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Treadmills      Elliptical Cross-Trainer  

Treadmills provided the easiest way to burn calories of all other types exercise of machines. Researchers asked eight male and five female young adults to exercise on six different types of indoor exercise machines, including a cross-country skiing simulator, cycle ergometer, rowing ergometer and stair stepper. They compared energy expenditure at ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) levels of 11 (fairly light), 13 (somewhat hard) and 15 (hard), and found that subjects who exercised at an RPE of 13 burned approximately 40 percent more calories per hour on the treadmill as compared to the cycle ergometer, which produced the lowest energy expenditure.

Marketing research in 2001 showed that the typical treadmill purchaser is likely to be female, 30-50 years old, and mid-to-upper-income. 72% of all treadmill buyers are women, and 45% are over the age of 45. However, treadmills are are increasing in popularity due to a burgeoning senior population. While running has been a favoured activity of Americans since the 1970s, walking has come into vogue in just the past five or six years, in part because it's a low-impact exercise that older or less-fit people can do easily. A treadmill lets you walk, as well as run. Walking and running are activities that are simply easier to master than are other types of exercise, such as biking, rowing, or using a stair-climber or ski machine.

Treadmills are probably the most expensive piece of cardio equipment you can buy. Yet, they range in price from a few hundred dollars to well over $5000. Decent quality home treadmills can be bought for as little as $400. As a group, this type of machine either requires the most maintenance or has the shortest life of all types of exercise equipment. As of 2002 there are currently at least 36 different brands of treadmills available.

There are still some cheap motor-less treadmill models available that are driven by the user, utilizing inertia. They are simple and more reliable; at least more reliable than the low end motorized treadmills. The disadvantage of human powered treadmills is that they are slower and more difficult to operate because if the exerciser begins to tire and slows down, the belt gradually slows down too. Usually, non-motorized treadmills do not have enough inertia to adequately keep the user moving at a constant pace, so the user must actively maintain pace; just as if it were real unaccompanied outdoor running.

OTOH, a motorized treadmill motivates the user to keep up with the preset rate or programmed rates of the machine. Powered models have electric motor drives that provide speed ranges as wide as 0-12 mph utilizing electric motors that are rated up to 3.0 HP continuous duty. A brisk walking pace is about 4 mph, while at 12 mph you're clocking a five-minute mile, roughly the speed of a world-class marathoner. One difference in treadmill motors, which isn't always reflected in the product literature, is whether the manufacturer lists horsepower in terms of continuous duty or peak performance. Obviously this HP rating can be deceptive. If you weight more than 180 pounds, look for a motor that offers a minimum of 2.0 continuous-duty horsepower. Most home units are DC, while commercial treadmills may have either AC or DC motors. AC motors tend to be noisier and draw more power, meaning that an AC treadmill will likely require a dedicated power line.

High quality frames are welded together instead of using fasteners, and are usually made of steel or aluminium.

Two-ply belts are stronger and less likely to curl at the sides than thinner one-ply belts. 20" wide belts are common. Stay away from machines with belts narrower than 17". When testing a treadmill in a store, the belt should not move from side to side from the impact of moving feet.

Longer decks provide room for a more comfortable stride than shorter surfaces. Size the machine for the height of the user. Deck construction influences how smooth or hard the treadmill feels to run on and how well it absorbs shock. You want a surface that gives a bit, but doesn't bounce. Better quality decks are usually made of laminated wood, coated with lubricants to minimize friction between belt and deck. Better decks are also reversible, thereby doubling the life of the deck.

Treadmills for walking start at 0 or .5 and go up to around 5 or 6 mph, while those for jogging or running generally start at 0, .5, or 1 mph and go up to 8-12mph.

Incline can range from a low of 2-4%, to a high of 15%. Generally, the bigger the better; commercial-grade treadmills often go as high as 25%. The most high-tech incline adjustment is the automatic incline, which changes depending upon the exerciser's heart rate. For instance, the Precor M 9.25 and M 9.45 treadmills measure heart rate via a wireless monitor and automatically adjusts the percentage of incline to keep the person within their target heart range. Other treadmills have electronic inclines that can be altered by pushing a button on the console, while less sophisticated ones have either a manual hand crank or other manual adjustment that has to be set before starting to exercise.

Preset programs automatically change the speed and/or incline of your workout and are a good way to alleviate boredom. Some models also offer custom programs that essentially replay your favourite workouts or enable you to duplicate the course of a known marathon or some other race that you're training for, and a few will even adjust your workout according to your pulse rate. A favourite feature for runners is the automatic warm-up and/or cool down program, which helps reduce the risk of muscle pull.

An emerging technology that many treadmill makers are adding is shock-absorption, to help spare the joints of exercisers. Manufacturers use different techniques such as thicker (cushioning) running belts, thinner running decks, rugs between the decks and belts, or shock absorbers placed under the deck. Precor, for instance, has a patented "Ground Effects" floating-bed technology (the bed sits on special springs). In the early days, some of these floating-bed treadmills weren't so good. They felt as if you were running on a trampoline, but they've improved the technology now.

You don't want to pay too much for a treadmill, because they're like computers; more advanced features every year make them obsolete before any part of them fails (unless they're low-end machines). Even today's moderately priced machines are superior in both features and reliability to the high end machines of 3 years ago. High-priced machines will mean lower volume production, so they will also have high-priced replacement parts and fewer distributors.

Treadmills are the highest maintenance of all types of exercise equipment, so keep in mind lubrication and parts replacement. Will you or a friend/relative/spouse be doing such maintenance chores? I ask because it's a PIA to ship or transport the machine to a service centre, and you don't want it to be out of service for a long time either.

Elliptical Cross-Trainer

A Primer for  Cardiovascular Exercise Machines

"Elliptical" is the hottest new addition to the fitness vocabulary. This type of exercise machine is great for stimulating your blood circulation and metabolism. Research comparing an elliptical trainer to a treadmill, a stair stepper, and a cycle found no significant differences in terms of oxygen consumption, calorie expenditure and heart rate between treadmill running and the elliptical trainer.

Explanations

An ellipse is an oval shape, and this roughly describes the path that the feet make when running. Actually, the path the feet travel are a series of half-ellipses because the running motion of the feet is intermittently stopped when they hit the ground, causing a rapid series of impacts.

"Elliptical" cross-trainer exercise machine is a misnomer. A more accurate description would be an "eggtical" cycling machine, because of the egg-shaped path of the machine's pedals for a complete cycle. The wide part of the egg-shaped path is generally on the side of the pedal link where the crank is located, and the front-to-rear travel of the pedals is always equal to the crank diameter. These machines allow your feet to complete their noncircular path without impact. Like cycling, ellipticals offer a no-impact exercise because the feet remain in contact with the pedals at all times. Thus, individuals who suffer impact-related orthopaedic injuries may benefit from elliptical cross-trainers. In addition, an elliptical machine usually provides for movement of the arms, thereby spreading out the burning of calories across a greater number of muscles and enabling a longer duration (possibly easier) workout while toning more muscles. Another advantage of this machine is that it allows the use of a backward-step motion. Though this movement feels unnatural at first, it is beneficial since it works muscle groups that don't ordinarily receive focused exercise. Consequently, an elliptical machine combines some of the benefits of a step machine, a treadmill and a stationary bike.

Design Differences

Ellipticals were introduced in health clubs in 1995 and then home versions appeared in 1997. Originally the motion of the better home elliptical machines mimicked that of running, so designs usually had the crank to the rear of the pedal. However, since home treadmills continued to gain popularity, most home elliptical designs have since evolved to become an alternative to both stepper and cycle machines, mimicking a motion like that of running uphill. These "climbing" type elliptical designs either have the cranks or roller ramps to the front of the pedal links. Consequently, the popularity of both steppers and cyclers has declined somewhat in recent years. Since steppers require little floor-space, the trend toward home ellipticals that compete with steppers is also manifesting itself in more compact elliptical machine designs. Health club machines remain large but can usually provide a better quasi-running motion than most home machines because the available stride is longer.

Elliptical models have a number of design variations, so they each have there own unique feel because the shape of their egg-shaped pedal paths are different or can be adjusted differently. Most ellipticals can be driven in reverse motion, but some cannot. And some ellipticals, including the most expensive health club models, do not provide for arm motion.

There is an emerging trend started by Icon Fitness to integrate leaf springs in the pedal links of their Nordic Trackô and ProFormô brands for the purpose of reducing peak loads on the body. Leaf springs do not eliminate impact; impact in elliptical machines was already eliminated before leaf springs appeared. The design intent now is to soften the forces on the body that accompany sharp changes in pedal direction for an egg-shaped path. This is not a consideration in stationary cyclers because the rotary motion of those machines' pedals is a circular (constant radius) path, and so they cause no abrupt reactions to be felt on the body. Unfortunately, metal leaf springs increase elasticity of the machine without imparting any damping effects to compensate for increased vibration. Be aware that elliptical machine designs without leaf springs already contain a significant amount of elasticity, and these machines will shake at high speeds, which is partly due to elasticity. The more elasticity that is built in, the more damping that may also be required. However, currently there are no damping components found in elliptical machines. One would think then that the newer more advanced ellipticals with leaf springs would not be as stable at elevated speeds,  but compact ProFormô models having roughly the same rear crank radius at the pedal link: model 700 (leaf springs) and model 545s (no leaf springs).  There is no noticeable difference in vibration seen. Surprisingly, the vibrations are not intolerable, and the machines stay in place on the floor despite their equally small bases.

There are 2 subtypes of ellipticals. The premium group has adjustable pedal path (usually via an adjustable inclination ramp), and the other more economical group does not. Most models with the adjustable pedal path have pedal links that are partially supported by rollers that reciprocate on a ramp, and if these models have arm levers, then they will also have linear bearing components (guide bushings) at the bottom of those levers. These are additional parts that can wear out or become damaged, so this roller-ramp group of machines is often (but not always) not as quiet in operation as the simpler group. Commercial or health club ellipticals always have adjustable pedal path and usually have one significant, albeit dubious feature that is lacking in premium ellipticals for the home: that pedal path is a motorized, on-the-fly, continuously adjustable feature. Conversely, there is a simple new idea that has appeared in the latest ProForm and Nordic Track ellipticals that provides an elegant way to accomplish adjustable pedal path: adjusting the fore-aft location of the pedals on the pedal links. The pedals simply have slotted holes for shifting the pedals either forward or backward for less or more vertical motion in the path. Bolts clamp down the pedal to the adjusted position. Frankly, I see the pedal path feature as a "set it and forget it" adjustment that nobody would normally want to change their preference about. It should be seen mainly as an adjustment to suit individual preferences for different users. Because of the increased complexity and reduced reliability (except for the slotted pedal models), adjustable pedal path should be considered mainly if there will be more than one user of the machine and their preferences are different. It is noteworthy though that an adjustable pedal path can provide a monotony breaking benefit.

Oldie but Goodie

My own preference is the simple, quiet ProForm model 485e (discontinued during 1999). Its relatively long, low pedal path has a foot shuffling motion that is (was) one of the smoothest home ellipticals to mimic running. Moreover, because the frame is adequately stiff and pedal travel doesn't climb too high or too abruptly, the machine can be sprinted at a high rate of speed without an intolerable level of shaking (if done for short durations, or by a light-weight user). This sprintability not only provides monotony breaking variation to the workout, but it is useful for training the body to move quickly too; an athletic benefit that I found particularly useful for tricky all-terrain downhill backcountry skiing. Newer models of home ellipticals have shorter length pedal links, and/or ramping beneath pedals, higher pedal travel, and smaller length frame bases; design elements that effectively reduce the maximum speed. The 485e also provides for arm motion, can be driven in reverse, and also has pedal links that are long enough that the feet can be placed directly on the links at points just rear of the pedals, thereby changing the path of the feet for greater vertical travel; all beneficial for both minimizing monotony and exercising additional muscles.

Summary

Ellipticals, especially the models that include arm motion, provide a versatile workout that can range in adjustable resistance from easy to strenuous. Thus they are suitable for people of a wide range of weight and strength, and the various models can be a good fit for people of height 5'3" to 6'8". Good elliptical machines are appropriate for all fitness levels, and are especially valuable to individuals with orthopaedic problems that are aggravated by impacts. Moreover, I find ellipticals to be the single best type of machine to train for downhill skiing on.

Suggestions

If you are non-athletic, then you will probably be less demanding and thus find the greatest number of satisfactory models to choose from. An athletic user should test each machine more rigorously before purchasing; at maximum speed while at low/moderate resistance. Whatever your athletic ability or fitness level, you should not purchase an elliptical that you have not first tested yourself. With so many quiet, rigid elliptical machines available, nobody should have to own a noisy one.

By Knack
Last revision June 22, 2002
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