Your Guide to Cardio Machines

We know that exercise is good for our overall health, and that cardio in particular is good for increasing our lung capacity, reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease and even extending our lives. And while knowing that is all well and good, just how do we know which kind of aerobic exercise will achieve the best results? Running has been touted as one of the ways to work our cardiovascular system, but for those of us who are less than enthusiastic about dodging traffic, weathering the cold and heat, and risking knee injuries, what are the alternatives? Here is a guide to the pros and cons of some of the more popular cardio machines available at most fitness centers.

Elliptical machines: Often recommended for those with previous leg or knee injuries, or those carrying extra weight, elliptical trainers are now an increasingly popular piece of exercise equipment. They stimulate the same physiological responses as walking or running but without the impact, causing the perception of a less amount of effort. Your feet are placed on pedals that, when activated, make it seem like you are running in mid-air. The best kind of elliptical machine, however, is one with upper body components (that work the arms at the same time). The only disadvantage is that, because elliptical trainers do cause so little impact, they are generally better at raising the body’s heart rate than actually building muscles.

Treadmills: If you enjoy walking or running and want to keep it up in the off-season, a treadmill may be a good alternative. Especially for walkers, treadmills are generally recommended before an elliptical machine because the harder surface helps to build bones and strengthen muscles. Runners should be cautioned, however, since a surface that is too hard can pose the risk of injuries. If you do choose a treadmill, choose one with a softer surface for less impact. And no matter what, make sure you have a good quality, shock-absorbing running shoe with a thick mid-sole for added support.

Stair climbers: Designed to simulate actual stair climbing, these machines operate by having you push down on pedals using variable levels of resistance, each time counting how many “stairs” you have climbed, how may calories you are burning, as well as the elapsed time. The benefits of stair climbing machines include firmer buttocks and muscles as well as a good overall cardiovascular workout. Use the machine improperly, however, and you’re wasting your time. Keeping yourself upright and not supporting your bodyweight on the sidebars are key to making this a beneficial exercise. But just like with treadmills, people with knee and leg injuries should consult their health professional before stepping on the machine.

Stationary Bike In particular, recumbent exercise bikes are great for people who experience lower back pain, since they combine a low-impact exercise that still supports the spine. Exercise bikes are particularly good for building thigh and hamstring muscles and flexibility. And by keeping your spine erect and your abdomen tight, you can actually build all of these muscles at the same time. Although exercise bikes generally burn fewer calories than treadmills, they are usually perceived as being a more fun way to workout, thereby increasing the length and frequency with which a person will exercise.

Regardless of which piece of equipment you choose, however, fitness experts suggest that for best results you use an interval training technique while exercising. This means moving from high to moderate intensity during your workout. For example, if you are using an elliptical, try doing three minutes of high intensity followed by 1 minute of moderate intensity. This technique works by constantly jump-starting your metabolism to keep your calorie-burning levels high.

Also, combining cardio with weight training is the best way to burn fat and tone muscles. It is recommended that you do 30 minutes of cardio exercise 3 times a week, alternating between 2 days of 20 minute weight training.

And remember that the best exercise technique is the one you most enjoy. Research has consistently shown that people tend to stick with exercises they find enjoyable. So sign up for a supervised circuit of the exercise equipment available at your local fitness centre to find which one’s right for you. To keep things interesting, try combining the use of equipment with aerobics classes such as spinning, martial arts or pilates.

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