How effective is the elliptical? 5 Awesome secrets backed by science

how effective is the elliptical

How effective is the elliptical? The elliptical is an incredibly effective way to improve your cardio, tone up muscle, and burn fat.

Research shows the elliptical is as effective as the treadmill and stair stepper for burning fat and improving cardio. I love using the elliptical while watching Netflix on days where I don’t reach my 10,000 step-goal. It is also my go-to for high-intensity interval training sessions.

I found that many of the articles about the effectiveness of the elliptical were biased and based on unfounded claims. I am a busy professional with a side-business and ambitious fitness goals. I wanted an article with plenty of rigorous scientific evidence backed by applicable and actionable ways – so I wrote this one.

I spent hours scouring peer-reviewed journals. I integrated over 30 action-inducing citations from scientific articles. Don’t worry if you’re not into that kind of thing – I kept it easily digestable

I wanted to provide a clear, compelling, science-backed response to the question: ‘How effective is the elliptical?’ …without the unnecessary fluff or over-the-top jargon.

Keep reading to discover 5 research-based secrets that answer the question: how effective is the elliptical?

Secret #1: Indulge your ‘naughty-wants’ during elliptical sessions

How effective is the elliptical? This is largely based on how often you can get yourself to use it.

Many gamers and Netflix binge-watchers have lost piles of fat on the elliptical. How? Through a technique that habit-expert, James Clear, refers to as temptation bundling [1].

In the Management Science Journal, Dr. K. L. Milkman et al. (2014) describes this strategy as:

“Bundling instantly gratifying but guilt-inducing “want” experiences (enjoying page-turner audiobooks) with valuable “should” behaviors providing delayed rewards (exercising)” [2]

Through this randomized, controlled trial, Dr. K. L. Milkman et al. (2014) discovered that people who used temptation bundling exercised “51% and 29% more frequently than control participants” [3].

Temptation bundling has also helped many sedentary folks get between one and 4 hours of exercise per day through a rule such as:

I cannot watch TV,  ‘game-out,’ or indulge in [insert other “want” experience] unless I am on the elliptical.

The beautiful thing about this strategy is that you will likely look forward to exercising on your elliptical.

This habit can also be easily maintained through all seasons. It helps that ellipticals are smooth and won’t cause your head to bounce as much while watching that addictive series.

Secret #2: The elliptical feels easier yet it’s equally effective

Have you previously found exercise to be a chore you tend to avoid it or put off?  

This is a super common problem.

In The World Journal of Cardiology, Dr. Shigenori Ito cites a recent study from the World Health Organization [4]. They found 27.5% of people were sedentary and not getting enough exercise.

If this is you, the elliptical might be a great way to start exercising. It feels comparatively less challenging – even if you’re exerting the same amount of effort [5].

Dr. Gregory Brown et al. (2010) explains in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (p. 1647) that:

“At the same level of perceived exertion, exercise on an elliptical device results in a higher heart rate, higher percent of maximal oxygen consumption, and higher respiratory exchange ratio than does exercise on a treadmill” [6].

I love the elliptical for the same reason I hate running. It is nice and easy on my knees. I also appreciate that my eyes don’t jiggle in my head with every bone-jolting stomp.

Ellipticals also provide a low-impact motion (Bosch et al., 2020). This can help many otherwise sedentary people get plenty of physical activity [7].

How much exercise should you be getting?

In the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd edition), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains:

  • Adults should aim to get at least 30-60 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per day or between 2.5 and 5 hours per week [8].
  • The recommended time is cut in half for vigorous-intensity aerobic activity [9].
  • “Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.” (p. 8)

How effective is the elliptical? It is a great way for many people to get in some healthy bouts of exercise.

Make the elliptical an enjoyable way to burn fat, tone up muscles, and get your healthy dose of weekly physical activity. Use temptation bundling to make it a habit you will stick to [10].

Secret #3: Ellipticals can help you burn fat and boost your cardio fitness as much as treadmill running and stair climbers – what!?

How effective is the elliptical compared to the treadmill or stair-stepper? The elliptical is super effective compared to both the treadmill and stair-stepper.

A 68-year-old dude named “Hawk-Eye” hiked more on his first day than Mugsy and I hiked on our first two days of Canada’s relentless Great Divide Trail. This was on one of the most difficult sections of one of the most gruelling thru-hikes in North America.

Think straight-up mountain shale into a path-blinding cloud. Then, straight back down, and repeat two more times …with some deathly cliffs to skirt on ice and snow. Dang – that was terrifying!

What surprised me even more, was that this senior citizen was also from Saskatchewan.

The closest thing we have to a mountain we call a pimple on the prairie. It was made out of garbage covered in dirt.

So I asked the guy, “How did you train for this hike?!” His response:

“I wore my backpack while working out on the stair stepper for 30 minutes, three times a week.”

So the stair stepper can provide a brutal cardio workout …but how effective is the elliptical?

Dr. Andrew Bosch et al. (2021), explains in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism:

“Both physiological measures (oxygen consumption and heart rate) as well as carbohydrate and fat oxidation did not differ between the treadmill, elliptical trainer, and stepper” [11].

Dr. Gregory Brown’s et al. (2010) findings align with this research.

In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the researchers reveal the elliptical is just as effective as the treadmill for improving cardio fitness and volume of oxygen uptake [12].

What is volume of oxygen uptake?

The School of Medicine at the University of Virginia explains:

“VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense or maximal exercise. This measurement is generally considered the best indicator of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance” [13]

How effective is the elliptical for improving cardio?

I’m confident that the 68-year-old thru-hiking-rockstar, Dr. Gregory Brown et al. (2010), and  Dr. Andrew Bosch et al. (2021) would agree – the elliptical provides an awesome cardio workout [14, 15].

Secret #4: An awesome, time-effective research-backed elliptical workout

If you’re wondering, “how effective is the elliptical for someone who is short on time?” Let’s jump into an incredibly effective elliptical workout backed by scientific research.

In the Journal of Sports Medicine, Drs. Niels Vollaard and Richard S. Metcalfe [16] explain that 2-3 reduced-exertion intervals, lasting 10-20 seconds may be more beneficial to a wider range of people than longer high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions:

“In our own laboratory, we have demonstrated that 6 weeks of 3-weekly 10-min sprint interval training sessions involving just two 20 [second] ‘reduced-exertion HIIT’, or REHIT [completed at what was perceived as a ‘somewhat hard’ rating of perceived exertion on the RPE scale] is sufficient to improve VO2 max by 10–13% [17, 18].” 

In their study, the researchers [19]  found that the time commitment could be as low as two 10-15 minute sessions. For a total of 20-30 minutes per week.

This is a fraction of the time that ‘fitness experts’ often tout as requirements for HIIT sessions.

A lack of time and inconvenience are two of the more commonly cited barriers to exercise [20, 21].

These researchers [22] might be onto something!

Drs. Niels Vollaard and Richard S. Metcalfe [23] note that:

“These shorter/easier protocols have the potential to remove many of the common barriers to exercise” [24].

So many people would be more able to commit to shorter, more convenient workouts.

Drs. Vollaard and Metcalfe [25] conclude that these shorter sessions lead to similar health benefits as programs that require more and longer intervals that take more time:

“To date, all the available evidence suggests that sprint interval training protocols with fewer (two to three) and shorter (10–20 s) sprints are as good as or better than the classic sprint interval training protocol at improving important health markers” [26].

In their recent meta-analysis of 34 research studies, Drs. Vollaard and Metcalfe [27] conclude:

“The improvement in VO2 max with [sprint interval training] is not attenuated with fewer sprint repetitions. [It is] possibly even enhanced” [28].

And recall, that “VO2 max, is generally considered the best indicator of cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance” (School of Medicine at the University of Virginia) [29].

How effective is the elliptical?: Here is an incredibly effective 12-minute elliptical work out that incorporates the above research

  • Begin with 4-5 minutes of low-intensity movement on the elliptical
  • Move into 10-20 seconds of higher intensity interval. Push yourself to where it feels like you are exercising ‘somewhat hard’ or slightly harder
  • Dial it back to a lower intensity cycle for 2.5 minutes. Your exertion should feel fairly light at this point
  • Crank it back up for 10-20 seconds in a higher intensity interval. Push yourself to where it feels like you are exercising ‘somewhat hard’ or slightly harder
  • Move back into a lower intensity cycle for 2.5 minutes (where your level of exertion is fairly light)
  • Engage in another 10 to 20 seconds for a higher intensity interval. Aim for the same intensity as your previous more intense interval
  • Cool down with a lower intensity cycle for 4-5 minutes. Aim to make this a fairly light level of exertion

There you have it! A super effective, research-backed [30] elliptical workout that can be done at home or in a gym in 12 minutes or less.

Note: If you don’t have an elliptical, there are usually some affordable options on local buy-and-sell websites or on Amazon. Pretty much every gym will also have ellipticals.

For a deeper dive into HIIT – check out this article. I also unpack how to assess your level of physical exertion in a science-backed way.

Secret #5: Ellipticals can bust stress and so much more

How effective is the elliptical in helping to unwind or de-stress?

The elliptical is also a potent way to burn off stress and zone out after work. My friend, Danny, is a social worker who deals with intensely stressful situations all day long.

The elliptical is his secret weapon for decompressing after work while blasting tunes for 45 minutes to an hour.

For many of us, if we don’t properly unwind, we are tempted to over-eat or drink to unwind.

If you can use the elliptical to help you combat the stresses of the day, your weight loss efforts will rapidly compound.

Fewer calories in, more calories expended, and less health-eroding habits. These benefits plus less stress can improve overall health, fitness, wellbeing, and relationships.

What are some other benefits to ellipticals?

Ellipticals can also help you:

  • Strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and calves (Bosch et al, 2021) [31]
  • Get at least 10,000 steps in even when you don’t feel like it
  • Engage your upper body and core muscles
  • Strengthen bones and improve bone mineral density through load-bearing exercise (Lorincz, 2006) that is also low-impact (Bosch et al., 2020) [33, 34]
  • Rehabilitate “due to the reduced stress on muscles and joints when compared to [a higher-impact exercise such as] running” (Bosch et al, 2021) [35]
  • Enjoy a low impact exercise that is easier on the knees and joints. This can be especially nice for people who are overweight, experience joint challenges, or are wanting to ease into an exercise routine

Summary

How effective is the elliptical? The elliptical is great for both high and low-intensity cardio workouts.

If you prefer working out indoors and love the steadiness that an elliptical workout routine can provide – it will likely be an awesome choice. 

I use the elliptical to supplement my 10,000 step goal, to burn calories, and to level-up my cardio. I also like to use it to burn stress through elliptical HIIT sessions. This also helps me run upstairs and bike up hills without getting completely gassed!

If you are wanting to find actionable, research-based ways to burn more fat – check out my article called, How Many Calories For Fat Loss? 5 Awesome Habits Backed By Science

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