Just as your triceps, abdominals and gluteus maximus need exercise, your heart muscle could use a workout, too, and the elliptical trainer is a great exercise machine to use.
"Whenever I have anyone looking for a piece of cardiovascular equipment, I absolutely recommend only the elliptical," said strength and conditioning trainer Connie Mearns. "It is the most versatile piece of cardiovascular equipment, and offers a gentler, more efficient workout. It exercises both the upper and lower body, and it is completely impact free."
Problem knees will give a sigh of relief once you step on the elliptical, the machine that mimics the motion of your lower body when walking or running. What's more, once you slide your feet onto the slip-resistant pedals, they never leave, sparing your joints the jarring and jostling that has become the bane of treadmill users and joggers.
For marathon runner and certified personal trainer Melinda Bewley, the elliptical provides the perfect cross-trainer. Its gliding motion and weight-bearing capability offer a total body workout all year round.
"Unlike treadmills or jogging, there is little impact on my joints and muscles," said Bewley, a trainer at Healthy Living Support Network in Williamsville. "The motion is smooth and continuous, and you can reverse direction to work the opposing muscles."
Ellipticals, treadmills and free weights are the three most essential pieces of fitness equipment, according to IDEA Health & Fitness Association, an organization of health and fitness professionals worldwide.
How popular has the elliptical become?
In 2003 alone, elliptical trainers were used by 13.4 million exercisers, a 25 percent increase from the previous year and 247 percent since 1998, according to an American Sports Data report, which went on state: "While users of these machines are not particularly old (average age 36.5), this equipment -- among other virtues is "knee-friendly" -- a clear qualification for the kinder/gentler category."
Efficiency is also a mark of the elliptical trainer.
"If you can't get an effective workout in an hour, you're wasting your time," said Mearns, who studied sports medicine at Canisius College. "You're not getting the bang for your buck. The more you can multitask, the more you can involve the entire body in your workout, the more efficient your workout will be.
"Go hang out at any gym and watch the more conditioned people head for the elliptical," she added. "The people newer to the gym will go for the treadmill or the bicycle because they're easier."
>Get with the program
Elliptical programs are all about resistance control, motivational settings like Arm Blaster of Glute Kicker that recalibrate resistance levels to help you achieve your fitness goal.
"The machine automatically changes the resistance, so you're chugging along on it and all of a sudden it gets more difficult," said Mearns. "It's almost like you're charging through mud.
"The biggest reason people stop exercising is boredom," noted Mearns, "and with the treadmill you only have so many options. When you are on an elliptical, you are always in control of the machine."
On advanced elliptical trainers the level of your heart rate, oftentimes monitored by your hands on the bar grips, will determine the degree of resistance. Whatever your goal -- weight-loss, fat burning or endurance aerobic -- the heart rate feature will increase or decrease the resistance based on your target heart rate.
The weight-bearing feature of ellipticals makes them superior to stationary bicycles or rowing machines, where 40 to 60 percent of your body weight is absorbed by the seat, said Jon Blumhagen of G&G fitness.
"As far as calories, muscle activity and resistance, your output will be significantly lower sitting down," said Blumhagen, who after three knee operations slowly began to use ellipticals.
"To me [elliptical] was a cheap knockoff of the treadmill," Blumhagen recalled. "There wasn't a whole lot pushing me toward them, but I've had three knee operations, and now the elliptical is the only way I'll work out."
Part of their appeal is a lower perceived exertion rate. People who work out on ellipticals burn as many calories as those on the treadmill. In fact, manufacturers claim you can burn 720 calories per hour using the elliptical, depending on intensity.
"So you're burning the same calories, but it doesn't feel like it because your joints aren't getting broken down with every step you take," said Blumhagen.
In addition, because of the weight-resistance factor, the longer your elliptical workout, the more bone cells will be generated in your lower body, which is critical in preventing osteoporosis.
What separates ellipticals from other exercise machines? The reversible motion of the pedals. Going forward works quadriceps and glutes. Switching to reverse transfers the work to your hamstrings, said Bewley. You'll get resistance both ways, but backward you will feel the burn more, and if you push with your heels, be prepared for killer calves.
This ability to move forward or backward reduces the risk of repetitive-use injuries common with some treadmill and stair-climber users. Just be sure to keep your back straight.
Take a walk in the snow (or on a beach) and look back at your footprints. Chances are they won't be four or five inches apart, as the pedals are on some ellipticals. The pedal distance ranges from 1 3/4 inches to five or six inches apart with the average between 2 and 2 1/2 inches.
Why does this matter?
"For short exercisers, wide pedal spacing puts more stress on the hips and the lower back," warned Blumhagen. "It's almost like buying a pair of shoes: You need to try a couple on for size."
As for length of stride, some machines offer adjustable stride lengths with the average between 18 and 19 inches.
>Use your arms
Ellipticals have come a long way, with the original version lacking the upper body option completely. Today, most of the gym machines are dual action.
"Getting the arms involved develops muscle tone because you can push and pull," said Mearns. "You can distribute the work between upper and lower body."
The result is a cardiovascular efficient workout, or more bang for you buck, as Mearns would say.
"Working the smaller muscle groups -- the biceps and triceps -- requires a quicker replenishment of oxygen," said Mearns. "Once it is depleted, you need to replenish it or the muscles will cramp up and stop functioning. When you use your arms, you shoot that heart rate up a lot quicker than you do when walking on a treadmill."
Your heart's increased rate will send oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, turning carbs and fat into energy. Exercising 10 minutes, three times a day, or one, 30-minute spurt can burn stubborn fat cells. Remember, exercise adds up.
For an elliptical workout, wear what you normally would for a cardio day at the gym -- loose-fitting, comfortable wicking apparel works best. And since you won't be running, a cross-training shoe will do. Use music as your motivator, and switch into glide.