Smart Money Magazine, June 2003, page 123
Elliptical trainers are low on impact, high on results. Our Award winner by Life Fitness, has great features and a smooth, fluid ride. By Ryan Malkin
It's no wonder gyms mount televisions right in front of the treadmills--they're so boring to use you wouldn't make it 20 minutes without outside entertainment. An even better cure for treadmill malaise, though, is to make the jump to an elliptical trainer. Sales of these home exercise machines jumped nearly 60 percent from
2000 to 2001, while treadmill sales rose only 8 percent and stationary bikes barely eked out a 3 percent gain, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
HEART WARMING: Offering a smooth ride, the Life Fitness X9i helps you to easily figure out your target heart rate and keep it there.
And with good reason: A workout on an elliptical--also referred to as a cross-trainer--can burn as many calories as working out on a treadmill. Yet unlike treadmills, ellipticals are nonimpact machines, making them perfect for anyone who has knee problems or is concerned about osteoarthritis. They also offer more variety than treadmills, allowing you to go forward and backward, as well as to pump your arms or adjust stride length to target different muscle groups. And if you need more proof of their allure, consider this heady praise: An elliptical trainer is one of Oprah's favorites.
Choosing an elliptical trainer, however, requires some work. Among treadmills, much of the difference comes down to electronics and noise levels. Ellipticals and their motions, on the other hand, are unique. Especially among basic models--say, $ 1,000 and under--such machines can be noisy and wobbly, and may have what's known as a "hitch." Instead of having a fluid elliptical motion, there's a snag at a particular point in the revolution requiring you to exert more energy.
To find the best elliptical value out there, we hit the streets of Manhattan with Paul Frediani, a personal trainer and author of the training manual Power Sculpt. We hopped on ellipticals at sports-gear chains such as Gym Source and Omni Fitness and got our hearts pumping. Our most important criterion was gauging the fluidity of the motion, but we also judged the machines on stability, durability, noise level and console electronics.
Our first test was with a model by Precor, the company that in 1995 created the first elliptical machine. Because of Precor's reputation and huge sales numbers--it is
among the top sellers--our disappointment with its machines was a big surprise. Although the Precor EFX 5.23 ($4,000) is quiet and we found the large LED easy to navigate, the machine's motion felt artificial--as if we were moving up and around in a circle rather than in an oblong circuit. Although Frediani liked the Precor's CrossRamp technology--which allows you to change the angle of the ramp to target different muscle groups--he had one overall concern. If you use the machine more than a couple of times per week, "it will put too much stress on your Achilles tendon," he says. "Running motion is heel to toe--you don't run toe, toe, toe--and this machine tends to keep you on your toes." A Precor spokesman told us, "We've sold thousands of these products ... and this is not an issue we've seen in the seven years it's been on the market." This machine was also the only one we looked at that didn't have arms that swing back and forth like those on cross-country skiing machines, which offer some muscle-toning. Stepping off the Precor, Frediani flipped over the price tag: "Oh, man, $4,000 for this?" Our sentiments exactly.
ARE YOU IN FOR A BUMPY RIDE? The elliptical trainers by, from left, SportsArt, Precor and Vision Fitness each offered compelling workout features. But they fell short in key categories such as stability and motion.
A machine with a more elliptical motion was the SportsArt 807P ($2,500). It felt a bit unsturdy, however, and required more coordination. "If you're 60 years old, you may want something a little more solid than this one," noted Frediani, as the 6-foot-2 former boxer purposely shook the machine from side to side to test its stability. Sure, SportsArt makes a higher-end model, the 8300, which feels more stable, but the jump in price (to $4,5 00) isn't worth it. Yet the 807P did have a great feature we didn't find on any other elliptical, and which Frediani said he hadn't seen before: You can change your stride--or the length your legs can extend--electronically without stopping your workout. Not only does that help you target different muscles, but it can make it more comfortable if there are people of varying heights using the machine--say, you're 6 feet 2 and your wife is only 5 feet 2.
GET A GRIP: The True Fitness is quiet and durable, but its method of reading your heart rate may give you inaccurate results.
Just a short step from the SportsArt is the True Fitness Technology 650 EA ($3,000). Not only is the True noticeably quieter than the SportsArt, but it also offers a slightly more fluid, comfortable motion. Of the machines so far, the True was the sturdiest; it felt as if it could take a beating in a gym for years without a problem. The display console was easy to read and more intuitive than that of the SportsArt, offering four preprogrammed modes, including Hill Interval and Random. There were two problems, however: First, you can't adjust the incline or the stride. Its other flaw, which also plagued the SportsArt, was the placement of the heart rate monitors on the unmovable, bull's-horn-like handgrips, rather than on the arms that swing back and forth. Not only are handgrip monitors less reliable than chest straps for getting an accurate measure of your heart rate, Frediani says, but "if you do try to check your heart rate, it will change when you stop pumping your arms."
Lacking hand sensors, but utilizing a wireless chest strap to monitor your heart rate, was the Vision Fitness X6200HRT ($1,900). Although the Vision looks more like the equipment you might see in an infomercial--its legs fold up vertically to save space--the motion was surprisingly smooth and quiet. Unfortunately, those folding legs make the machine wobbly. "This is an okay machine for someone who has limited space," concedes Frediani.
SOLID CHOICE: The Octane may be bulky, but it offers programs with built-in variety.
From that minimalist trainer we hopped onto the more cumbersome Octane Fitness Q35c ($2,600). "It looks like a snowmobile in front," Frediani says. All the moving parts are covered, making it look bulkier than some of the other ellipticals, but it's perfect for anyone with young children, who have a tendency to put their little fingers in small spaces with moving parts. Frediani was immediately pleased with its smooth motion and low noise level, and we were both intrigued by the unique X-Mode feature, which randomly changes motion cornmands--say, going fast and in reverse while you push your arms, then directing you to squat and lean back. The X-Mode keeps you guessing and keeps your legs pumping, and Frediani agrees that anything that keeps you moving is a good thing. The Octane is very reasonably priced, and "in terms of motion," Frediani says, "it's right behind the True."
But the machine that won our SmartMoney Award was the Life Fitness X9i ($4,000). While the four other Life Fitness models we tried either were noisy, were angled funny or had hard-to-read displays, the X9i suffered from none of those problems. Most important, the motion was truly elliptical, very fluid--and extremely stable to boot, easily passing Frediani's seismic shaking test. But what really put the Life Fitness over the edge were the small features that make it so easy and fun to use. Hit the quick-start button and you're off, or choose from over a dozen programs, including Fat Burn, Speed Training, Foot Hills and more, to customize your workout. The X9i comes with heart monitors on the swinging arms as well as a chest strap, which wirelessly communicates with the LED console. You can choose a specific heart rate, and the machine will adjust the resistance to keep you there. Don't know your target heart rate? There's a chart on the machine that easily shows you the target heart rate by age. That way, "you don't have to do the math in the middle of a workout," says Frediani. With a machine like the Life Fitness X9i, you won't even need Oprah's trainer to get you whipped into shape.