The scene at Lockheed Martin Employee Fitness Center in Marietta, Ga., is common at a lot of gyms these days: A dozen treadmills and stationary bikes stand idle, while people wait their turn on an elliptical trainer--a kind of treadmill, ski machine, bicycle, and stair stepper rolled into one. Many fitness experts say the elliptical is the piece of equipment that can give people the most benefit. That has made it hugely popular at gyms. It's also making the contraption a top choice for workouts at home.
Exercising on an elliptical trainer looks bizarre--like someone bounding about in slow motion without going anywhere. You stand with your full weight on pedals that move in an elliptical, or oval, version of a bicycle's circular motion. That works your abs and glutes as well as your legs, and if the machine has moving handlebars, it'll help tone your arms, shoulders, back, and chest, too. By varying the settings, you can also increase the machine's incline or the pedals' resistance.
The American Council on Exercise in San Diego (www.acefitness.org) calls an elliptical workout "more intense than using a stair climber or a bike" and as intense as "running at an 11.5-minute-mile pace" or taking a high-impact aerobics class. On an elliptical, though, the impact is virtually nil--which greatly reduces the risk of injury to feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back.
CAPABILITIES. "The elliptical is my favorite by far," says Leslie Smith Ganey, a certified exercise instructor. When Ganey opened her own health club, Total Fitness, in Cleveland, Ga., an elliptical trainer was one of her first purchases. It immediately became the most popular machine in the gym--until it broke. The model just couldn't handle continuous use day after day, particularly by heavier people. The point: Consider what capabilities you want in a machine, and bone up on the various models before you choose one.
Your biggest decision is whether you want a machine that works only your lower body, or one with moving handlebars for your upper body, too. The overwhelming favorite among instructors and users is only for lower-body work. It's made by Precor USA, which introduced elliptical trainers in 1995. The Precor 5.21 sells for around $3,000 and accounts for 45% of all ellipticals sold, says Dustin Kaylor, a personal trainer and salesman in Atlanta for Busy Body Home Fitness stores, a national chain. People like its sturdiness, as well as its nine settings and four digital readout screens.
Top choice among the flexibility crowd is Reebok's Personal Trek, which comes with handlebars and sells for around $2,300. People on a budget like the ProForm 485e, at $550, and NordicTrack's VGR 940, which also monitors your heart rate and costs $700. If space is a concern, check out the Vision Fitness X 6200, which folds up and can be stored (table).
You can buy elliptical trainers on the Internet. Precor.com and www.nordictrack.com have Web sites. For retailers, try bigfitness.com and workoutwarehouse.com. A site called ellipticaltrainers.com sells lesser-known brands. To learn more, go to consumersearch.com, which has a thorough research report on elliptical trainers, with recommendations and prices.
Nothing beats actually trying out machines in stores, though. Reputable retailers, such as Busy Body or Galyan's, another national chain, also offer more service. For a fee of $100 or so, they'll set up the machine in your home, while you'll have to assemble a machine bought on the Web yourself. Make sure the store will send someone to your home to fix your machine when it breaks. Otherwise, you'll have to haul it back--another kind of exercise altogether.