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Cardio Machines: Get Your Best Workout

Not-so-common knowledge about your favorite calorie-burning machines
Written by 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
January 13, 2014

Cardio machines are an easy go-to at the gym, especially if you feel comfortable on a certain piece of equipment. But it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and make a beeline for the same treadmill, elliptical or stair climber. Sound familiar? Be careful not to shortchange your workout. You’ll benefit from trying different machines, and more importantly, using them correctly for the most effective exercise session. In fact, you may be surprised at what you’re missing out on. Did you know…

Reading lowers the intensity of your workout. It’s true. Better to save the gossip magazine or text conversation for later because if you’re able to read/text, you’re probably not moving fast enough to challenge your body. Instead, create a new music playlist (listening to energetic music can actually improve your workout) or watch a lighthearted TV program for some harmless distraction.

You can calculate the calories you’re burning on your own… If you’re not sure how many calories you are burning, do this simple calculation:

Running One Mile: .75 x body weight (in pounds)
Walking One Mile: .53 x body weight (in pounds)

So, for a 140-pound person, running a mile burns 105 calories, whereas walking a mile burns 74. The math for walking is a little bit easier—you can estimate by dividing your weight in half.

…but machines are great trackers—if you make the best use them. The more information you input (like your weight and age), the more on-the-mark the calorie calculation is likely to be. Similarly, you’ll get the most accurate reading on a heart rate monitor if you’re wearing a chest strap versus simply gripping the handles.

You should begin on a one percent incline on the treadmill. Since there’s no wind resistance when you’re on a treadmill—not to mention that the belt moves for you—challenge yourself from the start. Raising the belt to a one-percent incline matches the energy you’d expend walking or running on an outdoor track. You can continue to increase the grade at your own pace or try intervals at different inclines.

You should respond to numbness in your feet when you’re on the elliptical. The elliptical machine delivers a great low-impact workout, which makes it a popular choice, but if your feet are falling asleep, it’s time to adjust your position. Foot numbness is a signal that you’re leaning forward too much and shifting your weight into your toes. Focus on sitting back slightly so your weight is in your heels, allowing the large muscles of your legs and backside to do more of the work and your blood to flow freely throughout your body.

The moving handlebars on equipment shouldn’t be your focus. Many elliptical machines have moveable handles that allow you to work your upper body as well as your lower body. But it’s easy to lean on the handles, which lowers the intensity of your leg work. The real benefit of the elliptical is its ability to work your lower half so don’t spend too much effort pumping your arms. In fact, you don’t have to hold those handlebars at all—just swing your arms at your sides as if you were running or walking.

Pressing through your heels will give you the biggest calorie burn on the stair climber. You can burn as many calories (or more!) on a stair-stepping machine as you would running—if you step properly. Pressing through your heels works the big muscles in your thighs and backside, whereas stepping mostly through your toes puts your calves to the test.

You shouldn’t go too fast on the stationary bike. Speed is not the only name of the game when it comes to stationary cycling. In fact, if you’re pedaling too fast, you’re likely relying on momentum and robbing both your legs and your heart of a good workout. Aim to get your RPMs (revolutions per minute) between 60 and 110—keeping them on the lower end when you’re working against a high resistance and reaching the higher end when you’re sprinting.

No one piece of equipment is better than another. Yes, your body moves differently on various cardio machines, but there isn’t one top choice for the best results. It all depends on the effort you put into your workout and proper use of the equipment. Take advantage of your gym’s cardio area and all of the machines—it’s a great way to avoid boredom and engage different muscles throughout the week.

Reference(s) 
American Council on Exercise
"Energy Expenditure of Walking and Running," Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, Cameron et al, Dec. 2004
Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance (5th Ed.)
Idea Health & Fitness Association
Mayo Clinic
National Institutes of Health
Science Daily
Tufts Medical Center
About the author 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a Syracuse, NY–based health and fitness writer, an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and the author of Tone Every Inch (Rodale).