There’s no one best way of exercising, unless it’s the one that you enjoy most because you’re more likely to keep doing it regularly. Even the biggest calorie-burning cardio machine is useless if you aren’t willing to use it. So instead of following so-called expert recommendations about whether you should use an elliptical, treadmill or bike, compare their relative merits and decide for yourself.
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Harvard Health Publications ranks vigorous stationary biking as one of the most efficient calorie-burning exercises in the gym, at a whopping 466 calories in 30 minutes if you weight 185 pounds. A general elliptical trainer workout will burn slightly fewer calories, 400 in half an hour, while running or walking on a treadmill can smash both of these numbers if you go fast enough. You’d have to run at a steady 5.2 mph to match the elliptical’s calorie burn, or 6 mph to match vigorous cycling.
Among elliptical trainers, treadmills and bikes, elliptical trainers are the only machines that regularly offer an option for working your upper body. Moving handlebars let you swing your arms against resistance as you pedal, working your chest, back and arms. On very rare occasions, you may find a bike with moving handlebars too; this is known as a dual-action bike. Otherwise, bikes work your glutes, quads, hip flexors and hamstrings with minimal assistance from your calf muscles, while treadmills work your glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings and calves.
You can expect a fairly standard range of features on elliptical trainers, treadmills and bikes, whether the machine is in a gym setting or intended for home use. These include push-button electronic resistance or speed adjustments, MP3 player-compatible audio jacks, built-in console fans, customizable or virtual reality exercise programs and digital readouts that display basic information such as calories burned, distance and speed.
Cycling and pedaling an elliptical trainer are both forms of low-impact exercise. Low-impact exercises are those in which both feet never leave the ground or pedals at the same time, thus there’s less pounding on your joints. Such exercises are beneficial if you have lower-body joint or back problems. However, high-impact exercises like walking, jogging and running are more helpful than low-impact exercises for improving bone health. So if you’re looking for weight-bearing exercise to combat osteoporosis, a treadmill is more effective than a bike or elliptical trainer.
Of the three machines, you can purchase a low-end bike for less than a low-end elliptical trainer or treadmill. Once you hit the $1,000 range, you should be able to get an exercise bike similar to what you’ll find in the gym, although a well-built entry-level treadmill or elliptical trainer can be had for the same price.