The benefits of movement extend well beyond physical fitness—a truth most of us know even if we don’t always put that knowledge into practice. Anxious? Stressed? Poor sleep? Regular exercise, whether it’s 30 minutes of walking or a high-octane CrossFit class, can combat all of the above. April is the American Heart Association’s Move More Month, so we’re looking at easy ways to incorporate more movement. (The payoffs could actually impact your wallet.)
But before you can reap the rewards of an active lifestyle, you need to tear down your personal barriers to working out. For many people, the biggest barrier is just getting out the door. So why not bring the workout to you? A great piece of exercise equipment does just that.
We’ve spent months examining the best treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, and exercise bikes on the market. We picked the brains of personal trainers and physical therapists and logged miles on the top machines we could find. Our favorites accommodate a range of workout preferences and abilities, providing just enough entertainment that you will be motivated to climb on day after day, until exercising is just a habit—like drinking coffee or watering the plants.
Making exercise a habit—that’s the whole aim. To intentionally misconstrue Newton’s First Law—a body in motion stays in motion. Psychologists and motivational speakers can’t agree on how long it takes to develop a habit, but we say, get two months’ worth of pep talks ready. After that, it’s a runner’s high. While some prefer a more freeform workout, many can reap fitness and motivational benefits from exercise machines. Here are some great picks to consider.
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Find a machine that’s right for you
You know your body best. Check in with your current state of mobility to know what kind of machine will accommodate your workout style now and will continue to challenge you as you build strength and stamina. Also consider movements you enjoy doing. Ran track in high school? Love canoeing during the summer? Linking joyful activities to your workout elevates exercise from some mundane task to what it really is—training for life.
Our top pick: ProForm 505 CST
Walking and running are the oldest forms of exercise. A great treadmill makes it easy to ladder up with high max speed and the option to incline, challenging you with the same terrain changes you’d find outdoors. And thanks to the programming available on well-equipped models, you don’t have to rely on your own imagination to know when to switch it up. Just select an interval program and go for time.
The ProForm 505 CST is our favorite treadmill, and it tops the list of many other review sites. It’s a sturdy machine with solid tech, and it rings up far below other treadmills in price. Still, expect to spend about a thousand dollars. And while the footprint is smaller than the commercial models you see at the gym, expect to dedicate 3’x5’ of space to this 200-pound machine.
Our top pick: Precor EFX 222
Ellipticals provide an honestly enjoyable workout—it’s like springing between clouds, or Nordic skiing over pure, fresh-fallen snow. That is, until you ratchet the intensity up to 15. But even then, the smooth, slow-motion stride provided by the gliding tracks of an elliptical make a sweaty workout feel somehow more effortless. Here’s why: When “running” on an elliptical, you don’t use your heels and ankles like you do with traditional running. Without that added stress on muscles and tendons, the body doesn’t perceive its own exertion in the same way.
Ellipticals come in an astonishing variety of styles. Because of their complex machinery, they’re even more expensive than treadmills. Think two grand and up. We loved the Precor EFX 222 because it’s a classic elliptical done right, with smooth functionality and a great diversity of programmed workouts. Like all ellipticals, the swinging arms force you to do an odd, T-Rex motion with your upper body, and that low-impact may ultimately prove too low-impact for some. Still, this is one of the most inviting machines to jump on. If motivation is your main problem, this Precor may be the answer.
Our top pick: Concept 2 D
Of all the passed-over exercise equipment in the gym, the indoor rower might be the most maligned. It’s not just a heart-rate taskmaster for CrossFit or an offseason training tool for Ivy Leaguers. A rowing machine provides an elegant, intelligent, full-body workout for all. The seated position required for rowing makes it easy for joints, but good and hard for everything else. Once you master proper rowing technique, you’ll be using about 75% lower body and 25% upper body strength to power every row. With each repetition, you get the benefits of squats, deadlifts, and seated rows.
The rowing machine market is different from that of other exercise equipment. There’s one rower to rule them all, and that’s the Concept 2 D. It’s a simple, well-designed rower that rowing professionals and coaches swear by. When we tested a gamut of competitors, we learned why. It offers the right balance of smoothly coiling chain, easy gliding seat, and hefty, even resistance you need to keep your rows strong and correct. Anything else, and you risk hurting your back. We love that rowing machines can stand straight up for compact storage, but noted that motivation could flag given the lack of workout programs.
Our top pick: Bladez Echelon
Indoor cycles, often called spin bikes after the popular manufacturer Spinning, make for a killer workout. The key is the weighted flywheel—typically the front “tire,” a rotating metal disc that, if it’s a good model, weighs around 40 pounds. Pedaling rotates this heavy wheel. Enough speed brings the wheel to a point of inertia, where the effort becomes just a little less effortful, but you better keep pumping your legs to make the moment last. If you can keep your head in the game to power through intervals, you can’t do much better for a thigh-burning, heart-racing workout than an indoor cycle.
Indoor cycles are also a great equipment option if space is an issue. Relatively lightweight (under 100 pounds) and compact (smaller than an outdoor bike), these are low-tech alternatives to bulky treadmills and ellipticals. And our favorite indoor cycle just happens to be one of the lightest, most streamlined, least tech-dependent of them all—the Bladez Echelon. It’s a powerful bike, and it’s also kind of a steal. It provides smooth, high-resistance rides and costs less than the competition. You’re looking at less than $500.
Our top pick: ProForm 740 ES
If mobility is preventing you from getting exercise, a recumbent bike is the physical therapist-recommended solution. With a generous and comfortable bucket seat, getting settled onto a recumbent bike is akin to getting settled in the front seat of a car. Get a leg workout and a healthy heart pump while you rotate through the impressive spread of programmed workouts. Recumbent bikes typically have some of the most fleshed-out tech set-ups of all exercise equipment. A recumbent bike makes getting into a workout groove painless and entertaining.
Because comfort and accessibility are two of a recumbent bike’s best features, we prioritized adjustability and ride feel. The ProForm 740 ES took the cake with lots of possibilities for tweaking height and angle, a silky pedal rotation, and a sculpted seat. A 7-inch touchscreen provides access to workouts and virtual trails.