For a Complete Cardio Workout, You Don’t Have to Choose




The variety of cardiovascular exercise has expanded considerably in recent years, with machines targeting leg and core muscles available for almost every taste. But with so many options, how does a would-be exerciser decide which is better for him or her?
The simple answer: don’t pick a favorite. A solid workout program should involve a mix of exercises performed with variation. For example, use a treadmill machine for walking or running or walking backwards, with a high incline setting some days and a flatter setting (at higher speeds) on others. On other days, use a stair machine (e.g., StairMaster brand), elliptical or stationary bike. They all have their benefits, and anything beats nothing. Your strength and conditioning progress each time your muscles are challenged with something new.
But if you are forced to choose just one, it helps to know the pluses and minuses; this article can serve as your guide.

A cautionary note to anyone wearing a hair system: effective cardiovascular training necessarily involves heavy perspiration; this will tend to loosen adhesives faster.


Walking and running are the most natural forms of exercise. But since the advent of cars, we’ve constructed cities, towns and suburbs that are not conducive to either, or we allow weather to be a barrier to simply using our legs to go from point A to point B. Hence the rise of the treadmill.

Different treadmill models have different features, but aside from solid quality in construction, a good treadmill should offer an incline feature. Whether walking, running or walking backward, an incline allows a gradual increase in difficulty, which research demonstrates is beneficial to athletes and senior citizens alike.

There are mistakes that treadmill users often make. The first is using handrails for support. This shifts weight off the feet to the upper body, reducing the beneficial effect on the lower body. The handrails are for balance backup only. Second, walking or running in a hunched position trains your body for that posture – it’s neither healthy nor attractive. Instead, face straight ahead with the shoulders pulled up and back, abdominal muscles tightened, allowing the arms to swing in a natural counterbalance to leg movement. Third, many treadmill users spend a set amount of time, day in and day out, walking on the treadmill with no variation in speed or incline, always at a low level of intensity. At best they experience a modest calorie burn but little else. Such individuals often complain of experiencing no noticeable benefits from this effort.

Stair machines

Climbing actual stairs or using stair-climbing exercise equipment works the legs in a strenuous fashion, loading effort on the gluteus (buttocks), quadriceps (front thighs) and calf muscles. It largely differs from running in that it reduces by half the impact on bones and joints, making it accessible to overweight and deconditioned individuals. Seasoned athletes benefit from stair-climbing equipment as well by increasing the speed and total vertical climb.

A variation on the moving-stairs-style machine is the tower stepper, a smaller machine with two footpads set at varying resistance levels. According to Dr. Steven Loy, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, “The lactic acid production is high” with this machine. “The higher you go, the worse you feel,” he said, acknowledging his personal preference for the moving-staircase version.

As with treadmills, it is a mistake to use the handrails for anything other than balance. Leaning into the handrails reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.


Clearly, the very nature of elliptical training illustrates its advantage: soft, non-jarring movements, as compared with the pounding of feet, bones and joints on a treadmill. The biomechanics are similar to an excellent conditioning sport, cross-country skiing. Promoters of elliptical machines also like to emphasize the engagement of the upper body in operating the handles. The elliptical machine is particularly friendly to individuals with orthopedic issues, including arthritis.

It is possible to tax the legs more than the arms, or the arms more than the legs, when using the machine – you decide. Better machines have adjustable degrees of resistance but lack two characteristics of treadmills: the addition of an incline – which arguably is replaced with higher resistance – and the fact that speed is a function of what you choose, not what the machine is set at. When a treadmill speed is set at, for example, 8.0 mph, the runner may tend to go slower but for the fact that the machine is locked in at that speed until he or she reduces it on the control panel. With an elliptical, you determine that speed with your leg movement only. That may impact the degree of intensity achievable with the elliptical machine.

Stationary bike

A stationary bike is alluring in that it’s familiar, you’re allowed to sit on it while exercising and the resistance functions are easily controlled. But users of stationary bikes seem to fall into two very different categories:

  • Sit and read (or watch TV) – For anyone recovering from surgery or wanting to do more than watch television on a sofa, the stationary bike is indeed a good choice. But the person who hopes to shed pounds while reading or watching something on a video monitor will likely be disappointed. Casual use of a stationary bike – essentially anything that does not induce perspiration – is not likely to cause weight loss or build substantial strength or conditioning.
  • Ride (“spin”) class – This is a whole other way to bike. A coached workout on a stationary bike, typically 45 minutes or more, should take the rider through high speed and high resistance intervals that elevate the rider’s heart rate to 80 percent of his or her maximum (with respiration and perspiration rates at commensurate levels). In other words, this is a real workout. The encouragement of a coach and classmates makes it more likely the individual will complete the program at the level of intensity required to burn calories (about 70 per minute), improve overall conditioning and build muscles in the legs, buttocks and core areas.

A final note on choosing from these and other forms of cardiovascular exercise: The most important consideration is to find what will interest you far into the future, because exercise is not a simple phase if you seek long-term health and longevity. Likely, that will come through variety, being challenged to try new things and simply finding enjoyment in the activity.