Fitness: Which cardio machine offers the best workout?

If you’re looking for maximum results in the least amount of time, you’ll want to know how your favourite exercise machine measures up.

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Are all cardio machines created equal? At the most basic level, the answer is yes. Cardio machines are designed to get your heart rate into the training zone, which means they have the potential to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. So the choice about which cardio machine to use is largely related to individual fitness goals and personal preference.

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But not every cardio machine burns the same number of calories per 30-minute workout. That’s not to say that calorie burn is the most important measure, but if you’re looking for maximum results in the least amount of time, you’ll want to know how your favourite exercise machine measures up. Keep in mind that the machine is only one important factor when it comes to maximizing calorie burn.

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Exercise intensity, the size and number of muscles used, body weight, the degree to which you’re supporting your body weight and environmental temperature all factor into determining energy expenditure. How much you weigh, how hard you’re working, if you’re using the big muscles of your legs versus the small muscles in your arms, whether you’re standing or sitting and whether you’re working out in the heat or cold (you burn more calories in hot temperatures) are important aspects to factor in when determining energy expenditure.

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The calorie burn displayed on the console of your cardio machine is an estimate only. Some manufacturers have been accused of inflating the caloric expenditure of their products. The only way to provide an accurate assessment of calories burned is by measuring heart rate and oxygen consumption, which aren’t options for most exercisers at the local gym.

With this in mind, a research team from the department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse compared the energy expenditure among cardio machines found in most gyms and home gyms to determine which burns the most calories.

Sixteen healthy adults between 18-25 years of age put 10 different cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, stepmill, upright bike, fan bike, arc trainer, rower, recumbent bike, recumbent stepper, arm ergometer) to the test. The exercise protocol consisted of a three-minute warmup followed by three increases in intensity every five minutes, transitioning from “light” to “somewhat hard” to “hard,” with no break between speed intervals. A three-minute cooldown marked the end of the workout. Each person repeated the workout on a second machine 15 minutes later, with researchers monitoring heart rate every minute and oxygen consumption continuously.

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The treadmill and the stepmill (moving stairs that require the exerciser to step up) expended the most energy, burning 378 and 354 calories (respectively) in 30 minutes. The elliptical, upright bike and arc trainer were similar to each other with 303, 300 and 294 calories burned in 30 minutes. Next was the fan bike and rower at 279 and 273 calories in 30 minutes. The recumbent bike, recumbent stepper and arm ergometer took the last three spots at 228, 210 and 162 calories, respectively, in the same amount of time. All of the metrics are based on maintaining exercise intensity in the “somewhat hard” range.

These results don’t mean you should choose the treadmill or stepmill over the elliptical, upright bike or rower. Calorie burn is only one of the features to consider when choosing a cardio machine. If you can’t last 30 minutes on the treadmill but can put in a sweaty 40-minute workout on the bike, why would you change it up? Chances are your 40-minute cycling workout is burning more calories than 20 miserable minutes on the treadmill. Plus, we all know that you’re more likely to return to a machine you enjoy.

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The important message for the average exerciser is that when it comes to cardio machines, you have choices, not only related to the potential of the machine to help you max out your calorie burn. If you’re considering topping up your regular cardio workout on the elliptical with extra minutes on another machine, consider opting for the treadmill or stepmill over the rower to maximize your efforts.

And you don’t need to run. Raise the incline of the treadmill to a pitch similar to that of hiking up a steep hill or mountain and walk as briskly as possible, aiming for an intensity between “somewhat hard” and “hard.” Or, if you haven’t tried the stepmill, maybe now’s the time to add it to your workout list — even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes after getting off the rower.

Smart choices at the gym make the time you spend there more effective — which is the ultimate goal of any workout.

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