This Is the Best Cardio Machine in the Gym, According to Research

You may dread the ’mill, but it packs the most total-body benefits over machines like the bike or rower.

Danielle Zickl |

When bad weather hits, sometimes hopping on the treadmill is your best—and safest—option. If you want to mix up your cardio even more, you might even give the elliptical or the row machine some love. But when you’re in the midst of a training cycle or simply want to get the best workout in that you can, is there a machine that will give you the most bang for your buck? Or is an hour of cardio the same no matter what? According to research out of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, one machine beats the rest.

RELATED: 6 Cardio Moves To Help You Run Stronger!

In the American Council on Exercise (ACE) study, published in the International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology, researchers had 16 healthy young adults ages 18 to 25 exercise on 10 cardio machines:

  1. Treadmill
  2. Stepmill
  3. Exercise fan bike
  4. Elliptical
  5. Upright bike
  6. Arc trainer
  7. Rower
  8. Recumbent stepper
  9. Recumbent bike
  10. Arm ergometer

On each machine, participants warmed up for three minutes first. Next, they exercised for five minutes at a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 11 on a 6 to 20 Borg scale (fairly light), five minutes at an RPE of 13 (somewhat hard), and five minutes at an RPE of 15 (hard) with no break in between RPE levels. Finally, they cooled down for three minutes and rested for 15 minutes before moving on to the next machine. Heart rate and oxygen consumption were also measured.

As it turns out, the treadmill proved to be the best overall cardio machine in terms of total-body benefits, since the participants’ heart rates and amount of calories burned were higher than they were on the other machines.

RELATED: How To Calculate Your Maximum Heart Rate For Running

Heart rates at each RPE level:

  1. Treadmill: 136 bpm at RPE 11 / 159 bpm at RPE 13 / 173 bpm at RPE 15
  2. Stepmill: 144 bpm at RPE 11 / 162 bpm at RPE 13 / 173 bpm at RPE 15
  3. Exercise fan bike: 119 bpm at RPE 11 / 137 bpm at RPE 13 / 160 bpm at RPE 15
  4. Elliptical: 133 bpm at RPE 11 / 145 bpm at RPE 13 / 159 bpm at RPE 15
  5. Upright bike: 129 bpm at RPE 11 / 147 bpm at RPE 13 / 161 bpm at RPE 15
  6. Arc trainer: 138 bpm at RPE 11 / 150 bpm at RPE 13 / 161 bpm at RPE 15
  7. Rower: 118 bpm at RPE 11 / 132 bpm at RPE 13 / 148 bpm at RPE 15
  8. Recumbent stepper: 98 bpm at RPE 11 / 117 bpm at RPE 13 / 136 bpm at RPE 15
  9. Recumbent bike: 109 bpm at RPE 11 / 122 bpm at RPE 13 / 137 bpm at RPE 15
  10. Arm ergometer: 102 bpm at RPE 11 / 116 bpm at RPE 13 / 131 bpm at RPE 15

Amount of calories burned in 30 minutes:

  1. Treadmill: 378 calories
  2. Stepmill: 354 calories
  3. Elliptical: 303 calories
  4. Upright bike: 300 calories
  5. Arc trainer: 294 calories
  6. Exercise fan bike: 279 calories
  7. Rower: 273 calories
  8. Recumbent bike: 228 calories
  9. Recumbent stepper: 210 calories
  10. Arm ergometer: 162 calories

Why? According to John Porcari, Ph.D., study coauthor and programme director of the clinical exercise physiology programme at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, you’re doing the most work in a shorter amount of time because you’re actually lifting your body off the ground against gravity.

RELATED: Three Power Workouts for the Treadmill

It’s important to note that this study was quite small, so it may not be representative of the entire population. It does, however, bode well for us runners, but Porcari said that it doesn’t mean you should ditch every other piece of cardio equipment.

“Variety is a great thing,” he told Runner’s World. “By using other machines, you exercise different muscles, which can strengthen and train those muscles. That helps with overall muscle tone, strength, and endurance. It also helps with glucose metabolism—the more trained muscles you have, the more effective you are at pulling glucose out of the bloodstream, which helps to combat diabetes.”

Not to mention, doing a variety of exercises on a bunch of different machines is much less boring than doing the same thing day after day.

“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘What is the best exercise machine?’” Porcari said. “The best exercise machine is one people are most likely to use. I would never force someone into using a specific machine unless there was a specific reason for using that machine.”

The treadmill obviously best simulates outdoor running, but on cross-training days, don’t count out using an indoor bike or rower to keep your cardio up without overusing running-specific muscles.

RELATED: 6 Super-Effective Cross-Training Moves

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