In order to reap the rewards of working out--torched calories, a sexy physique, shining confidence -- you’ve got to stick to it. Finding machines at the gym that work for you, are challenging but empowering, and make you feel good can help. Low-impact cardio equipment, including ellipticals and ski machines, put less stress on joints than higher-impact running or jogging, according to the American Council on Exercise, and make especially smart options if you've had a knee or leg injury, are a fitness newbie, or carry excess weight and want to maintain a healthy heart rate during sweat sessions. Explore their similarities and differences to either choose which is best for you or to understand how you might cross-train, using both, to fight workout boredom while strengthening your ticker.
Most gym workouts focus on so-called mirror muscles--abs, biceps, pecs, quads--those on our front, that are visible. "But these muscles should be de-emphasized, and we should target instead the back-of-body muscles," says sports physical therapist Robert Forster, who has worked with 40-plus Olympic medalists and founded Santa Monica, CA-based Phase IV Health and Performance Center. Enter ellipticals and ski machines. These strengthen what Forster calls "the right muscles," meaning those that keep the body in a healthy, erect posture. These include the upper-body erector spine muscles alongside the spine and the trapezius and rhomboid muscles, which keep our shoulder blades firmly back and down. What's more, these machines work the lower-body gluteals, hamstrings and calf muscle, which aid our locomotion.
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While the machines are similar in many ways and both are ideal for aerobic exercise, they differ in the movement patterns they create. As such, higher intensity workouts can be a tad riskier on these machines, says Forster. That's because the motions do not completely match our natural human movements such as those you would carry out while walking. In this regard, the movements you make on ellipticals more closely resemble patterns similar to the human experience, says Forster, and may result in fewer injuries.
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Those with more advanced fitness levels, who are no strangers to workout machines, may find more pleasure in the cross-country skiing motion of the ski machines. Why? The motions involved are less familiar -- they don't model walking or running -- and the new moves can present a fresh challenge to the brain and muscles on your road to mastering them, says Forster. If you're looking to take your fitness up a notch in terms of moving your body in new unfamiliar ways, you may prefer the ski machine. This choice will also get you ready for hitting the slopes and less prone to injury during your winter escape.
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If you've had any neck and shoulder troubles or issues with your hip and/or lower back, you may want to stick to the elliptical, or if you're cross-training to add variety to your workout sessions, sandwich in fewer slots on the ski machine. "The ski machine motion requires nearly fully extended positions for the lower and upper extremities," says Forster. "The limbs are held nearly straight, placing greater stress on the joints closer to the trunk -- the shoulder and hip joints -- due to the distance between the point of resistance and the larger so-called prime movers responsible for the movements." If you have a health condition, check with your doctor before starting any new regimen. And remember, the Surgeon General recommends getting 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
Julie D. Andrews is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her articles have appeared in print or on the websites of "Prevention," "Glamour," "Fitness," "Shape," "Cosmopolitan Latina," "Elle" and "New York Magazine."