How to Decide Which Cardio Machine to Buy

How to Decide Which Cardio Machine to Buy

person on home elliptical machine

Photo: Yuliya Yesina (Shutterstock)

So you’ve decided to get a dedicated cardio machine for your home gym. Congrats! But should it be a treadmill, an elliptical, a bike, or a rower? There are pros and cons to each.

Treadmill

Cost: Around $1,500 for many of the popular models. There are budget models that come in under $1,000 and fancy ones over $2,000.

Size: A typical footprint is 35″x 77″, according to Consumer Reports. You’ll also need two to three feet of space around the sides and front, and a significant amount of space behind the belt in case you trip and fall. (You want the treadmill’s motion to dump you onto the floor, not trap you against a wall unable to get up.) If you only walk, you can get away with a slightly smaller treadmill than if you run. Tall people who run fast will appreciate larger and longer belts.

How versatile is it? This is a one-trick pony: you can run, or you can walk, and that’s it. Most models will let you adjust the incline, and they’ll all let you adjust the speed.

Who is it for? If you love to run or walk, but can’t always do it outdoors, a treadmill is just the thing for you. (Yes, a treadmill is just as good a workout as an outdoor run.)

If you can walk or run outdoors, though, the treadmill isn’t going to give you a different type of workout. Some runners might prefer to get a different machine, like a bike, for lower impact workouts, and do their running outside.

Elliptical

Cost: Similar to a treadmill.

Size: The footprint is similar to a treadmill, but the machine is taller. If you have low ceilings, pay attention to the pedal height to ensure you won’t be bumping your head with every step.

How versatile is it? The motion of an elliptical is similar no matter how you use it, but you can change up a bunch of factors: the resistance, incline, and speed with which you choose to move your legs, for starters. Most ellipticals can be pedaled forward or backward for slightly different muscle emphasis, and there’s usually a set of handlebars so you can get your upper body into the motion, too.

Who is it for? People who want the motion of running without the bone-jarring impact. Ellipticals tend to feel easier for the same calorie burn compared to other cardio machines (not that you should pay too much attention to the numbers), so if you just want something to provide cardio but don’t really care what kind you’re doing, an elliptical is a good option.

Indoor bike

Cost: Around $100 for a stand you can put a regular bike on, $600 for a basic spin bike, and $2,000 or more for a typical Peloton package.

Size: Most bikes fit in a footprint of 26″x 48″, according to IndoorsFitness, but this will vary by model. If you use a trainer for the DIY option, you can prop the bike upright when you’re not using it, or disconnect it from the trainer. Again, you’ll need about two feet of space around the bike to use it comfortably.

How versatile is it? Spin bikes let you adjust the speed quickly so you can sprint or recover. More traditional exercise bikes are often a bit slower to adjust, so consider whether you plan on doing a lot of intervals or whether you prefer steady-state cardio.

Who is it for? Cycling is another low-impact exercise, and the intensity level is up to you. It’s great for intervals, and there’s a whole market now for instructor-led cycling classes from Peloton and its many copycats, including Apple Fitness+.

Rower

Cost: $900 for the Concept II model you’ve seen in a million gyms. Budget rowers are available for less, and deluxe models with screens can run around $2,000.

Size: 3’x8′ is a typical footprint, and some machines can be tipped up and leaned against a wall when not in use.

How versatile is it? Rowing is great for full-body exercise, since the motion uses your legs, back and arms. The machines lend themselves well to all-out sprinting efforts, too, so overall you’ll get a great workout. These same pros are also its cons: if your arms or back are sore, there’s no way to row while going easy on those body parts.

Who is it for? Rowers are popular with people who like their cardio to come in hard intervals. You can row at a slow pace, but it’s not easy, mindless cardio like you’d get from an elliptical.

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