Ellipticals help you burn fat in three ways, depending on your level of fitness. Working at a steady speed using a moderate or vigorous level of intensity, you’ll burn calories, improve your heart health and increase your muscular endurance. Exercising with short, high-intensity intervals, you’ll also burn fat while you improve you anaerobic conditioning for sports.
Elliptical trainers come in a variety of brands and models with different configurations. Those with moving arm levels offer you a better workout because they let you work your upper-body muscles against resistance, helping you burn more calories. If you’re looking to buy an elliptical, be aware that manufacturers put the pedals in different places on the base in relation to your hips, with some pedals farther forward and some farther back. Different placements will affect your comfort level differently, increasing or reducing pain and discomfort in your shins, knees and hips while you exercise, so try several before you buy. Additionally, look for a model that lets you pedal forward and backward to increase your muscle use.
At lower rates of speed, you’ll burn most of your calories from fat, although fewer total fat calories than when you work at a higher level of speed. For example, if 70 percent of the calories you burn during a workout come from fat and 30 percent come from glycogen, you’ll burn 140 fat calories when you burn 200 calories total. If you increase your speed, burning only 50 percent of your calories from fat, but still burn 400 calories during the same time period, you’ll burn 200 fat calories.
An elliptical is one of the best exercise methods for burning total calories at a gym, according to an analysis by the Harvard School of Public Health. Only a ski machine, high-impact step aerobics and vigorous pedaling on an exercise bike burn more calories than an elliptical. A 125-pound woman can burn 540 calories per hour, and a 155-pound woman can burn 670 calories per hour on an elliptical, according to Harvard’s calorie burn chart.
If you’re just beginning an exercise program, work out at a moderate intensity, similar to the speed you achieve during a power walk. Warm up for several minutes at a gradually increasing speed until you reach the highest heart rate you feel you can maintain for the rest of your workout. Don’t push it -- try to talk while you exercise as a gauge to let you know you are staying at a heart rate you’ll be able to maintain without taking breaks. If the machine has a heart rate monitor, aim for 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. If you’re in better shape, exercise at 65 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, or similar to an intensity you’d reach while jogging. Add 30- to 60-second sprints of high-speed pedaling every six to eight minutes, followed by a slower recovery. If you’re an athlete, add more and/or longer sprints to create an interval-training workout.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.