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Ellipticals

Elliptical buying guide

Last updated: December 2012

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Ellipticals mimic the motion of running but without the impact. And the moving hand grips and adjustable resistance allow you to turn a cardiovascular workout into a full-body workout. A good elliptical is sturdy, easy to use, and aligns with your natural running motion. We tested 31 models, and recommend 12 of them, including three CR Best Buys.

The devices can be a major investment. The most expensive elliptical we tested cost $3,600. But our top-scoring model went for $2,200, and you can get a good machine for less than half that price.

Pricier ellipticals tended to be larger and sturdier, and their parts come with longer warranties. The top-rated model is solidly built, comes with a chest-strap heart-rate monitor, has 20 resistance levels, has a lifetime warranty on its frame, and earned top scores for heart rate features, ease of use, and user safety.

We divided our Ratings for ellipticals into two groups this year: those with heart-rate monitoring programs and, for the first time, those without them. Our most expensive model is actually one without a heart-rate monitor.

Choose the right machine

Budget and midpriced ellipticals are sold at large retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart. For more expensive brands, you'll generally need to hit a specialty fitness store. Whether you want to shop online for the best price or purchase a machine from the store, be sure to try it out in person first. You might notice a problem--your knees bump against the elliptical's framework or components, or it just doesn't quite move to your liking--that you couldn't detect by sight or reviews alone.

Here are other criteria to consider:

Size. Most of the ellipticals are about 6 feet by about 2.5 feet, though some are smaller. Since you'll be more elevated than you would on a treadmill, make sure you have a space with a sufficiently high ceiling. And you'll need adequate space to get on and off safely.

Safety features. All but one of the ellipticals we tested were very good or excellent for safety; the other was just good. But they're inherently dangerous for children, who could get pinched or trapped in the moving parts. People with children at home or as visitors should make sure that they can't access the machines.

Ergonomics. Check the comfort of the hand grips and make sure the foot pedals aren't too far apart. The stride length and elliptical path should feel natural.

High-tech features. Docks for iPods, USB ports, and wireless Internet connectivity are now common on ellipticals, though the features aren't always easy to use when you're exercising.

Adjustability. Some ellipticals have an incline. Check to see whether it's automated or requires you to manually adjust it.

Assembly. An elliptical machine can weigh up to 500 pounds, so ask about delivery and check whether assembly is included or available at an additional cost. It might be worth it if you're not particularly good with a toolbox. It generally takes our experienced engineers about 1 to 2 hours to put together an elliptical, depending on the number of steps.

Lifting heavy parts, applying grease, and working on your knees are part of the process. Some of the steps require two people.

Warranty. Look for one that provides two to three years of coverage on major moving parts and a year on labor. Our surveys suggest that an extended warranty probably isn't worth it.

Features


Some elliptical features can make exercise more entertaining and less painful. And some might do more harm than good.

Electronic programming


Most ellipticals have exercise programs that allow you to adjust how hard your pedal, and some allow you to change the incline as your work out, electronically. Cheaper models might only allow adjustment manually, and not during workouts. By making a workout less boring, an exercise program might get you to use the machine more often. But some programs are easier and more flexible to operate than others.

Ergonomics

Especially check the design of the moving arms and the pedals. On some models, the moving arms are awkwardly angled or block the display. If you hold on to the nonmoving handgrips, make sure the back-and-forth handles don't whack you in the arms. A narrow stance is more natural than widely spaced pedals, and a safety rim around the sides of the pedals can help keep your foot from slipping off.

Heart-rate monitor


A heart-rate monitor helps you to exercise up to your potential while avoiding dangerous overexertion. A chest-strap monitor is more accurate and convenient than a handgrip or thumb-sensor type.

Pedal arm safety pin


This keeps unsupervised children from using the machine.

Console gadgets

A growing number of manufacturers are loading the console with gadgets such as a fan, an iPod dock, and even an LCD TV. But you might be able to buy those items separately for less. And if they need repair, having them serviced can be a problem.

Brands


You can compare ellipticals by brand. If you don’t see a model in our Ratings (available to subscribers), these profiles can help you learn about a manufacturer and what it offers (listed below in alphabetical order).

Fitness Quest

Fitness Quest manufactures New Balance treadmills and offers a wide range of home exercise and fitness products, including a number of models sold through infomercials. It sells ellipticals priced at $1,000 or less.

Horizon Fitness

Horizon Fitness was a distant second to the Icon Fitness models in dollar sales last year, with 17 percent. Horizon’s models sell for  $2,500 or less.

Icon Health & Fitness

Icon Health & Fitness manufactures and distributes ellipticals under the Nordic Track, Proform, and Reebok brands. Icon dominates the elliptical-trainer market. Its range of budget-priced machines accounted for 70 percent of the dollars spent on treadmills last year. Most Icon models are priced at $1,000 or less.

Keys Fitness

Based in Dallas, Keys Fitness also produces ellipticals under the Ironman brand. Keys models sell for $3,000 or less.

Life Fitness

LifeFitness home ellipticals are available at specialty fitness retailers and through its online store. It sells models priced from $1,800 to $4,200.

Nautilus

Nautilus manufactures fitness equipment under the brand names Bowflex, Schwinn Fitness, StairMaster, and Universal. It sells models for $2,300 to $3,300.

Octane Fitness

Octane Fitness is a relatively new company that makes only elliptical exercisers. Octane sells models for $2,000 to $4,200.

Precor

Precor, one of the leading manufacturers of elliptical exercisers, produces high-end home equipment. It sells models in for $2,500 to $5,000.

Schwinn

Schwinn’s budget ellipticals are manufactured by Nautilus and are available at specialty fitness stores and online. Schwinn sells models for $1,300 or less.

Spirit

Spirit has been in business for more than 25 years. Its ellipticals are sold nationwide in specialty fitness stores and sell for $2,500 or less.

Vision Fitness

Vision Fitness was started in 1993 and is based in Wisconsin. Its models are available at specialty fitness stores and online, and they are priced at $1,000 to $3,500.

Shopping tips

Good exercise equipment can be expensive but you should also take other factors into account before buying.

Before you shop

Don't buy these big-ticket items on a whim. Before you go to the store or check online, determine how much you want to spend, how much space you have. And, of course, decide how and how often you'll use the equipment.

Consider your space

Elliptical exercisers, most of which do not fold, are hard to move and take up as much space as a couch or dining room table. If your space is limited, you might be better off with a different device, such as a folding treadmill, which can save you about six-square-feet.

Consider the cost

Ellipticals that cost $2,000 and up were well-built and felt stable to our testers, more like the $5,000 machines at gyms. And they were less likely to have defects. But you can still get a good basic model for less.

In the Ratings of ellipticals, the quality score reflects the severity and frequency of those problems. Most of the trouble we experienced would be covered under warranty, but it can take weeks and multiple phone calls to get a machine fixed--enough time to discourage even passionate exercisers. By contrast, the machines we bought for $2,000 and more through specialty fitness equipment stores had very few defects.

Consider your workout intensity

The more expensive ellipticals in our Ratings tend to feel more solid, operate more smoothly, and have more features than the under-$1,000 models. You might also get superior ergonomics, a wide range of features, and a more generous warranty.

Ready to shop

You'll find budget and mid-priced treadmills in Sears, The Sports Authority, Wal-Mart, and other discount and sporting-goods chains. Moderately priced brands such as Horizon Fitness, Schwinn, Trimline, and Vision Fitness, and more expensive brands such as Landice, Life Fitness, Nautilus, Precor, and True are sold in specialty sporting-goods stores. No matter where you shop, here are some tips to follow.

Try it out first

Every model is a little different, so you shouldn't buy a treadmill or elliptical before using it in the store. That's especially important with elliptical exercisers because the movement is less familiar than walking or running, and each machine has a slightly different pedaling profile.

Decide which features you'll use

Some equipment features, such as exercise programs, can make a workout more varied and less boring, which might get you on the machine more often. But don't pay for frills that you don't care about.

Make sure you can change your mind

Because each machine has its own feel, try it out before you buy and make sure the store will let you return it if you dislike using it. See our Ratings and recommendations for some suggestions.

Other shopping options

If you decide you'd like something other than a treadmill or elliptical, be wary of any relatively inexpensive exercise devices sold on TV or online.

Read the fine print

Most of the "amazing results!" shown in infomercials for exercise devices are footnoted as "not typical" or result from an overall "system" that includes a diet plan and, in many cases, additional aerobic exercise. (Our nutrition experts reviewed the diets and found that although they differ in the strictness of their meal plans, most are sensible.)

Calculate the total cost

Unless the price includes shipping, expect to pay more, plus any sales tax.

Beware of trials

A "30-day money-back guarantee" sounds good, but returning the product might not be easy. Some of the machines are heavy or bulky, and you might have to pay for return shipping, which could cost $90 or more.

Before signing up for a trial, verify with the company the proper return address and how soon you can expect a refund if you send the device back. A scan of online complaints about home fitness equipment revealed that reported problems with returns, including lack of a valid return address or exorbitant shipping charges, were common.

   

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