An elliptical machine is a popular choice for getting some low-impact cardio exercise that’s easy on the joints, and that’s nice.
But I’ve wondered how effective their workouts are for calorie burning, so I decided to research the topic and share my findings in this article.
So how good is an elliptical for weight loss?
You can definitely shed pounds on an elliptical machine if you use it on a consistent basis AND take a smart approach to both your diet and your elliptical workout routine.
To lose weight quickly you’ll need to control the calories you consume and increase the calories you burn during your workout.
Just doing the same 30 minute moderate-level of elliptical exercise day in & day out won’t work.
It’s not hard to develop an effective elliptical weight loss program for yourself, it just takes a little planning.
In the coming sections I’ll discuss the things to be mindful of, and the action items you’ll want to put in play to be successful.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Elliptical weight loss program
The two main areas to get a handle on are:
* the amount of calories you put into your body, and
* the amount of effort you put into your elliptical workout.
So you can see there’s no mystery to unravel here.
And the other cool thing is, you have complete control over both of those areas.
I’ll break their parts down and we’ll look at them in more detail so we can easily build a weight loss plan around our elliptical workouts.
First though, let’s make sure we have our weight loss basics down pat.
Weight Loss 101
In case you didn’t know about them, the points listed below are worth being aware of if you want to lose weight quickly & safely.
How to lose a pound a week
To lose 1 lb. per week, you need your body to burn 3,500 more calories than you consume over the course of each week.
To lose 2 lb. per week then, your body needs to burn 7,000 more calories than you consume.
Losing 1-2 lb. per week is safe & doable
Diet + exercise
Creating a weight loss plan that combines smart diet + exercise ideas is “the key to successful weight loss”, per Mayo.
OK, let’s build that elliptical weight loss program.
We’ll do it by managing our calories and our elliptical workout intensity levels.
For our elliptical weight loss purposes here we can separate calories into 3 types:
- A) the calories we eat & drink
- B) the calories our body burns while inactive (BMR)
- C) the calories we burn on the elliptical machine
Losing weight will always come down to simple math:
A – (B+C) = Amount of weight loss
Knowing these three calorie numbers makes it easy for us to create a weight-changing plan that works, for either losing it or gaining it.
A) Count the calories you eat & drink
Counting calories isn’t hard to do and it’s a very helpful tool to use in your elliptical weight loss plan.
When you know what your average daily calorie number is, it’ll be much easier to figure out how many calories you need to cut from your diet in order to lose weight effectively.
B) Track down your BMR
The second number we need is our basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Use an online calculator like this one to determine yours.
If you’ve never used one before, you’ll notice the different factors involved in the BMR equation:
- Activity Level
Compare your daily calorie count to your daily BMR.
Don’t forget that your BMR is based on NO exercise.
If your daily calorie count is roughly the same as your BMR, your weight will stay the same.
To stimulate weight loss, you’ll need to either cut your daily calories, increase your exercise level, or both.
A Tip To Consider:
The Activity Levels shown on all these online BMR calculators is broad by necessity, and sometimes vague.
For example, what’s Lightly Active vs. Moderately Active?
I choose the two I think are closest to my exercise level and run the calculator twice.
This way I get a range.
Also, be honest about how much exercise you get.
C) Calories burned on an elliptical
I’ll show the numbers in a sec, but the main thing to keep in mind is this: the elliptical ‘calories burned’ numbers you’ll come across online apply to a moderate intensity level unless otherwise specified.
You can (& should) increase the intensity level of your elliptical workout so you can burn a lot more calories than moderate elliptical exercise provides.
Here’s the online ‘calories burned by activity’ calculator I used.
Calories burned on an elliptical machine in a moderate level, 30 minute workout:
(by a person’s weight)
210 lb. 542
180 lb. 464
150 lb. 387
120 lb. 310
Using all these calorie numbers together
So now we know all three parts of that A – (B+C) = Weight Loss calorie equation.
We can now use this with our elliptical machine workouts to reach our weight loss goals.
I’ll show you how with this example.
Let’s say Joe weighs 191 lb. but wants to get down to 175 lb. in about two months’ time (we’ll go with 8 weeks).
Joe considers himself lightly active, but figures it’s probably not enough because he’s put on a few pounds over the past few months.
He likes the low-impact cardio workout an elliptical machine provides, so he’d like to use that as his cardio machine of choice for his weight loss plan.
How does he do it?
Figure out current calorie numbers
Step 1: Counts calories. Avg. daily calories = 2900
Step 2: Calculates his BMR = 2441
Insight #1: No wonder he’s been slowly gaining weight over the past few months. He’s eating & drinking 459 calories a day above his BMR, and his light exercise level isn’t enough to stop the weight gain.
Weight loss goal: Lose 16 pounds in 8 weeks
Weekly avg.: 2 lb. per week
Calorie deficit needed: 7000 per week*
(*Remembering from the earlier section Weight Loss 101, in order to lose 2 lb. per week Joe has to burn 7,000 calories more per week than what he’s consuming.)
How does he do that?
I think that’s Joe…
Combine calorie-cutting diet + exercise
When deciding to cut calories, experts also agree that a good general daily calorie number to aim for is to eat & drink 500-700 less calories less per day.
Joe’s in a hurry to lose weight, so he’s going to shoot for 700 calories less per day.
Plus he knows he’s been eating too much junk and drinking more beer than he needs.
He figures they’re not as important as looking good is at the class reunion (or whatever).
Weekly calorie deficit to lose 2 lb. = 7000
Step 3: Cut calories by 700/day x 7 days = 4900
Insight #2: Joe sees he needs his elliptical workouts to burn off the remaining 2100 calories per week.
Step 4: Calories burned on elliptical in 30 minutes = 493
Step 5: Elliptical calories burned @ 4x/week = 1972
Insight #3: Joe sees he’s only 128 ‘burned calories per week’ shy of hitting his target goal of losing 2 lb. per week. Great news! His elliptical weight loss plan is sure to succeed!
So that, my friends, is how to make an elliptical workout program good for weight loss.
Uh oh, wait…what’s that?
Joe’s informed me that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to get in four workouts for every one of those 8 weeks, due to his schedule or something.
Says he’ll miss one every 2 weeks, or 4 total over the two-month period.
He really wants to nail his 16 lb. weight loss goal.
What should he do?
Increase the intensity of the elliptical workouts
OK, so he needs to somehow create about a 3000 calorie deficit over the 28 workouts he has in his 8-week plan.
It comes out to 107 calories per workout (2996/28).
He’ll be missing four 493 calorie-burning elliptical workouts (1972 cal), plus he was already short 128 calories/week even if he didn’t miss a workout (1024 cal).
He can’t cut any more calories out of his diet, because he’s already at the maximum number (700) considered healthy & safe by medical experts.
What can he do?
The solution: It’s an easy one: simply increase the intensity level of the elliptical workouts.
The next section explains how.
How to increase elliptical workout intensity
There are a number of ways to easily increase the intensity of an elliptical workout so you can burn more calories per session.
Here are a few of them.
Do HIIT on the elliptical
With high intensity interval training you can burn more calories in less time.
Another benefit of HIIT is that your body’s metabolism will remain elevated for hours after your workout, so you’ll continue to burn more calories while at rest.
(I posted an article here on heydayDo regarding HIIT workout length that has several workout ideas you can use for elliptical HIIT if you’re interested.)
Don’t do high intensity elliptical workouts on consecutive days, as your body needs the time to recover.
A better idea is to do your elliptical HIIT on alternate workout days.
Boost the elliptical resistance setting
If you warm up on resistance level #2 then switch to #4 for the bulk of your workout (or whatever your machine’s numbers are), try making it more difficult by picking a higher level of resistance.
You may get winded or sore legs after awhile and have to back down to your usual settings.
But after you’ve recovered, try increasing the resistance again.
Repeatedly doing this during your elliptical workouts boosts their overall intensity level and thus your calorie burning too.
Improve your form
Here are a couple of tips here that’ll increase your calorie burn:
* Don’t lean forward onto the stationary handle bars, use the movable arms instead.
* When holding onto the arms, don’t make the machine do all the work.
- Actively involve yourself in the pushing & pulling motions of the elliptical’s movable arms.
* Along those same lines but with your feet, keep them flat on their pedals and actively push down on each pedaling stroke.
Boost the elliptical’s speed
Similar to increasing the elliptical’s resistance, play with the speed setting and kick it up a notch or two from your usual settings.
Just be sure not to kick back and go along for the ride when you do though.
Change up your regular routine
It’s been shown that our bodies adapt to our workouts over time, and we don’t make the same gains we did earlier as a result.
A solution to stagnating like this is to keep your body guessing.
Every so often switch up your routine.
Try random things during the workout: play with new settings on the machine, mix in short high-speed bursts randomly, vary your stride speed, etc.
Elliptical workout questions
Here are answers to a few of the common questions people ask about elliptical machines.
Elliptical vs. treadmill for weight loss?
The amount of calories burned on any machine depends more on how the person is using it, than the type of machine itself.
A treadmill can go from an elderly person’s very slow walk to an elite runner’s sprint speed, but it depends on who’s on the treadmill.
And an elliptical machine can go very slowly, with the person onboard exerting very little effort and burning very few calories.
Or a fit person can use the elliptical with its resistance and speed settings set very high, and they’ll be putting out maximal effort and burning lots of calories.
What are an elliptical’s pros & cons?
On the positive side, the elliptical provides a low-impact cardio workout that won’t stress your joints like running or other high-impact aerobic activities do.
It’s also an exercise machine with moving handles, and that means you can activate your shoulders, arms, and to a lesser degree, your upper body’s core muscles.
This additional muscle work translates to additional calorie burn.
The main health downside (I think) is that since there’s no impact, you don’t get the same bone growth benefit that impact exercises provide, like running, ball sports, and even walking.
Considering an inexpensive elliptical machine?
If you’re thinking of buying an elliptical but don’t want to spend a ton of money, I wrote a review article covering several elliptical machines for under 500 bucks; you can read it here.
Ever wonder how an elliptical machine stacks up against an exercise bike when it comes to things like providing you exercise benefits & weight loss potential?
I did, so I dug into as much sports science research as I could to track down the answers, and I share them here on heydayDo in the article you see below.
Check ’em out if you’re interested. 😊
I hope this article researching the elliptical machine’s weight loss potential is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.