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Elliptical or Treadmill for the Best Cardio

By Andrea Cespedes

A sea of machines awaits you on the gym floor, and all promise to get you the best workout possible. Rest assured that either the tried-and-true treadmill or the newer kid on the block, the elliptical trainer, will effectively burn calories, build stamina and improve your cardiovascular fitness levels. To accomplish these goals, a simple stroll on either machine isn't going to cut it; but if you work hard, either machine will help you reap mega fitness rewards.

Healthy Heart

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise weekly to keep you healthy and reduce your risk of chronic disease, including heart disease. A walk at about 3.5 to 4 mph on the treadmill 30 minutes per day, five times per week helps you fit this goal, as does five 30-minute sessions on the elliptical that raise your heart rate to 50 to 70 percent of maximum. If you want to work a little harder, you can get away with a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly. A jog or run on the treadmill or an elliptical session that powers you up to 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate can both fulfill this recommendation.

Calorie Burn

You may be slogging away at the gym in an effort to burn calories. Burning calories ups your metabolic rate for the day, so you can consume more calories and still manage your weight. Burning calories can also help you lose pounds if you regularly eat fewer than you burn. A 155-pound person burns approximately 335 calories in a rigorous session on the elliptical. The same person would need to run 5.2 mph on the treadmill to achieve the same burn in 30 minutes. A 2010 issue of the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" published a study confirming that when participants work at the same perceived intensity on the treadmill and the elliptical, they burn about the same number of calories.

Fitness Improvements

If a fitter respiratory and cardiovascular system are your goals, you can't go wrong with either the treadmill or the elliptical. A 2004 study published in "The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness" compared the effects of exercising at equal intensity and volume on the treadmill, elliptical and stair climber for four, eight and 12 weeks. At the end of each period, all the participants experienced similar improvements in their ability to use oxygen during exercises -- a measure of exercise efficiency. Their heart's strength and ability to work to exhaustion also improved in near identical ways, leading researchers to conclude that any of these machines can help you become fitter.

Goals and Physical Limitations

The deciding factor between the elliptical and the treadmill really comes down to you and your personal needs. If you just signed up for your first 5K or half-marathon, you'll need to do most of your training on the treadmill; it is more specific to your goal of completing a running race. You can still hop on the elliptical once or twice a week for cross-training, though. Your body may also help make your equipment choice for you. Elliptical trainers are low impact, so you incur less stress on your hips, knees and ankles. If you experience discomfort in your joints when jogging or running on the treadmill, you can get an equally challenging workout on the elliptical without the pain.

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