An elliptical trainer (sometimes called a cross trainer) is an exercise machine that simulates a number of aerobic exercises, including walking or running, stair-stepping, or cross-country skiing. Elliptical machines have pedals suspended above the ground and are moved forward and back, or up and down, on a track. A user's foot never hits the ground on an elliptical trainer, so the jarring impact of walking or running on a hard surface is eliminated, and many back pain sufferers find this an advantage.

The suspended pedals move on an oval-shaped ("elliptical") track and provide a workout for the legs, and most trainers are designed so that the resistance can be changed to make the workout easier or more rigorous. Because the elliptical motion is fluid, movement on the trainer does not jar or stress the spinal structures.

Advantages to Using an Elliptical Trainer

  • Very low level of stress on the spine and other joints and bones
  • Provides an efficient cardiovascular workout and, secondarily, helps build muscle strength when the greater resistance settings are used
  • Most elliptical trainers allow the user to adjust the incline and resistance levels
  • Some models offer foot pedals that move in dual directions (i.e., forward and backward) to exercise more muscle groups and add variety to the exercise routine.
  • Some models of elliptical trainers also have handles or poles to provide an upper body workout (similar to the upper body workout in cross country skiing).

Disadvantages to Using an Elliptical Trainer

  • Some people find it difficult to start the motion, given that the pedals are not on the ground and it can require a significant forward push to set the pedals moving
  • Does not provide much weight bearing exercise (a key part of osteoporosis prevention) to strengthen bones and muscles because the smoother movements are designed for lower impact
  • Primarily focuses on the legs, even on machines that have a 'ski' function with movable arms, so users will need to add other upper-body and core muscle exercises to their routine to get a well-rounded workout
  • The advanced elliptical trainers can be expensive. Basic models cost around $1,000, and higher-end models with more features are priced in the $4,000 range. Annual maintenance may add extra cost.

What to Check Before Purchasing an Elliptical Machine

Ideally, it is best to test the model at a local gym or sporting goods store to determine if it fits the exercise program and the space in the home where it would be kept. In addition, consider the following features:

  • Adjustability and appropriateness of stride length. Some elliptical trainers offer only a pre-set stride length that may or may not be appropriate, while other models offer adjustable stride lengths, allowing the user (or multiple users) to set the most comfortable stride length.
  • Motion of the pedals and arm handles. It should be a smooth, consistent motion; jarring or catching will place stress on joints and interrupt exercise flow.
  • Amount of weight the machine can support. Some models support no more than 200 pounds, while higher end elliptical machines can support users who weigh up to 400 pounds.
  • Noise level while operating. Some elliptical trainers are noisier than others, and would overwhelm or interfere with other activities in the same room, such as TV watching or conversation.
  • The availability of parts/repairs. Readily available parts will decrease the potential for exercise to be interrupted for long periods of time.

Ms. Tyner has worked in the health and fitness industry for over 25 years and holds a certification from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as a certified personal trainer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Commercial Recreation.

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