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Treadmills can pose a real balance challenge for new exercisers or those who haven't worked out in a while, says Matthew Vukovich, exercise physiologist and associate professor at South Dakota State University.
These machines pack a little less punch on the joints, and either can be a good alternative to the treadmill, says Vukovich. Because you use them in a standing position, you're using lots of muscle mass, so the calorie burn rate is still pretty high.
Elliptical machines with arm components can further increase the numbers of calories you burn, says Stamford. All our experts agree that the stationary bike offers the workout with the least impact on the joints. People with knee pain are often steered toward these bikes, since the impact of body weight is not a concern as it is on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, or stair stepper. But to avoid knee strain, you must make sure the bike is adjusted to fit your body, Vukovich says.
Most people sit too low, meaning their knees flex too much as they pedal. This can put too much pressure on the knee and result in soreness, warn Vukovich. The stationary bike is a less intense calorie-burner than some of the other machines. You'll need to pedal four miles to burn calories, says Alexander. Rowers are more advanced cardiovascular machines.
Because you must push with the legs while you pull with the arms, rowers require coordination. They also you require you to engage your core abdominal muscles to support and protect your back.
Because they use so many muscle groups, rowers burn lots of calories. But this machine has several red flags for a beginning or unfit exerciser. Extra weight often comes with back pain , and this is not a machine you want to use if you have back issues, he says. Choose a machine that feels right. If impact is a problem, the stationary bicycle may be a better choice than the treadmill.
More muscle use equals more calorie burn. The basic rule of thumb is that the machine that exercises the greatest muscle mass burns the most calories. There's a flip side of that coin, too: If you're a beginner, using more muscles means getting fatigued sooner -- which will result in burning fewer calories. Try using a pre-programmed workout that includes variations in speed and intensity. Or vary those factors yourself during your workout. There are so many things you can do to make it more interesting.
Work out for time. Instead of forcing yourself to stay on one piece of equipment when you're bored or uncomfortable, just give yourself a time goal at the gym, says Stamford. For example, give yourself 30 minutes to get your workout in.
Then break it up any way you want — say, 10 minutes each on the treadmill and bike, followed by 10 on the elliptical machines. If you're still feeling chipper, go for 5 or 10 more minutes on the machine of your chice. Even if you love one particular machine, you don't have to use it every time.