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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.


What is the best cardio machine?

When people ask this, they generally want to know which machine burns the most calories, and the real answer to that is, "The machine that you will use the most" (if you hate a certain machine, you'll avoid using it, hence you won't burn any calories). There really is no one best cardio machine - it all depends on what your requirements are, and that's different for everyone. As far as calories go, the machine that you use the most intensely and for the longest period of time will burn the most of 'em. That said, here are a few notes on the various machines you'll find at most of your local gyms:

(Article continued below.)

Treadmill
This one really is an excellent calorie burner, since you are engaging more of your body than you are on, say, a stationary bicycle. And since walking and running are just natural for most people, they can workout longer or at a higher intensity on a treadmill before tiring out than they might on some of the other machines. A good treadmill should have the ability to raise the incline to offer more challenge. It also should have some sort of shock absorption system to lower the impact stress when you're jogging or running. Most machines made over the past few years have all this, plus the capability to measure your heart rate, but you may belong to a gym that has older equipment. If you do, be cautious about using the treadmill at higher speeds if it lacks shock absorption. Overall, though, treadmills are great when it comes to weight-bearing exercise, which you need to keep your bones strong.

Stationary Bicycle
This is the machine of choice for those who have knee problems, or whose body cannot handle weight-bearing exercise - or for those who like to pedal! The key to making the stationary bike work for you is in the seat adjustment. You should feel comfortable, and at its straightest, your leg should still have a slight bend. There are actually two types of stationary bikes - the upright and the recumbent. The upright is your everyday, run of the mill machine that is similar to an actual bicycle; the recumbent bike has a wider seat and your legs are out in front of you. The recumbent bikes are good for those with back problems, since it puts less stress on your back, and also your neck and shoulders. It's also a more comfortable choice for those who are pregnant or who are quite a bit overweight.

Stair Climbers
Here's a tip - if your gym has both the classic, two-step Stairmaster-type machine, and a Stairmill, which looks like a revolving set of stairs, go for the Stairmill. The Stairmill burns more calories because you're actually lifting your body weight up as if you were on a real staircase, as opposed to just pumping your legs up and down on the Stairmaster (if you have weak knees, though, the Stairmaster is the better choice). No matter which type of machine you choose, stair climbers are a great cardio workout that can add a bit of tone to your legs and rear end (this does not absolve you from doing lower body workouts, however!). But stair climbers have one big problem - a huge cheat factor. The moment you start leaning on the handrails, you are not getting all the workout you should because you are no longer moving with your full body weight (why do you think they call it a "weight bearing exercise"?). As a result, you are not burning as many calories. The more you lean, the fewer calories you are burning, and the less effective your workout is. Touch the handrails lightly, just to maintain balance and let your lower body do the work. Maybe you won't be able to go as long as when you hang onto those handrails, but that means you are getting an equal workout in less time (never thought of that benefit, did you?).

Elliptical
Here's a very low-impact, weight-bearing machine that, if it has moveable handles, engages your whole body. No wonder the elliptical became many exercisers' favorite machine the moment it started hitting the gyms. Because they are so low-impact, however, they are not the best bone-density builders in the gym and, believe it or not, it is easy to overtrain on an elliptical! Because of the smoothness of motion it is easy to forget just how much you are exercising and you can overdo without even realizing it. Of course, this ease of motion is also why so many people have gravitated towards it. While it's fun to fly on these machines, do crank up the resistance now and again for a more intense workout.

Rowing Machines
These tend to be the least popular cardio machines, and these days not every gym has them. This is too bad, because they are great full-body exercisers. Contrary to popular belief, they do not rely solely on arm work - rowing machines engage both your legs and your arms. They are low-impact machines and really quite fun, if you give them a chance. Good rowing machines have the same smooth feel as an elliptical, only from a different perspective.

Next page >> Making the most of the machines >> Page 1, 2

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