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.
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.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 to 150 minutes of intense aerobic activity per week.
How We Chose
To help us narrow down our list of at-home cardio machines, we turned personal trainers and fitness experts for their advice and recommendations. That information helped us determine the pros and cons of each type of machine, which, in turn, helps you decide which is right for you.
Also based on our experts' criteria are specific product recommendations, which we picked based on the following areas:
- User ratings
- 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
The treadmill is one of the most popular cardio machines for anyone looking to start moving more, says Holly Roser, CPT, owner of Holly Roser Fitness Studios.. 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 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 some treadmills 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, CSCS, 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.
A previous version of this article included the Peloton Tread. However, on May 5, 2021, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Peloton announced voluntary recalls of the company's Tread and Tread+ treadmills due to multiple injuries and one death. We immediately removed it from this article.
If you have or think you might have either model, immediately stop using it. Go to OnePeloton.com to contact support, request a refund or learn about repair options.
- 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 elliptical is a favorite for people who want low-impact cardio, whether they're recovering from an injury, working out while pregnant or looking for something gentler on the joints. 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 trying to lose weight, this might not be the machine. "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, adjust the settings to use different percentages of upper- and lower-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 hip-width apart.
Like treadmill options, higher-end ellipticals offer on-demand workouts with scenery that will keep you engaged for a better workout. Programs like iFit, for NordicTrack machines, not only offer videos of trails and roads but allow instructors to remotely adjust your machine's settings — no more slacking!
- Pros: low-impact workout, targets your lower body, cyclists can train indoors
- Con: prolonged seated or hunched-over position
For another 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 an outdoor 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 primarily works 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 classes. But you don't need a pricey Peloton to access its streaming workouts — just their 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 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 or are over 70, Roser says. Your legs are stretched out almost completely straight, and the movement is slow and methodical.
- Pros: full-body workout, good for circuit training
- Con: not meant for longer workouts
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 says. Think about it like a ceiling fan, he says: At a low speed, the fan doesn't use much power or 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.
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.
Shop These Air Bikes
- Pros: low-impact and full-body workout, good for shorter workouts, outdoor rowers can train indoors
- Con: requires more coordination and attention to form than other cardio machines
Like the air bike, you can use a rowing machine for quick, full-body workouts. If you're going to use the rower for internal workouts, "it's meant to be an all-out effort," Roser says.
When done properly, rowing is about 60-percent legs and 40-percent arms, she says. Because the legs drive the movement, the more power your build in your legs, the stronger your entire stroke will be.
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 simpler machines like those from Concept2 provide ways to change up your effort, like adjusting the flywheel to change resistance. And 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.
- Pros: burns lots of calories, targets your lower body, good cross-training option
- Con: can put stress on the knees
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'll 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 says. She also points out that if you're a runner or walker who likes to tackle an incline but 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's 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.
Shop These Stepmills
- StairMaster 8-Free Climber With LCD ($5,999, Amazon)
- StairMaster SM3 Stepmill ($4,499, Amazon)
- StairMaster SMS Stepmill With 2-Window LCD Console ($3,845, Amazon)
- Pros: low-impact and full-body workout, good for interval workouts, can be done standing, kneeling or seated
- Cons: requires more coordination than other machines; if the at-home machine can't be mounted, it requires a stand, which is sold separately
A ski machine, like SkiErg, is essentially a vertical rowing machine. "A ski machine mimics cross-country skiing," Gagliardi says. "It's a full-body workout." Also like cross-country skiing, it engages your arms and legs and activates your core and glutes (or just your arms if you're sitting in a chair).
The SkiErg's 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. But like the rower, Gagliardi says, you get out what you put in: "The harder you pull, the more resistance you'll have."
If you struggle with coordinating your arm and leg movement, Gagliardi says this machine, especially the SkiErg, 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.
- 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
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. 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 starting or getting back into a cardio program.
"The arc trainer is good for those who want to focus on enjoyment and begin to move more consistently," he says.
There are a few 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 quadriceps-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.
Shop These Arc Trainers
- Pros: no upper limit on intensity, facilitates active recovery by changing step height
- Cons: not all models allow for opposite hand-leg motion, most accessories aren't included
The vertical climber mimics climbing up a ladder but at a much faster pace. The default setting on most machines follows this pattern: right arm and leg up, then left arm and leg up as the right side goes down. But some machines, like the VersaClimber, have an option to mimic crawling: right arm and left leg up, then switch to left leg and right arm up.
Vertical climbers offer intense, total-body workouts but often also have the option for you to sit and focus on upper-body work, Gagliardi says. That makes this machine a good option for people who can't stand for extended periods of time. And unlike other cardio machines, vertical climbers don't have an upper limit on intensity.
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 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."
Shop These Vertical Climbers
How to Measure Success on a Cardio Machine
The key to an effective cardio workout is to spend time in your target heart rate, Roser says. This varies based on your fitness level and goals, but a simple estimate for moderate-intensity exercise is between 50 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate (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.
You can also 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).
And some cardio equipment also comes with built-in games for those who like a little extra competition. But 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?" And keep in mind that your definition 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. He recommends testing a machine out at your local gym or retailer (if possible).
Otherwise, 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 helpful.