Elliptical Machines Go Easy on Your Joints

Looking for a good workout that’s easy on your arthritis joints? An elliptical machine may be the answer.

Updated By Linda Rath | April 25, 2023

If you have arthritis, exercise can reduce joint pain and stiffness as well as improve strength and balance. But what type of exercise is best? An elliptical trainer is a good option. This minimal, weight-bearing stationary exercise machine mimics walking with a gliding motion.

“The elliptical machine can be a beneficial form of exercise for people with knee and hip arthritis because it provides both strengthening and cardiovascular benefits while exerting less force on the joints,” says Maura Daly Iversen, professor of public health and human movement sciences and dean of the College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Low Impact Exercise

Normally, when you walk, jog or run, one foot comes off the ground. On the elliptical, however, both feet remain in contact with the surface. Therefore, there is less pounding on the knee and the knee remains in a relatively stable position.
“The nice fluid motion of the elliptical reduces stress on the hips and knees,” says Iversen. “Treadmills, on the other hand, can be tough on the joints because as you are lifting one leg off the ground at a time, all your body weight is absorbed by the leg in contact with the ground.”

Benefits of the Elliptical

But does less stress equal less benefit? Not according to research on healthy individuals. “Studies show that the energy expenditure resulting from running on a treadmill with no incline is relatively the same as the energy expenditure at the same pace on an elliptical, even though people perceive the workout differently,” Iversen explains.

Elliptical machines also have speed and resistance settings that allow you to customize your workout. Forward motions strengthen the quads and calves while reverse-stride settings (a backward motion) work the hamstrings and back of your thighs.

The elliptical falls short, however, when it comes to weight-bearing exercise. If the elliptical is a staple of your routine, Iversen recommends supplementing with strengthening and flexibility exercises to strengthen bones and increase range of motion.

“Knee and hip osteoarthritis range in severity from mild disease to bone-on-bone disease,” she says. “I recommend that anyone with arthritis see a physical therapist.  They can help you identify exactly what exercise is best for you and how to perform it safely for your stage of disease.”

Tips for Using an Elliptical

Follow these tips for a safe and effective elliptical workout:
  • Warm up. Don’t jump into a workout first thing in the morning or immediately after a few hours of computer work. First, loosen up stiff joints with simple stretches. Walk a lap around the block or gym.
  • Choose the right shoes. Pain or stiffness can affect your gait and posture. Sneakers with a strong arch support or an orthotic insert can help keep the hips and knees in proper alignment on the elliptical. If you also run or jog, look for the exact opposite — a minimalist, zero drop shoe. Your best bet? Ask for advice from a physical therapist or running technique specialist (you can usually find one at a retail store devoted to athletic footwear).
  • Check your posture. Don’t slouch over when you start to fatigue. Keep your body straight and shoulders back.
  • Grip the handlebars lightly. When you only use your legs to power the machine, your lower body and core work the hardest. To work your upper body, initiate the movement from the handlebars, and let your legs go along for the ride. Or, for the best results, do both. It’s fine to use the handlebars for balance, but don’t hang on for dear life — you’ll get a less effective workout.
  • Start slow and work your way up. Exercise is your friend, but it can also be your foe if you push yourself too hard or too fast. Start with 5 to 10 minutes and progress to at least 30 minutes on most days. Your body will thank you.
Looking for a reason to stay active? Register for the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk to Cure Arthritis 5K, where you can help raise funds for research and resources that help improve the lives of millions with arthritis. 

Or check out the Foundation’s premier cycling event, the California Coast Classic, which includes a tour down Pacific Coast Highway.  

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