If you’ve spent anytime in a gym, then you probably know how an elliptical machine works. Also called a cross trainer, an elliptical allows you to move your legs up and down, and you can add resistance to make the workout more challenging. You grip the moving handles with your hands so your upper body also gets a workout at the same time. Elliptical machines are known for their heart-pumping cardio benefits.
You may want to build up your home workout options, but you don’t have the space or cash for a new elliptical machine — a midrange model will set you back $1,000 to $2,000. Plus, you may want to find simple ways to add more exercise to your day to combat the negative effects of sitting at a desk all day.
That’s when an underdesk elliptical might be a good option. An underdesk elliptical is a portable piece of exercise equipment that allows you to move your legs in an elliptical fashion while you’re sitting. Some brands have foot pedals with stirrups, and other brands have flat foot pedals to keep your feet in place. Your upper body can remain stationary so you can work at a desk at the same time.
Underdesk ellipticals, which retail for about $100 to $350, usually have a setting to lower or raise the resistance to make the workout more challenging. You can also add a 2-by-4-foot piece of wood or a huge book to the front end to make it more challenging and push your legs to work harder, says Atlanta-based fitness coach ShaNay Norvell, author of “Stretch Your Stress Away with ShaNay.”
With more people working from home and looking to add more movement into their days, you may wonder: Do underdesk ellipticals really work to provide toning or help you lose weight?
Underdesk Ellipticals: Pros
First, here are some of the pros of underdesk ellipticals:
It’s an Easy Way to Work in Movement
“You can do this while working on a task at your desk or watching television and lose track of time,” Norvell says. Before you know it, 40 minutes have passed by, and you’ve accomplished something physical without noticing it, she says.
Additionally, because it’s low impact and low intensity, it’s easy to keep going with an underdesk elliptical for a longer time period, says personal trainer Corrie Alexander, of Barrie, Ontario. Alexander is founder of the fitness business The Fit Careerist.
You Can Use an Underdesk Elliptical for Interval Training
Interval training is an approach to exercise where you move at a moderate pace followed by a brief high-intensity sequence and then return to the moderate pace, says Sergio Pedemonte, personal trainer and CEO of Your House Fitness in Toronto.
Interval training on an underdesk elliptical will work out the lower body muscles more, and that leads to quicker muscle toning. With an underdesk elliptical, you can pedal at a quicker pace or increase your resistance during the higher-intensity intervals, Pedemonte says.
It Can Help Fight Against a Sedentary Lifestyle
Show of hands, who feels like they’re sitting too much these days? Although you still sit while using an underdesk elliptical, at least your legs are moving, Michaels says. This is better than not moving at all.
[READ: Top Upper Body Workouts.]
Underdesk Ellipticals: Cons
However, underdesk ellipticals also have some drawbacks:
They Aren’t the Most Effective Tool to Lose Weight
You do get somewhat of a calorie burn while using an underdesk elliptical, but it’s a small number. On average, users will burn 150 calories an hour — a slow burn, Alexander says. Compare that to the 350-plus calories typically burned on a regular elliptical machine in an hour.
Changes to your diet should be more of a focus if you want to lose weight, says personal trainer Carol Michaels, of West Orange, New Jersey, and founder of Recovery Fitness, an exercise program developed to improve the recovery from cancer surgery and treatments and osteoporosis.
If you’re using an underdesk elliptical while working, it may be difficult to go at a high speed with resistance (both important for weight loss) while working unless you’re in a boring Zoom meeting, Michaels says. Still, if you set a goal of 45 minutes, three to five times a week while adding some resistance and raising your heart rate, it could help with your weight loss goals, Norvell says.
You Still Need to Do Other Types of Workouts
You also should do two to three sessions of strength training per week. Norvell recommends incorporating upper body strength and core training to balance out the lower body work. Core training involves your abs, pelvic floor, hips and glutes.
Some examples of core exercises include planks, side planks and glute bridges, Pedemonte says. You should also plan to do a couple of additional heart-pumping cardio workouts each week.
You May Feel Awkward Using an Underdesk Elliptical
It tends to be noisy, Pedemonte says. Additionally, if you’re using one under a desk and you didn’t consider in advance the range of motion of your legs while using the elliptical, you might end up hitting your knees or have a problem with flexing or extending the legs.
It Could Lead to Poor Posture
You may find yourself leaning forward while exercising, and that could increase your chance of neck and back pain, Michaels says. If you do strength training in addition to using the underdesk elliptical, you’ll improve your core muscles, which also improves posture, balance and bone density, she explains.
It Can Be Hard on the Knees
Pedemonte advises against underdesk ellipticals if you have knee and ankle problems, unless you set it at the lowest resistance setting. If you have physical pain, you should check with a doctor before using one.
[READ: Muscle Recovery After Workouts.]
Tips to Get the Most Out of an Underdesk Elliptical
1. Read the product reviews and specs in advance to make sure the model you get is the right fit for you, Pedemonte advises. Check the pedal length in advance to make sure it fits your foot size, Norvell adds. Make sure there’s a guarantee on the product so you can return it if it’s not the right fit.
2. Set it up ergonomically, Norvell advises. This means making sure you can still have good posture while using it without leading to future pain. It may be easier to use an underdesk elliptical if you have a desk that allows you to adjust your keyboard placement, desk height or both.
3. Start slowly. If you’re just getting started, set it at a low tension and pedal just for 10 to 15 minutes, Alexander advises. You can gradually increase the time and tension. If you’re an underdesk elliptical pro and you want more of a challenge, add dumbbell exercises to work out your upper body at the same time. “Some models come with resistance cables that you can use for this purpose,” Alexander says. There also are some livestream classes online geared toward underdesk elliptical users.
4. Track your progress. This can motivate you to do more. Some underdesk ellipticals can sync with your smart phone and let you know your effort, calorie burn and distance, Norvell says.
5. Do your best to add enjoyable physical activity to your life in addition to using an underdesk elliptical. “It is unfortunate that people are working to the point that they have to multitask to get some exercise into their day. Physical activity should be enjoyable,” Michaels says. Dancing, hiking, swimming or playing a sport can be fun. These options also can increase exercise consistency and decrease boredom.
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