary bikes have pedals that accommodate clip-in shoes (with the bonus of not actually falling over as you learn how to clip in and out).
One drawback of biking for cardio is that it mimics the same position you may find yourself in when seated at a desk. If you sit for a majority of the day, you might benefit from cardio workouts (and stretching) that move your body in different positions.
Recumbent bikes won't provide as challenging of a workout for younger, healthier athletes, but they're valuable tools if you're recovering from an injury like a torn ACL or are over 70, Roser says. Your legs are stretched out almost completely straight, and the movement is slow and methodical.
Is a Stationary Bike Right for You?
- Pros: Low-impact workout, targets your lower body, cyclists can train indoors
- Con: Prolonged seated or hunched over position
On an air bike, the handlebars move rather than staying stationary, like indoor cycling and recumbent bikes. This means you're getting a full-body workout.
And the faster you pedal, the more resistance you'll have because the fan moves more air, Gagliardi explains. Think about it like a ceiling fan, he says: At a low speed, the fan doesn't use much power, nor does it move much air. At max speed, however, the fan blades need more power to move more air. Because you choose the resistance with how hard you pedal, there are no limits to an air bike's resistance, Gagliardi says.
"If you pedal at a low speed, you're not moving much air, and it takes less force to overcome the resistance from the air," he says. "At high speeds, more power is needed to move air more quickly."
So it makes sense, then, that air bikes are designed for short bursts of intense physical activity, often part of strength-training, HIIT or circuit workouts, Roser says. "It's good for intervals between strength training, like CrossFit," she says.
If you're looking for a longer, steady-state cardio workout, you're better off on an indoor cycling bike or treadmill.
Is an Air Bike Right for You?
- Pros: Full-body workout, good for circuit training
- Con: Not meant for longer workouts
Shop These Air Bikes
Like the air bike, you can use a rowing machine for quick, full-body workouts. Outdoor rowers may also find them helpful for longer, indoor workouts.
When done properly, rowing is about 60 percent legs and 40 percent arms, Roser says. Because the legs drive the movement, the more power your build in your legs, the stronger your entire stroke will be.
If you're going to use the rower for internal workouts, "it's meant to be an all-out effort," Roser says.
High-tech features can make tough efforts on the rower more enticing. For example, the Hydrow rower not only offers virtual workouts from professional athletes, but it gives you the option to customize your workouts based on what you're in the mood for or how much time you have.
Even simple machines like those from Concept2 provide ways to change up your effort, like adjusting the flywheel to increase or decrease resistance.
A unique-to-the-rower measure of success is how long you can row before there's a significant decrease in your form, Gagliardi says.
Is a Rowing Machine Right for You?
- Pros: Low-impact and full-body workout, good for shorter workouts
- Con: Requires more coordination and attention to form than other cardio machines
Shop These Rowing 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. Not only will a stepmill workout elevate your heart rate and increase fat burn, it will activate your glutes, Roser says, not unlike doing lunges.
"Focus on squeezing your [glute muscles] and ensure your feet are pointed straight ahead and your knees aren't over your toes," she explains.
She points out that if you're a runner or walker who likes to tackle an incline and don't have access to hills or want to stay inside, the stepmill can be a good way to get climbs in.
Like with all cardio machines, though, you can run the risk of going too easy. "You really have to pump it up," she says. 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.
It's also worth noting that there is a difference between the stepmill and the machine that made "stepping" famous: the step climber.
"The stepmill is a rotation of stairs flying at your feet — a great way to get your cardio in while strengthening your quads," Roser says. "The climber has pedals, which simulates walking up stairs, but you're really just pushing resistance down."
Both are good workouts, but for a more intense cardio effort, head for the stepmill.
Is a Stepmill Right for You?
- Pros: Burns lots of calories, targets your lower body, good cross-training option
- Con: Can put stress on the knees
Shop These Stepmills
- StairMaster 8-Free Climber With LCD ($4,500, Amazon)
- StairMaster SM3 Stepmill ($3,799, Amazon)
- StairMaster SMS Stepmill With 2-Window LCD Console ($4,500, Amazon)
A ski machine, like SkiErg, is essentially a rowing machine but vertical. "A ski machine mimics cross-country skiing," Gagliardi says. "It's a full-body workout."
Like cross-country skiing, the ski machine engages your arms and legs and activates your core and glutes. (Or, you can work just your arms by sitting down in a chair.)
The SkiErg design targets the upper body to do the heavy pulling, while a machine like the NordicTrack Classic Pro Skier forces you to move your arms and legs.
Like the rower, Gagliardi says, you get out what you put in: "The harder you pull, the more resistance you'll have."
But if you struggle with coordinating your arm and leg movement to engage the full body, Gagliardi says this machine, especially the SkiErg design, which closely resembles the rower, may not be for you. "One of the cons is that the skier requires that same coordinated full-body effort," he says.
Is a Ski Machine Right for You?
- Pros: Low-impact and full-body workout, good for interval workouts, can be done in a standing, kneeling or seated position
- Cons: Requires more coordination than other machines; if at-home machine cannot be mounted, it requires a stand, which is sold separately
An arc trainer is akin to an elliptical's more biomechanically efficient cousin due to its design, Gagliardi says. It moves in an arc shape, which might make a hard effort feel easier than it would on an elliptical or treadmill.
For those looking to power up the large muscle groups in the lower body, Gagliardi recommends an arc trainer workout. He notes, however, that for home use, these take up a lot of room compared to other cardio machines. Gagliardi says arc trainers are best for those who are starting a cardio program or getting back into one after a hiatus.
"The arc trainer is good for those who want to focus on enjoyment and begin to move more consistently," he says.
There are ways to increase the intensity on an arc trainer, but the primary way to activate muscles would be the incline feature.
"Exercising at a greater incline on this piece of equipment will make the movement more quadricep-dominant," he says. You can challenge the same muscle groups by increasing resistance, forcing the muscles to work harder to complete each step, he adds.
"Other ways to change the intensity on the arc trainer are to increase your steps per minute and to increase the intensity, which makes each step more challenging," he says.
Is an Arc Trainer Right for You?
- Pros: More efficient than an elliptical workout, better at activating large lower-body muscle groups
- Cons: Takes up a lot of space, harder to get an intense workout
Shop These Arc Trainers
The vertical climber mimics climbing up a ladder, but at a much faster pace, which creates an intense workout. The default setting on most machines follows this pattern: right arm up, right leg up, left arm up, left leg up. But some machines, like the VersaClimber, have an option to shake things up and mimic a crawling pattern: right arm up, left leg up, left arm up, right leg up.
Vertical climbers offer total-body workouts but often also have the option for you to sit and focus just on upper-body work, Gagliardi says. That makes this machine a good option for people who can't stand for extended periods of time but still want a hard workout. And unlike other cardio machines, vertical climbers don't have an upper limit.
"You can make the workout as intense as you'd like," Gagliardi says.
The VersaClimber model offers several options for workout goals, including racing against virtual opponents and climbing a landmark like the Washington Monument.
Generally on a vertical climber, you can set a workout time, aim for a certain feet-per-minute-climbed pace, climb for distance or maintain a specific heart rate over a defined period of time, Gagliardi says.
"You can also create a more challenging workout by increasing the amount of force needed to overcome the hydraulic system," he says. "This makes the steps and handles harder to move."
Is a Vertical Climber Right For You?
- Pros: No upper limit on how intense you can make the workout, facilitates active recovery by changing step height
- Cons: Not all models allow for opposite hand-leg motion, most accessories are not included with the machine
Shop These Vertical Climbers
How to Measure Success on a Cardio Machine
You can track your success based on distance covered, speed, calories burned, pace, heart rate and watts produced. (Watts are a measure of power — the harder you work, the more power you produce).
Some cardio equipment also comes with built-in games for those who like a little extra competition.
The measurements you keep an eye on depend on the type of cardio machine you use and your personal fitness goals. "Success is such a personalized decision," Gagliardi says. Ask yourself: "What does success on this piece of equipment look and feel like to me?"
Your vision of success may change over time, as you get faster or stronger, he adds.
"If the first time I use a [ski machine], I can only use it for five minutes, my first [success goal] may be to reach 10 minutes," he says. "Find a vision of success that is realistic, achievable, motivating, enjoyable and worth your time. But not easy."
What to Consider Before You Buy
If you decide you want to purchase a cardio machine for your home gym, it's important to do research beforehand, Gagliardi says. Before the days of COVID-19, Gagliardi would tell people to test a machine out at their local gym or retailer.
Today, he recommends people watch videos and read reviews on retailer websites to get a better idea of things to consider. "You might see a review that says, 'I'm a shorter person so this machine was challenging,'" Gagliardi says.
Some machines have at-home and commercial versions, with the latter being much more expensive. Gagliardi points out that at-home models often require accessories like stands or wall mounts that aren't included with the machine itself.
It's also important to think about your budget, available space, fitness and health goals and personal cardio preferences. "If you've always liked treadmills and never liked bikes, and you're telling me you want to buy a bike, why is that?" he says.
Any information you can gather from a network, whether that's through a group of friends, product reviews or live chats with retailers, is better than nothing.
"Without the luxury of being able to go and try a machine, networks are really important," Gagliardi says.