Are you a dedicated runner who can't handle the impact anymore — or would you be one if it weren't for all that literal pounding of the pavement or trail? If you take up running on the elliptical, benefits you can look forward to include almost everything you expect from running, along with the blissful absence of repeated pounding on your joints.
Your Heart Will Thank You
Whether you're walking or running on the elliptical trainer, any regular aerobic exercise provides enormous benefits for your cardiovascular system. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute sums up the many scientifically proven benefits of regular aerobic exercise for your heart and lungs:
- Reduces your risk of coronary heart disease
- Improves circulation
- Decreases inflammation
- Reduces high blood pressure and triglycerides
- Improves HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol)
- Might help you quit smoking
If that's not enough, the type of aerobic exercise you can get on an elliptical benefits your blood sugar and insulin levels too, reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes or, if you already have it, helping you manage the symptoms. It even acts as a natural mood booster and can strengthen your immune system.
A Slimmer Waist, Anybody?
If you use your elliptical trainer regularly, you can look forward to a great calorie burn too — which can, in turn, contribute to losing any excess body fat you might be carrying around. Using your elliptical isn't an instant guarantee of weight loss, but it can do a lot to create the calorie deficit (burning more calories than you take in) that leads to weight loss.
For example, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that a 185-pound person pedaling an elliptical trainer for a half-hour burns about 400 calories. That goes up to a whopping 800 calories if you spend a whole hour on the machine.
You can boost that number even more by adding a few sprint intervals or using an elliptical with moving handlebars that you can push and pull. This will add even more intensity and muscle groups to your physical activity.
If you weigh less, you won't burn quite as many calories — the same source estimates that a 155-pound person would burn about 335 calories in half an hour, or 670 calories in an hour of pedaling an elliptical trainer — but that's still an impressive calorie burn. If you maintain that level of physical activity on most days of the week and stick to a "maintenance" calorie intake instead of increasing the amount you eat, you could stand to lose almost a pound a week.
An Elliptical Benefits Your Lifespan
In a study published in an August 2014 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers administered a questionnaire to more than 55,000 adults about leisure-time activity, then followed up after 15 years.
They found that the people who ran as part of a leisure activity had a 30 percent lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 45 percent lower risk of cardiovascular mortality when compared to the non-runners, and they enjoyed a life expectancy that averaged about three years longer than that of the non-runners.
But you don't have to be extremely fleet of foot or spend your entire life running on an elliptical to enjoy those benefits. The same study found that even short runs times and relatively slow running speeds (less than 6 mph) were enough to reduce the risk of mortality.
And that longevity benefit isn't exclusively the property of runners. Another study, published in an October 2018 issue of JAMA Cardiology after following a whopping 122,007 patients, found that cardiorespiratory fitness was the key to reducing the risk of all-cause mortality. The most important thing is to get your heart pumping and your lungs moving, whether you're walking on an elliptical trainer, running or doing any other sort of cardiovascular exercise.
If you start out at a walk and exercise consistently, it won't be long before you can break into a run — and remember, because your feet never leave the elliptical trainer's pedals, you won't have to endure the same jarring impact from your footfalls that come with running on a treadmill, track or trails.
Although it's considered a low-impact form of exercise, using an elliptical trainer is still classified as a weight-bearing exercise, which can help you maintain stronger, healthier bones in your lower body.
How Much Elliptical Time?
So, how long do you have to spend on the elliptical for benefits like those described? Although the exact amount of exercise time varies between clinical studies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued physical activity guidelines for how long you should work out to maintain good health.
HHS's minimum recommendations are:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week
- Or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week
- And at least two days of some sort of resistance training for all your major muscle groups
With that said, more is better. For example, the HHS notes that if you double that requirement to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, you'll enjoy even more extensive health benefits — and that working out beyond that amount brings even more benefits with it.
This is confirmed by studies like the one published in JAMA Cardiology with regard to running reducing all-cause mortality — and another running-oriented study, this one published in an August 2014 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that even low running times and slow running speeds were helpful for reducing mortality.
So, every little bit helps. And, as long as you avoid overtraining, the sky's the limit as you hop on that elliptical and run for a long, healthy life.
What Ellipticals Can't Do
Although you can look forward to a number of elliptical benefits if you use this machine consistently, there are a few potential downsides. One is that most elliptical trainers restrict the motion of the foot pedals to a defined elliptical path — which is where they get the name. Of course, not every elliptical trainer will fit the natural kinetics of every body.
Commercial elliptical trainers — the sort you'll find in the gym — are designed to accommodate the widest variety of body types, but if you're very tall or very short, you might still find yourself struggling to get comfortable.
Adjusting your foot position within the oversize pedals might help, or you can opt for a "free motion" elliptical trainer if your gym has one. These machines don't restrict your pedal motion to a single elliptical track, so you can define a comfortable range of motion for yourself. If you're buying an elliptical for home use, you might have to try several models to find one that fits your natural body motion.
Finally, many elliptical trainers have moving handlebars that you can push and pull as you pedal. While these do offer a way of squeezing in extra work, thus challenging your heart and lungs more and burning more calories, they won't replace the twice-weekly strength training recommended by the HHS. So don't forget to put in a little quality time in the weight room in addition to your elliptical workouts.
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Amreicans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Leisure-Time Running Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk"
- JAMA Network Open: "Association of Cardiorespiratory Fitness With Long-Term Mortality Among Adults undergoing Exercise Treadmill Testing"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Physical Activity and Your Heart"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center: "Exercise for Your Bone Health"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"