Which Cardio Equipment Is Right For You?

older african american man exercising on a stationary bikeBefore you crack open your wallet and decide to buy a home cardio machine, you need to ensure that your new treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bicycle is an investment you’ll actually use not only now, but well into the future.

How To Get Started

Go to a specialty store. Just like with a good pair of walking or running shoes, it’s better to shop at a specialty fitness retailer — a store dedicated to selling only fitness equipment, where sales consultants have been trained in the products, according to Gregory Florez, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise and CEO of FitnessAdvisor.com Health Coaching Services.

Don’t worry as much about the fancy stuff. “Don’t be dazzled by all the latest bells and whistles,” say Florez. “Sure, machine-mounted flat screen TVs are cool, but think of these features as nice-to-have extras that you don’t necessarily need. Instead, spend your money on better machine guts, such a sturdy steel frame, a comfortable design for your body, and smooth mechanics.

Double-check your available space. It’s also very important to assess just how much space is available for cardio equipment in your home. Before you buy, make sure to thoroughly measure your workout area to determine the footprint (the space a machine needs to safely fit in your home) you can accommodate. In addition to floor space, don’t forget ceiling height. A machine’s users should have enough overhead to comfortably and safely exercise. If you have limited space, here are some general guidelines to help you determine what type of machine is best for you:

Footprint for treadmill: minimum of 2 feet wide, 5 to 7 feet long
Footprint for elliptical: 2 to 3 feet wide, 5 to 7 long
Footprint for upright bike: 2 feet wide, 3 feet long
Footprint for recumbent bike: 2 feet wide, 4 to 5 feet long


The Motor. Think of a treadmill’s motor like a car’s engine–paying more up front typically translates into a smoother ride and more problem-free miles. Don’t be misled by a salesperson that tries to tout the peak horsepower, which might be as high as 3.0. For the average walker or jogger, continuous horse power is more important. Look for a minimum 2.0 continuous horsepower.

The Deck. Too small a deck can constrict your stride, making your form unnatural. Look for a deck measuring approximately 80 inches long and between 20 to 22 inches wide to comfortably accommodate most strides. Cushioned walking surfaces can be kinder on joints, but don’t rely on a soft feel alone. If you plan to use your machine indoors during the winter but run outside with warmer weather, be aware that running on hard asphalt, even at the same speed and distance as on the treadmill, can be much harder on your joints.


Stride Length. Ellipticals with stride length adjustment, where the pedal motions can be changed to accommodate your steps and pace, can help prevent overuse injuries by slightly varying your movement patterns, says Florez. But they’re not a must-have. If you’re on a budget, look for a stride length of 16 to 19 inches, which will accommodate most users 5’3” or taller–up to 6’3”.

Handlebars. Avoid focusing too much on handlebars that move — unless you already know you prefer this feature. Moving handlebars can offer variety and a good way to add upper-body toning to your workouts, but the real workhorse on an elliptical is its lower half. Whether the handlebars are connected to the footplates or move independently, your main calorie burn comes from how hard you work your legs. And remember, there’s no rule that you need to hold onto the handlebars at all. Swinging them at your sides, as if you were jogging, incorporates your upper body and increases the aerobic benefit of your workout, without costing an extra dime!

The Frame. Make sure to test an elliptical in-store on its hardest settings even if you won’t normally use those resistances. Move on if the machine wobbles, creaks or makes a lot of noise. Unlike treadmills, ellipticals should run quietly because they use magnetic resistance instead of a motor.

Stationary Bikes

The Best Fit. Treadmills fit just about everyone, but bikes are a different story. Properly adjusting a bike is especially important to avoid straining joints. Upright bikes all allow you to slide the seat up or down to tailor the fit to your leg length. It’s even better if you can adjust the seat forward or back from the handlebars to accommodate your torso length. Look for adjustable toes straps and enough room so the balls of your feet fit comfortably on the pedals. Test the bike in the store for how well its handlebars and seat, in particular, adjust to your body. Ask a salesperson to help you make the adjustments when you try a bike in the store, and make sure that they’re easy for you to do on your own before you buy it.

Upright vs. Recumbent. If you have a bad back or poor balance, the support of a recumbent bike’s high-back seat and low-to-the-ground design might be your best and safest option. This type of bike is also idea if you are a workout bookworm and prefer reading while pedaling. Although a large seat can be more comfortable, make sure it doesn’t impede the pedaling motion of your legs. On the other hand, an upright bike is preferable for outdoor cyclists or spinning class enthusiasts in search of an at-home option. The more open design of upright bikes allows for more upper-body motion and often a more vigorous workout.

Extra Features

After you’ve narrowed your choices down to a few well-constructed machines that fit your budget and your home, it’s time to think about the extras. Pay attention during your regular workout for a couple of days and notice what you consider must-haves. If you’re an avid reader, be sure the magazine rack is visible while you’re exercising, without being in the way. Check for easy-access to a water bottle holder. Make sure the built in heart-rate monitor is compatible with the chest strap you already own.

In general, you should ensure that the machine you purchase has what you need, including the essential features you can’t do without, both big and small.

A Few Words About Warranties

Don’t assume that all coverage plans are equal. Not all companies offer a year’s warranty on equipment, so ask if a shorter one can be extended to at least 12 months. And know what the warranty covers. Some cover parts and labor while others cover parts, but not labor, for instance. Finally, ask about what you need to do if your new machine needs to be repaired. Find out if the manufacturer has an authorized service repair department in your area, since shipping a cardio machine can be as costly as the repair itself.