The elliptical trainer provides a low-impact way to melt calories – in fact, about 30 minutes on the machine burns nearly 400 calories for a 150-pound woman, according to Health Status and estimates from Emory University. Unlike jogging on the treadmill or hitting the track, you can avoid undue knee stress and may even tone your upper body along the way with ellipticals. Ellipticals vary per manufacturer, so do your research before hopping on the machine.
Some basic ellipticals are a strictly lower-body affair, acting as standalone steppers or steppers with immobile hand rails, just for stability's sake. Most modern machines, however, come equipped with moving, ski pole-like handles. These machines, known as "cross trainers" or dual action models, give your upper body a workout while you're putting the burn on your legs.
Depending on the machine, an elliptical's drive axle may fall in one of three places: The front, rear or center. Front drive ellipticals, which also support your body weight near the front of the machine, have a sturdy, low-maintenance reputation, as do rear drive machines, which put you toward the rear of the machine. Both of these drive types date back to the early days of elliptical trainers. As the name implies, center drive machines center your weight in the middle of the machine. Although they're not as time-tested as rear and front drive models, they typically boast the smoothest motion of the three.
All ellipticals feature either dependent or independent action. The former style gives you a slightly tougher workout, as it forces each leg to move in a forward motion with each pedal. Dependent action ellipticals, on the other hand, cater to those who want a lower impact exercise machine. On these trainers, the force of one pedal drives the opposing pedal, so you do a little less work and put less stress on your joints.
Ellipticals that feature reverse pedaling options give your calves and hamstrings a more intense workout, and machines with incline features likewise let you focus on working specific leg muscles. Sealed bearings may cost you a little more than shielded bearings, but they generally make for less maintenance and smoother action, as they don't collect dirt and debris. Elliptical options run the gamut from built-in workout programs and heart rate control monitors to folding machines that you can tuck away when they're not in use.
Dan Ketchum has been a professional writer since 2003, with work appearing online and offline in Word Riot, Bazooka Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, Trails and more. Dan's diverse professional background spans from costume design and screenwriting to mixology, manual labor and video game industry publicity.