For most people, exercising on a cardio machine is not their favorite way to work out, but it is often the only, or at least most realistic option.
While these machines do not provide the most stimulating, scenic route to cardiovascular fitness, they can provide an excellent workout. Here are some tips to get the most out of them.
1. Wear a heart rate monitor to gage your intensity.
Don't rely on how much you sweat or your speed alone. The more stationary the activity, the less of a chance your sweat has to evaporate. In addition, the amount you sweat is determined by genetics, the temperature of the environment, your fitness level, hydration, etc.
Speed is only one factor that determines intensity. For example, walking on a steep incline can require more energy output than jogging on a flat surface.
2. If you use an elliptical, ensure you are using it efficiently.
I am not a big fan of elliptical machines because they are not a functional form of activity (they don't mimic a type of movement we use in everyday life) and most people don't use them efficiently. Unlike a treadmill where if you don't keep up you'll fly off the back of the machine and smash into the wall behind you, there isn't much of a penalty on these machines. In addition, most people are not actually fit enough to push hard on them, so they either use too little resistance, or too much resistance so that they are not able to move fast enough to get their heart rate up. If you do favour the elliptical, at least use a HR monitor so that you can make sure you are working in your target HR zone.
3. Change it up.
Don't do the same workout every day, particularly, if you tend to only use one kind of machine. Most machines offer a variety of programs, like hills, intervals, etc.
4. Don't pay attention to the calorie reading.
These machines are notorious for being inaccurate. This is partly because calorie usage depends not only on your weight, but your body composition (ratio of fat mass to muscle mass), fitness level, and familiarity with the activity). If weight loss/maintenance is one of your goals, simply aim to burn as many calories as you can and don't worry what the actual number is.
5. Don't cheat.
Holding on and leaning your weight on these machines can significantly decrease the amount of energy you are expending. On something like a stairmaster or stepmill, keep your hands lightly resting on the upper handles (never place your hands upside down with fingertips facing the floor on the lower rails). When your palms get sweaty, place a towel on the upper rails so you don't slip and start having to hang off them.
When doing interval programs on stairmasters and stepmills, try taking your hands off the machine and pumping your arms to really push on the intervals and lightly rest hands on upper rails during recovery periods.
You should never hold on when on a treadmill, unless you absolutely have to do so for safety reasons. Pump your arms to increase intensity.
6. Use entertainment wisely.
Studies show that music can increase the intensity of a workout by motivating us to keep up with the beat. So if speed is one of your goals and you enjoy listening to music, use songs with a faster beat.
Save reading for the stationary bike or low-intensity workouts/warm-ups, otherwise trying to focus on the words will likely interfere with your performance.
If, like me, you need television to be entertained, just ensure it is not compromising your performance. Use a HR monitor and don't spend so much time fiddling with the remote control, etc. that you aren't pushing as hard as you could.