An elliptical is a piece of exercise equipment designed to provide a high-quality, low-impact cardiovascular workout.
The elliptical machine first appeared in 1988 and slowly, inexorably, gained favor in the world’s health clubs. In recent years it has migrated to the home and has become an important tool in helping the 50+ population achieve and maintain robust health.
But it’s not just for older individuals. It’s also must-have kit for those whose exercise routines are frustrated by winter weather, those wanting to lose weight, those recovering from knee and hip injuries, and anyone interested in doing their heart a favor.
We’ve examined dozens of machines in our quest to separate the wannabes from the real deals. The result is the following list of the best ellipticals of 2020.
1. Bowflex Results Elliptical Series
Bowflex takes the design and construction of exercise equipment seriously. And their Results Elliptical is an excellent example of that. It’s a serious piece of exercise equipment that’s going to enable your healthy lifestyle for years to come.
What we like: We appreciate the Bowflex quality. We like the Bluetooth interactivity. We like the smooth, reliable action, the outstanding stability and the large, easy to read screen. Taller folks are also going to appreciate the 22-inch stride.
Flaws: Tends to chew up space. It’s also heavy, so if you want to move it, you may have to call for help.
2. NordicTrack Elite 10.9 Elliptical
It’s often the little things that separate the best from the rest. Here it’s a display screen rooted firmly in the present day. That’s in stark contrast to the displays on many pieces of equipment that haven’t changed since everyone had Nokia phones.
What we like: We like the array of features including the large touchscreen, the inclining ramp, the water bottle holder and more. The grips are also very comfortable, and the 24 resistance levels let you mix things up effectively.
Flaws: It’s not the quietest elliptical ever made. And if you call to complain about that you’ll discover customer service is not their strong point.
3. Schwinn 470 Compact Elliptical Machine
The Schwinn 470 has lots of presets, more than two dozen levels of resistance, and features outstanding build quality. Considering the very reasonable price and the two year mechanical warranty you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value.
What we like: The 29 built-in workouts are nice. So too are the 25 resistance levels. We appreciate the Bluetooth connectivity. And the adjustable fan at the bottom of the console is a nice touch.
Flaws: The ergonomics of the handlebars is a bit iffy. Also, the control panel needs a rethink because it’s pretty confusing.
4. Nautilus E614 Elliptical Trainer
We weren’t crazy about the look of the E614. But once we got on it, any doubts melted away. It’s a versatile, comfortable, well-built machine with lots of options. And while the display is somewhat old school, the workout you get is first-rate.
What we like: The E614 has a very solid feel to it. Even when pushing the limits. We appreciate the 20 levels of resistance. And the footplates are some of the most comfortable we tested.
Flaws: The machine weighs almost 170 pounds. And the display has a 2005 feel to it.
5. Marcy Self-Regenerating Magnetic Elliptical
This elliptical from Marcy will appeal to both the health and environmentally conscious. As you move, you generate electricity that powers the display and other components. Fortunately, the machine itself is also easy to use and effective.
What we like: We appreciate the self generating power. No cord or batteries required. The ergonomics are surprisingly good for such an affordable machine. And the 23 preset workouts are a big plus.
Flaws: The pulse monitor is decidedly hit or miss. It also seems a bit unstable when you really get going.
6. Body-Solid E300 Endurance Elliptical Trainer
It’s something of a puzzle that there aren’t more center drive ellipticals on the market. The Body-Solid E300 is clear proof that the concept is sound. It’s compact, effective, incredibly stable, and provides nice big strides. What’s not to like?
What we like: The center drive makes for perhaps the most stable elliptical on our list. It’s also quite compact, so it’s not going to devour your bedroom. And putting it together doesn’t require an engineering degree.
Flaws: It doesn’t offer an incline option which sort of limits workout possibilities. And there aren’t a lot of presets to choose from either.
7. Exerpeutic Heavy Duty Magnetic Elliptical
The Exerpeutic Heavy Duty Elliptical is the perfect entry-level elliptical. It’s compact, light, versatile, effective, and affordable. It can’t compete with the big boys in the bells and whistles category, but not everyone needs bells and whistles.
What we like: This is a good choice for a beginner. Eight levels of resistance, compact, easy to assemble, and provides a nice fluid motion. We also like that it’s reasonably quiet and it doesn’t take a lot of space.
Flaws: The 13-inch stride is one of the smallest you’ll find. Likely too small for anyone over 6 feet.
8. Sunny Health SF E905
If you’re looking for a dependable elliptical machine that won’t require you to take out another mortgage on the house, consider the Sunny Health SF E905. It’s small enough for the bedroom, yet still manages to be stable, comfortable, and effective.
What we like: The footpads are comfortable. The digital display is easy to read. The center drive makes it quite stable, and it tracks a number of metrics including pulse, calories, speed, and distance.
Flaws: You’re compelled to take pretty small strides. And if you’re putting it together yourself expect it to take some time.
9. Kinelo ProForm HIIT Trainer
The Kinelo ProForm is a stair climber doubling as an elliptical. Or is it an elliptical doubling as a stair climber? Doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it delivers a high-quality, low-impact cardio workout and that it has 24 resistance settings.
What we like: We like that we can set this up in the bedroom no problem. We appreciate the oversized display screen and the nearly three dozen preset workouts. And we have to mention the 30-pound flywheel that makes for silky smooth motion.
Flaws: It lacks an incline option. Also the stride length is a bit constricted.
10. Bowflex Max Trainer Series
We bookend our list with our second Bowflex elliptical. The Max Trainer is like a vertical version of the ‘Results’ elliptical that started us off. Same number of resistance levels, the same number of presets, and that impressive Bowflex engineering.
What we like: It’s the BMW of elliptical machines. We like the 20 levels of resistance, multiple presets, big 21st-century display, and Bluetooth compatibility. The real draw here though, is the impeccable build quality.
Flaws: It won’t cost an arm and a leg. Maybe just a hand and a foot.
Who Should Use an Elliptical?
Anyone who wishes to maintain good overall health should consider getting an elliptical. But more specifically, anyone who doesn’t have time to get to the health club, anyone who wants to lose weight, anyone recovering from knee or ACL surgery (1) and anyone that can’t run because of the weather will benefit from an elliptical.
Also, ellipticals are one of the best methods ever devised for older individuals to get a safe and effective low-impact cardio workout. They can be a transformative device that helps an older person reverse the slide into poor health and improve their overall quality of life.
How We Ranked
When trying to judge the quality and effectiveness of sophisticated devices, it’s easy to get lost in the technical details. So we like to keep things simple whenever possible.
In the case of ellipticals, we considered the ergonomics of each device. That is crucial because if you’re not able to obtain a comfortable stance and remain comfortable through the entire range of motion, you may well decide to stop using the machine.
Another important consideration is the range of intensity a machine allows. Beginners should be able to get something out of the machine even if they haven’t exercised in years. At the same time, experienced, physically fit individuals should also be able to glean some benefit from the higher settings.
We also looked at high-tech features like Bluetooth connectivity, whether the device can be connected to cloud-based workouts, and whether the device includes things like a heart rate monitor. Also, are there presets? And if so, how many? Just as important as the presence of these things is how dependable and useful they are.
If a machine wasn’t well-made, wasn’t comfortable and easy to use, didn’t provide a range of intensities, and didn’t offer some useful extras, it didn’t make our list.
An elliptical is an excellent choice for older adults. Older individuals, especially those with bad knees or other mobility issues, often have a difficult time finding modes of exercise that work for them. Because ellipticals don’t require you to leave your feet, they don’t punish your ankles, knees, and hips the way running does. As such, they’re a great way for older folks to get the exercise they need.
An elliptical is a good way to lose weight. If you’ve had your share of fad diets that led nowhere and don’t have the time or ability to run 5 miles a day, consider an elliptical machine. Half an hour on one of these can burn off as many as 400 calories. That compares favorably to the 100 calories you burn for every mile you run (2). So by putting in 30 – 40 minutes on the elliptical, you’ll burn about the same number of calories as you would on a 4 or 5-mile run.
An elliptical can help fight stress and anxiety. There is a well-known connection between serotonin (3) and stress (4). In a nutshell, serotonin makes you feel better. But stress and anxiety suppress serotonin levels in the brain. That can lead to feelings of lethargy and even depression. An elliptical gets blood and oxygen flowing to your brain and releases serotonin, thereby fighting off the blues.
An elliptical doesn’t require you to be in shape. Have you ever tried to get a really good workout on a rowing machine? Ever wandered into the weight room at the gym in search of better health? Both can be intimidating. Especially if you’re out of shape and everyone at the health club is watching. An elliptical machine lets you ramp up your exercise routine at your own pace in the privacy of your own home.
An elliptical helps reinforce your skeletal structure. This is something of particular interest to older folks. Each year tens of thousands of older Americans fall and break bones. The low-impact exercise you get from an elliptical will help strengthen your bones and connective tissue by keeping you upright and engaging all the muscles in your legs (5). As a result, you’ll stand a reduced chance of experiencing a nasty fall.
An elliptical lets you stay in shape even when you’re stuck at home. The winters are hard on people’s bodies. No one wants to go outside for a nice long walk if the temperature is below freezing and the sidewalks are covered with ice. In fact, for older folks those icy sidewalks can be downright dangerous (6). An elliptical allows you to get the exercise you need without having to venture out. When the snow melts, you’ll emerge fit and ready to go.
An elliptical improves blood circulation. Anything that engages the muscles over time produces increased blood circulation. Increased circulation delivers blood to every part of your body, increases oxygen flow to the brain, enhances your immune system, and reduces the odds you’ll get sick. Regular exercise is also a good way to ensure better quality sleep (7).
An elliptical is convenient. Even if you have a health club membership, you know it’s not always easy to find the time to get a workout in. There’s all the time going and to and from the club, parking, getting ready in the locker room, and more. Having an elliptical in your home means that even if you weren’t able to get to the gym today, you could still get in a good workout before dinner.
An elliptical is great if you have arthritis. If you suffer from arthritis of the leg joints an elliptical can help (8). This low impact form of exercise doesn’t shock your knees and hips the way running, and even vigorous walking, can. An elliptical is a great way to get in the cardio exercise you need while at the same time strengthening arthritic joints and keeping them loose.
Ellipticals are low maintenance machines. Treadmills have dozens of moving parts, any one of which could fail at any time. Ellipticals, by contrast, have only a few. And the mechanisms involved are nowhere near as complex as you’ll encounter with a treadmill. Ellipticals need very little maintenance, and if anything happens, they’re covered by warranty.
An elliptical enables you to increase physical endurance. This is especially important for those over 50. As people age, their natural endurance begins to wane. Toss in the fact that, as they age, most folks become increasingly sedentary, and you have a recipe for trouble. An elliptical will help you rebuild and maintain physical endurance, which will pay handsome dividends in every part of your life.
An elliptical is good for building strong legs. Falls are a major health concern for older folks (9). One of the primary reasons many seniors fall and injure themselves is a lack of leg strength. This comes from sitting for hours day after day, year after year. An elliptical can help reverse this trend and restore strength and vitality to the muscles of the lower body, thereby warding off debilitating falls.
An elliptical provides a good all-around workout. It’s well known that ellipticals can help build and maintain lower body strength. But there are numerous ellipticals that get the upper body involved in the exercise routine too. This enables the type of full-body exercise you normally only get in a CrossFit box or while skiing.
An elliptical is good for your heart. A healthy heart means a much greater chance of having a longer life. That’s because a healthy heart is typically one that doesn’t have to work as hard as a weak heart (10). In other words, it’s more efficient. How does a heart become more efficient? Through exercise. An elliptical can provide the exercise you need to strengthen your heart and prolong your life.
An elliptical is good for burning off belly fat. Belly fat may seem pretty harmless but it’s actually hazardous to your health (11). This type of fat, called ‘visceral’ fat, can lead to all manner of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. An elliptical is a great way to burn off belly fat and pave the way to a healthier future.
Ellipticals may help reduce high blood pressure. As we mentioned earlier, exercise releases serotonin. Serotonin is a product of the amino acid L- tryptophan. Studies indicate that L- tryptophan can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure levels (12). The more you exercise, the more L-tryptophan you produce and, by extension, the more serotonin. The end result is lower blood pressure from the tryptophan and less anxiety from the serotonin.
An elliptical can improve your aerobic performance. In a broad sense a person’s aerobic capacity is the amount of oxygen their body is able to process (13). By increasing your aerobic capacity, you increase your stamina, improve the efficiency of your heart, and reap numerous cognitive benefits as well.
An elliptical lets you mix things up. Most of the high-end ellipticals come with a variety of presets that you can easily access to mix up your workouts. This allows you to avoid becoming bored. Not only that, but it allows you to ‘shock’ your muscles and achieve higher levels of fitness. Bodybuilders were among the first to realize the value of switching things up. Now it’s common wisdom and promoted everywhere (14).
An elliptical can help improve your balance. We mentioned earlier that ellipticals can help strengthen leg muscles and prevent falls in older individuals. But this kind of exercise also improves balance. And balance is just as important as strength when it comes to preventing falls. The elliptical forces you to make coordinated movements of the arms and legs. This, in turn, helps you improve overall balance.
Q: What exactly is an elliptical machine?
A: An elliptical machine is a mechanical exercise device that provides a low-impact workout. It can be found in most every health and fitness club on the planet and in an ever-increasing number of private homes. The elliptical machine is renowned for its ability to provide an effective cardiovascular workout without punishing the person’s leg joints the way running can. As a result, it can be particularly beneficial for older individuals.
Q: What features should I look for in an elliptical?
A: The most important features to look for are adjustable resistance, an electromagnetic braking system, a flywheel that weighs at least 25 pounds, and a console that’s easy to read. Beyond that, you’ll want to consider the comfort of the handgrips as well as some luxury features like wi-fi capability, wheels for easy transport, and preset programs. If you’re pressed for space, you’ll want a model that folds up too.
Q: Are there different kinds of ellipticals?
A: There are three kinds of elliptical machines: front-drive, center-drive, and rear-drive. ‘Drive’, in this case, indicates where the flywheel is located. So, on a ‘front-drive’ elliptical, the flywheel is located at the front of the machine and so on. Front drives tend to be the noisiest, rear drives the quietest, and center drive ellipticals tend to be the rarest.
Q: How accurate is the calorie counter on an elliptical?
A: The unfortunate reality is that calorie counters amount to little more than algorithm-driven guesswork. Put another way, they’re notoriously inaccurate (15). If part of the reason you got an elliptical is to lose weight, don’t use the calorie counter to judge your progress. Eat right, exercise on the elliptical, and use your bathroom scale to determine if your efforts are successful.
Q: Why is it called an ‘elliptical’ machine?
A: As you push down on the pedals they move in an elliptical motion. An ellipse (16) is generally defined as a closed curve. It most closely resembles a circle that has been squashed. If you think that sounds a lot like an oval, you’re right. ‘Ellipse’ is basically a fancy way to say ‘oval’. When you think about it, it’s probably a smart choice to call it an ‘elliptical’. After all, who would buy an ‘Oval’ machine?
Q: Do ellipticals take up a lot of space?
A: How much space the elliptical takes up depends on the machine. Rear-drive ellipticals tend to take up the most space. That’s because the flywheel is separated from the rest of the mechanism and shoved way out the back. For a rear-drive elliptical, you’ll probably need a space at least 6 feet long by 3 feet wide. Front and center drive ellipticals are usually much more compact.
Q: Will I get a better workout from a front or rear-drive elliptical?
A: It shouldn’t really make any difference if the machine is front or rear-drive. Health clubs tend to buy rear-drive machines because they’re quieter and often make for a smoother motion. This makes club members happy. But you should be able to get an equally fine workout on any style of elliptical. It mostly comes down to how much effort you’re willing to impart.
Q: Is the length of the stride on an elliptical machine important?
A: It sometimes is for tall individuals (we’ll get to that in a moment). For everyone else, stride length is a matter of personal preference. Longer strides more closely recreate a natural running motion. Some people like that. Some people don’t really care if they’ feel like they’re running. They just want the cardio benefits. So again, it’s really up to the individual to decide if this is important.
Q: Does the weight of the flywheel matter?
A: That depends. It matters in the sense that the heavier the flywheel, the smoother the motion will be on the elliptical. But there isn’t a direct correlation between a heavier flywheel and a better workout. In fact, while a heavier flywheel might make for smoother action, it may also undermine your workout. Why? Because once the heavy flywheel gets going, momentum tends to take over and you don’t have to work so hard.
Q: Which is better, an elliptical or a treadmill?
A: Both treadmills and ellipticals allow the user to get an effective cardiovascular workout without having to venture outdoors. But – and this is important for older folks – like running itself treadmills are hard on the knees (17). If you suffer from knee problems such as osteoarthritis (18) you should avoid treadmills. On the other hand, because ellipticals do not require you to drive your feet into the ground, they’ll provide you a safe, effective workout.
Q: Why are some machines called elliptical crosstrainers?
A: When they were first introduced some years back, ellipticals that included handlebars for the upper body were called ‘crosstrainer ellipticals’ to separate them from ellipticals without those handlebars. Today, however, most ellipticals include these upper body handlebars. So the crosstrainer designation is basically redundant.
Q: Do I need a surge protector for my elliptical machine?
A: Any plug-in elliptical machine should absolutely have a surge protector (19). Just as a surge protector can protect a PC (remember those?) from getting fried in the event of a power surge, they’ll protect the high tech components of your elliptical too. A good surge protector costs about the same as a T-shirt and can save you a lot of money in the long run.
Q: Can a tall person use an elliptical machine?
A: As we mentioned above some ellipticals can present problems for tall individuals. People over 6 feet often complain that ellipticals don’t allow them to stretch their legs. For instance, the 18-inch stride you’ll find on many machines is typically too short for someone who is, say, 6 ft 2 inches tall. The best solution for a tall individual is to get a rear-drive elliptical. These typically allow for the longest stride.
Q: Do I have to assemble the elliptical machine myself?
A: If you purchase your elliptical through Amazon, you’re in luck. They maintain a nationwide network of technicians who will help you assemble your elliptical when it comes. While the coverage of this service isn’t 100%, it’s pretty good. All you have to do is enter your zip code, and they’ll tell you if there’s someone nearby who will help. They’ll also provide an estimate. Be aware that if you assemble the device yourself, it may – repeat, may – affect the warranty.
Q: Will an elliptical machine help me lose weight?
A: Ellipticals are great for those who want to lose weight. A 30-minute workout on your elliptical machine is roughly akin to running 3 or 4 miles. And since a person typically burns about 100 calories per mile, you can see the advantage of using an elliptical. Just remember, you have to do your part by eating smart.
Q: How much do elliptical machines cost?
A: Like anything else there are expensive ellipticals and inexpensive ones. You should be able to get a high-quality, dependable elliptical for $500 – $1000. Maybe less in some cases. You can pay twice that if you want. But the difference between a $1000 machine and a $2000 machine is fairly negligible. So it’s your call.
Q: Are elliptical machines high maintenance?
A: In most cases ellipticals are low maintenance machines. Especially when compared to something like a treadmill. Whether you have trouble with yours will depend in part on who assembled it. A poor job assembling the device will no doubt lead to squeaks and other unwanted noises. And may negatively affect its lifespan as well.
Q: Will an elliptical machine help me build muscle?
A: An elliptical machine will help you burn off calories and provide a mild cardio workout. They’re not designed to build muscle the way a rowing machine is. There is no doubt that if you use your elliptical regularly you’ll reduce overall body fat and likely build stamina. As a result, you’ll feel more spring in your step as you go on about your day. But it’s not going to turn you into a bodybuilder.
Elliptical machines are a convenient, effective way to get a cardio workout right in your own home. They’re quieter than treadmills, require less maintenance, and many of them can be folded up and stowed away between use. Best of all, they’re low-impact.
While virtually anyone can benefit from using an elliptical, they are particularly attractive to older folks who may have mobility issues that prevent them from running. Because an elliptical doesn’t require the lifting and placing of the feet, it’s gentle on your joints while being good for your heart.
All of the ellipticals on our list have undergone rigorous examination and proved their quality and effectiveness. Use the above information to ensure you get just the right one for you.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended elliptical, click here.