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Demystifying Cardio Equipment

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Have you ever hopped on a piece of cardio equipment, only to find yourself dazed and confused by all the buttons and programs, utterly bewildered that it could be so complicated?  Not surprising.  Manufacturers of exercise equipment are constantly looking for new bells and whistles to remain competitive, fresh and interesting.  The reality is, most people find these features too confusing and never even use them.

Personally, when I do cardio, all I want to do is get my heart rate up.  I don’t have time to push 50 buttons, programming every personal trait and statistic about myself.  As a result, I am often quick to hit the ‘Quick Start’ button and go.  You could say I like to drive ‘Manual’ on the treadmill.

Some of the programs and features on cardio equipment, however, do have merit.  And depending on your short and long term goals of exercise, it might be worth giving them a spin.  Each piece of cardiovascular exercise equipment is different.  However, a glossary of some of the more common and useful features are defined below:

The Basics for Manual Programming: These features are basic to any piece of cardio equipment.  These features allow you to manually program the equipment to control your workout.

  • Speed (Treadmills and Stair Climbers): Marked with up and down arrows, these buttons allow you to control your speed during your workout.  You can usually choose miles per hour (MPH) or kilometers per hour (KPH).
  • Intensity / Resistance / Level (Bicycles, Elliptical Trainers and Stair Climbers): Marked with up and down arrows as well, these terms are used interchangeably and allow you to control the level of difficulty of your workout.  The higher the number, the more resistance you will feel, making the workout more difficult.
  • Incline (Treadmills and Elliptical Trainers): Once again, these are marked with up and down arrows.  Adding an incline to your workout simulates moving up hill.  Although some manufacturers are changing this, most treadmills do not have a negative incline (decline), so you can only run flat or uphill.
  • Weight (All): Your caloric burn during exercise is based on your weight.  As a result, programming your weight into the machine allows it to more accurately calculate how many calories you have burned.
  • Heart Rate (All): In theory, the heart rate monitor tells you your heart rate during exercise so that you know if you are in your target heart rate zone.  To get a reading, place your hands on the metal grips on the machine (some machines have wireless heart rate monitors).  Unfortunately, many heart rate monitors on machines are not accurate.  The best method for monitoring your heart rate is by taking your pulse or by using a personal heart rate monitor/watch for your wrist.

Typical Automated Pre-Programmed Workouts: The following programs are typical on most machines.  If you don’t want to manually control your workout, you can use any of the following programs to guide you through your workout.

  • Fat Burn: Focuses on keeping your heart rate at a lower aerobic intensity, optimizing fat burn versus muscle burn.  Generally, you will be at a 60 – 65% maximum heart rate (MHR).  Note: Although you will be burning a higher % of fat calories, you will be burning less calories overall than if you exercise more intensely, ultimately burning less fat calories as well.
  • Cardio: The Cardio program focuses on keeping your heart rate at a constant, higher intensity level (often around 75% your MHR) throughout the workout.
  • Interval: Interval training involves alternating short bursts of intense activity with less-intense activity. It is an efficient training method that helps you avoid injuries and provides the opportunity to increase your intensity without burning yourself out too quickly. Interval training builds strength both cardiovascularly and muscularly.
  • Hill: The Hill Program allows you to simulate exercising up and down hills.  This often is similar to interval training in that it adds intensity to your workout and then lowers intensity.  The difference, however, is that the rhythm or interval is less predictable than that of Interval Training.
  • Random: The Random Program gives you a more random and unpredictable workout.  It combines aspects of all of the other programs to give you a more varied experience.

If you choose not to use any of the programs mentioned above, ‘Manual’ might be best suited for you.  It allows you the most flexibility and enables you to control your workout yourself.

What about you?  Do you like Manual or pre-programmed workouts?

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