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Your dream machine

Ellipticals are fine if you like to read; stair steppers are better if you're pressed for time. Here's how to choose the cardio workout that's right for you.

February 05, 2007|Jay Blahnik | Special to The Times

IF you hate cardio machines, there's probably no way to make them fun. But if you choose the right machine for your goals, body type and personality, the time you spend working out can at least be more pleasant.


For people who like variety when exercising, the treadmill is perfect. The speed and incline can be adjusted, creating opportunities to mix up a traditionally boring workout. Users can walk a bit, run a bit, keep the treadmill flat or increase the incline and do some hills. And the best part is treadmills have a cushioned surface much more forgiving than outside terrain, so exercisers can often go farther, faster and longer than if they were outdoors.

The treadmill might even help burn more calories than other machines -- not because it works you harder, but because you might be able to work harder. Walking and running are very natural activities, and research has shown that many people can push themselves the hardest on treadmills.

Stair stepper

Unless you're in great shape, the stair stepper is a tough machine. Plus, it can feel repetitive and difficult to use without leaning or sticking your butt out. But for those who like short workouts, the stepper is fantastic -- you can get a great sweat in 10 minutes. The machine won't feel so repetitive when used for a shorter period, and proper form will be easier.

To combat repetitiveness, try counting floors on the console, instead of time. That way, you can change step height as often as you like and still get credit only for the actual floors you climb.

Stepping is particularly good for building fitness for traveling. In my experience, traveling means climbing more than usual, especially when visiting old buildings or hiking a lot. Adding a stepper to your workout can make those trips much easier.


If you enjoy reading or watching TV while working out, the elliptical machine is for you. Because it's usually less jarring than other machines, users can more easily focus on outside entertainment, making workouts feel shorter.

The elliptical is especially good for beginners. Because of the way most elliptical machines are designed, users can do the activity as vigorously as the next person (who might be more fit) without anyone knowing the difference.

The machine also lets users go a little easier on certain days -- but still get their bodies moving. And it has less impact on your joints than many other machines. This is great if you already have an ankle, knee or back injury; an elliptical can make fairly big movements feel comfortable for most people.

On the downside, because most ellipticals have a fixed path of motion, many shorter or taller people find the movement awkward and not as comfortable as many other machines. Because of this, they can have a hard time challenging themselves on ellipticals -- pushing hard is just too tricky.

People with balance problems can also find the elliptical difficult. If the upper and lower body motion together makes it seem as you might fall, go more slowly at first or try another machine that does not require so much coordination.

Also, many folks cheat when they work out on the elliptical. Because everyone can execute a fairly large and vigorous-looking movement on an elliptical, people often move their arms and legs fairly fast -- without making themselves breathe very hard. So, if you use this machine regularly, monitor your intensity/resistance level -- don't just give yourself credit for simply getting on the machine and making it move.

Stationary bike

If you ride your bike outdoors, you are likely to enjoy the stationary bike more than the other cardio machines. It will be familiar and is a great way to help train for your outdoor riding.

And a stationary bike is perfect if you want to read or watch TV while exercising -- or if you like to socialize or talk with a workout buddy. It will put you almost at the same height, and the movement doesn't get in the way during conversation.

The machine can minimize impact on the ankle, knee or back, but it can also perpetuate poor posture. Bending forward to reach the handlebars can cause back problems over time, and those who already have trouble standing up straight might want to consider other machines.

Those new to exercise might find that the bike will fatigue the legs sooner than other activities -- making it difficult to challenge the heart and lungs until leg strength improves. So mix the bike with other activities when first starting out.

One of the best parts of a bike is that, like a treadmill, you can measure your actual distance when you work out. It can be highly motivating to see yourself go farther and farther as you get into better shape, and it is nice to see a measurement you can relate to when you are out walking or driving in your car.

Jay Blahnik, a Laguna Beach-based personal trainer, has appeared in more than 25 videos and is the author of "Full-Body Flexibility." He can be reached at or at health

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