Smart Shopping: Elliptical Exercisers

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Getting Started l Types l Features

Ellipticals are odd-looking contraptions, a fusion of stair climber and cross-country ski machine that you stand on and pedal. Your feet move in an elliptical pattern, and a flywheel with resistance you can vary controls the difficulty of the workout.

GETTING STARTED



Unlike cross-country ski machines, which require a degree of finesse, elliptical trainers are easy to use. And like treadmills, ellipticals can provide a vigorous workout, but without the impact of running on a treadmill. The weight-bearing exercise that ellipticals provide helps protect against osteoporosis -- so that's an advantage over bicycling and swimming. And there's no motor; you provide the pedal power, so ellipticals are relatively quiet compared with a treadmill.

A home elliptical trainer offers the convenience of not having to plan your workouts around the weather or off-peak hours at the gym. In a 65 percent increase from the year before, 3.3 million Americans regularly worked out on an elliptical exerciser in 2003. But consider whether you want to devote the money and space to a big exercise machine. A living-room workout is the height of convenience, but you can get fit exercising outdoors or at a gym. If you decide to buy one for home use, this elliptical guide will help you make the best choice.

Where to buy Budget-priced ellipticals are sold by Sears, Wal-Mart, The Sports Authority, and other national sporting-goods chains. Moderate-priced brands such as Horizon Fitness, Schwinn, Trimline, and Vision Fitness, as well as pricier brands such as Landice, Life Fitness, Nautilus, Precor, and True, are generally sold in specialty sporting-goods stores. Wherever you shop, try out the machine and make sure you can return it if you don't enjoy using it. (A drawback to shopping online is that you can't try before you buy. That's especially problematic with elliptical exercisers because the movement is less familiar than walking or running, and each machine has a different pedaling motion.)

TYPES

We have divided the types of ellipticals available according to price. For the most part, you get what you pay for.

Budget-priced ellipticals
These tend to be markedly flimsier than the commercial models found in gyms.

Pros: You might find a satisfactory elliptical trainer for $1,000 or less if you shop carefully.
Cons: Budget-priced models might be less stable than the more expensive ones, and they generally come with a shorter warranty.

Expensive ellipticals
Paying more usually buys you sturdy construction close to that of a commercial gym machine.

Pros: The more expensive machines tend to feel more solid, operate more smoothly, and have more features than the under-$1,000 models. You might also get superior ergonomics, a wide range of features, and a more generous warranty.
Cons: Models that did best in our tests cost well over $2,000. And high price is no guarantee of quality. One $2,700 model had a design defect serious enough for us to rate it Not Recommended.

FEATURES

Some elliptical features can make exercise more entertaining and less painful. And some might do more harm than good.

Electronic programming
Most ellipticals have exercise programs that vary pedaling effort, and some might allow adjustment of the incline electronically as you work out, the way a treadmill allows electronic incline adjustment. Cheaper models might only allow adjustment manually, and not during workouts. By making a workout less boring, an exercise program might get you to use the machine more often. But some programs are easier and more flexible to operate than others.

Ergonomics
Especially check the design of the moving arms and the pedals. On some models, the moving arms are awkwardly angled or block the display. If you hold on to the nonmoving handgrips, make sure the back-and-forth handles don't whack you in the arms. A narrow stance is more natural than widely spaced pedals, and a safety rim around the sides of the pedals can help keep your foot from slipping off.

Heart-rate monitor
All the models we tested come with one or offer it at extra cost. A heart-rate monitor helps you to exercise up to your potential while avoiding dangerous overexertion. A chest-strap monitor is more accurate and convenient than a handgrip or thumb-sensor type.

Pedal arm safety pin
This keeps unsupervised children from using the machine.

Console gadgets
A growing number of manufacturers are loading the console with gadgets such as a CD player, a fan (a full-size fan is more effective), and even an LCD TV. But you might be able to buy those items separately for less. And if they need repair, having them serviced can be a problem.

Added cushioning
Two elliptical exercisers we tested promise bouncier, springier workouts with less impact on your joints. One has flexible pedal arms, "propelling you to the next stride while absorbing impact," as the company puts it. Another machine has an elastic pad between each pedal and supporting arm; moving the pad adjusts the cushioning. But the flexible arms made the machine feel unstable at some speeds, interrupting our testers' cadence. And we question the need for extra pedal cushioning because elliptical exercisers create virtually no impact.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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