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Today I am going to discuss a number of questions I get from readers and clients regarding the elliptical machine. The main question people ask me is the elliptical a weight bearing exercise for osteoporosis?
While the elliptical trainer provides adequate load to challenge your bones, there are alternative exercises that will deliver better bang for your buck (or exercise effort). Later in the blog, I suggest alternative weight bearing exercises, discuss proper elliptical form, and address a question related to best shoes for elliptical training.
Elliptical Machine Benefits
The following are main benefits of the elliptical machine:
- Elliptical machines are very popular and commonly found in many gyms.
- They have become quite inexpensive and affordable for home use.
- An elliptical machine will give you an aerobic (or cardio) workout that benefits your heart, lungs and other functions. An aerobic workout is a key part of any exercise program.
- The elliptical machine workout is easy on your joints. This is particularly important for people who have had joint replacement surgery or have arthritis in their main joints.
- You will challenge both your lower body ad well as your upper body.
- Most elliptical machines allow the user to vary the workouts. You can challenge your self with a serious uphill climb or make the workout easier by keeping the grade more level.
- When the weather either gets too cold or too hot, you can stay inside and still get an active aerobic workout without having to deal with either overexposure to the sun or a slip on the ice.
- While there are better aerobic exercises for weight bearing than the elliptical machine, An elliptical machine workout provides some weight bearing benefits for individuals concerned with their bone health. We discuss this in more detail in the next section.
Is the Elliptical Machine a Weight Bearing Exercise?
The elliptical is a weight bearing exercise, however, there are other weight bearing activities that deliver more bang for the buck and might be more appropriate for you.
Weight Bearing Comparison of Walking, Jogging, Treadmill Jogging and Elliptical Machine Exercise
A study published in 2014 (1) in the journal Gait Posture evaluated the “average percentage body weight (APBW) values and weight bearing distribution percentages (WBDP) between four common sports activities in a referent adult population.”
Specifically, the researchers compared the weight bearing effectiveness of four aerobic exercise activities:
- Over ground walking.
- Treadmill jogging.
- Over ground jogging.
- Elliptical machine exercise.
The researchers found that compared to the other three aerobic activities, the elliptical machine exercise “significantly reduces weight bearing as compared to other common functional and sporting activities. These findings may assist the rehabilitation team when considering returning individuals back to early activity following certain bony or soft tissue pathologies or lower-limb surgical procedures.”
This indicates that if you want to experience the bone building benefits from weight bearing exercise, the elliptical machine is likely not your first choice. It might be a reasonable option, however, if you have joint or mobility issues, have had recent joint replacement surgery or at an elevated risk of fracture.
Elliptical Machine and Balance
One reservation that I have with recommending the elliptical machine as an aerobic weight bearing workout is that it does not challenge or allow you to improve your balance. Good balance is an essential ingredient of a fall prevention strategy.
If you hold the handles while using the elliptical, you never challenge your balance. You can practice exercises to improve your balance to supplement your time on the elliptical. But since time is precious and most people can only commit a limited amount of time each day to exercise, why spend it on something that delivers lower return than other aerobic and balance exercises?
Weight Bearing Recommendations for My Clients
When I work with my patients, I prescribe weight bearing exercises appropriate for their fracture risk level. If the exercises are too aggressive, the risk of fracture potentially increases. We strike the fine balance between prescribing a weight bearing exercise that builds bone but that is not too aggressive.
Individuals with a low risk of fracture can do weight bearing activities that include jumping and skipping. People in the high risk category might best stay with brisk walking or low impact aerobics.
If you like the elliptical and want to stay with it, keep in mind that form is very important. Let’s discuss that next.
Proper Elliptical Form
Proper elliptical form requires that your posture is in good alignment. This is essential since you want to avoid going into flexion. Follow these simple rules and you will have good form when you use the machine:
- Keep your breastbone elevated and pointed forward.
- Make sure you keep a space between your ribs and pelvis.
- Avoid looking down. This causes a slouched posture.
- A slouched posture could compromise your breathing on the elliptical as well as compromise your spine.
Exercise Recommendations for Osteoporosis
The elliptical machine might be a good exercise for you. However, therapeutic exercise that includes weight bearing, balance, posture and strength training needs to be part of your osteoporosis treatment program.
But what exercises should you do and which ones should you avoid? What exercises build bone and which ones reduce your chance of a fracture? Is Yoga good for your bones? Who should you trust when it comes to exercises for osteoporosis?
A great resource on exercise and osteoporosis is my free, seven day email course called Exercise Recommendations for Osteoporosis. After you provide your email address, you will receive seven consecutive online educational videos on bone health — one lesson each day. You can look at the videos at anytime and as often as you like.
I cover important topics related to osteoporosis exercise including:
- Can exercise reverse osteoporosis?
- Stop the stoop — how to avoid kyphosis and rounded shoulders.
- Key components of an osteoporosis exercise program.
- Key principles of bone building.
- Exercises you should avoid if you have osteoporosis.
- Yoga and osteoporosis — should you practice yoga if you have osteoporosis?
- Core strength and osteoporosis — why is core strength important if you have osteoporosis?
Enter your email address and I will start you on this free course. I do not SPAM or share your email address (or any information) with third parties. You can unsubscribe from my mail list at any time.
Is the Elliptical Right for You?
Here are the key points to remember to consider when you use the elliptical trainer machine:
- It does not have the impact or loading compared to the treadmill.
- The elliptical trainer has more weight bearing than the stationary bike (and when done well is better for your posture).
- It provides a great cardiovascular workout and should be considered part of your overall exercise program.
- Be careful with your alignment and posture when you use the elliptical trainer.
If you like using the machine, then you should make it part of your exercise program but make sure you follow the guidelines I have listed above.
To learn more about a comprehensive exercise program for osteoporosis (that includes a wide range of strength, weight bearing, flexibility, balance and other exercises for osteoporosis), I encourage you to consider my MelioGuide Exercise for Better Bones program.
Best Shoes for Elliptical Training
A reader, Kris, asked me recently if it would be better to wear shoes with light soles in order to make the elliptical a weight bearing exercise. She also asked me for my recommendations for the best shoes for elliptical training.
I told Kris that there is no impact during elliptical training. Your foot never leaves the machine. I do not think that light sole shoes will make a difference to the weight bearing effects. The reason is that when it comes to “weight bearing” and the effects on bone, it is the impact that counts. Let me provide few examples:
- Running downhill vs uphill is more bone loading because of the effect of gravity.
- Jumping 8 inches off the ground is more loading than 4 inches.
- Brisk walking is more loading than walking at a casual pace.
As a result, depending on your balance and other abilities, I would recommend running, brisk walking, Nordic Walking, or jumping as alternatives. You could increase the impact by varying the exercises as described above.
What are the best shoes for elliptical training? I recommend that you get regular running or cross-training shoes that are comfortable, provide adequate support and have a tread to increase your stability. As I mentioned above, the shoes do not need a thin sole since the weight bearing effects of the elliptical are marginal.
The elliptical machine has many health benefits. I cover these in detail in this article.
The elliptical machine, however, has limited weight bearing benefits when compared to other aerobic weight bearing activities such as walking, jogging and treadmill jogging.
Finally, you can use the elliptical machine but pay close attention to your form and posture.
- Kaplan Y, Barak Y, Palmonovich E, Nyska M, Witvrouw E. Referent body weight values in over ground walking, over ground jogging, treadmill jogging, and elliptical exercise. 2014;39(1):558-62. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2013.09.004. Epub 2013 Sep 16.
Osteoporosis Exercise Plan
Visit my Osteoporosis Exercise Plan page for more information on this topic.