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If you’ve spent any time in a gym, then you probably know how an elliptical machine works. Also called a cross trainer, this machine 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 gets a workout at the same time. Elliptical machines are well-known for their heart-pumping cardio benefits.

You may want to build up your home workout options, but don’t have the space or cash for a full-sized elliptical machine – a midrange model will set you back $1,000 to $2,000. Or 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.

An under-desk elliptical is a portable form of exercise equipment that allows you to move your legs in an elliptical fashion while seated. Some brands have foot pedals with stirrups, others have flat foot pedals to keep your feet in place. Your upper body remains stationary, so you can work at a desk at the same time.

Interest in under-desk ellipticals has increased since the pandemic with more people working at home and not getting as much movement as they did in an office, says former Equinox trainer turned online trainer and nutritionist Vanessa Liu of San Francisco. Consumers purchase these modified ellipticals to work in more steps.

Under-desk ellipticals, which retail for about $130 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 ShaNay Norvell, a fitness coach, five-time National Obstacle Course Champion and author of “Stretch Your Stress Away with ShaNay,” based in Dania, Florida.

Under-Desk Ellipticals: Pros

There are pros and cons to every exercise machine. And what works for some may not be the best choice for all. Here are some of the pros of under-desk ellipticals:

“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 finished a workout without noticing it, she says.

Because it’s low impact and low intensity, it’s easy to keep going with an under-desk elliptical for a longer time period, says personal trainer Corrie Alexander, founder of the fitness business The Fit Careerist, based in Barrie, Ontario. Still, take breaks to get up and stretch.

If you’ve lost some mobility and aren’t very mobile due to an injury or because of your job, under-desk ellipticals help you get some movement. “It’s better than not moving at all,” Liu says. Of course, if you’re injured, check with a health care provider before starting any new physical activity.

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 with an under-desk elliptical works the lower body muscles more, leading to quicker muscle toning. With an under-desk elliptical, you can pedal at a faster pace or increase your resistance during the higher-intensity intervals, Pedemonte says.

Who feels like they’re sitting too much these days? Most of us are. Although you still sit while using an under-desk elliptical, at least your legs are moving, Michaels says. This is better than not moving at all.

One benefit Liu has seen with clients looking to get healthier is that under-desk ellipticals help them get some movement in, and that keeps them motivated and confident in their fitness journey.

Cons of Under-Desk Ellipticals

However, under-desk ellipticals also have some drawbacks:

You do get somewhat of a calorie burn while using an under-desk 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.

If you’re using an under-desk elliptical while working, it may be difficult to go at a high speed with resistance (both important for weight loss) while working, 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.

Changes to your diet should be more of a focus if you want to lose weight, Michaels says. A healthy diet paired with exercise is the best method for weight loss.

In addition to using the under-desk elliptical, you also should do two to three sessions of strength training weekly. 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. Upper body strength training involves your back, shoulders, chest and arms.

Some examples of core exercises include planks, side planks and glute bridges, Pedemonte says. For upper body strength workouts, try push-ups, bicep curls, chest flies and back extensions.

It tends to be noisy, Pedemonte says. Additionally, if you’re using one under a desk and didn’t consider in advance the range of motion of your legs while using the equipment, you might end up hitting your knees or have a problem with flexing or extending the legs.

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 under-desk elliptical, you’ll improve your core muscles, which also improves posture, balance and bone density, she explains.

Pedemonte advises against using under-desk 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 health care provider before using one.

Under-Desk Elliptical Buying Guide

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you look for an under-desk elliptical:

Measure for size

Before you buy, measure the height of your desk and the distance between your legs when seated, advises personal trainer Michael Hamlin, founder of Everflex Premium Personal Training in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You’ll want to make sure it fits comfortably under your desk and gives your legs enough room to move freely.

Make sure it has resistance levels

Adjustable resistance levels allow you to increase or decrease the intensity of your workout, Hamlin says.

Read up on noise levels

Ask friends or read reviews online to confirm that the elliptical you want isn’t too loud, especially if you plan to use it in an office around coworkers, Liu says.

Aim for portability

If you plan to take the elliptical with you when traveling, aim for a lightweight model, Hamlin says.

Maintaining Proper Form With an Under-Desk Elliptical

Proper form when using an under-desk elliptical can help you avoid future neck, back or leg pain. It also helps you sustain a longer workout. Here’s some guidance to keep proper form:

Tips to Get the Most Out of an Under-Desk Elliptical

1. Read the product reviews and specs to make sure the model you get is the right fit for you.

Check the pedal length in advance to make sure it fits your foot size, Norvell says. 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.

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 under-desk 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 resistance and pedal for 10 to 15 minutes, Alexander advises. You can gradually increase the time and tension. If you’re an under-desk 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 are also livestreamed and recorded classes available online geared toward under-desk elliptical users. Remember to take a break every 30 minutes to stretch your legs.

4. Track your progress. 

This can boost your confidence and motivate you to do more. Some under-desk 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 under-desk 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 can also increase exercise consistency and decrease boredom.

Here are some other ways to add more movement into your day:

  • Walk around when you take a work call and don’t need to be tethered to a computer. You could even suggest to someone you’re meeting in person that you take a walk while you talk, Liu says. “It means both of you can get some steps in,” she says.
  • Keep a small water bottle or glass on your desk. This means you’ll need to get up more often to refill, so it’s a built-in way to get more movement, Liu says.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Take frequent breaks to stand up and stretch. Set up movement reminders for yourself if you don’t already receive them on a fitness watch.
  • If you work outside the home, walk to work if you can, Hamlin suggests. He suggests to some clients that they drive halfway and walk the rest. “It forces you to get activity and sunshine in the morning, which is great for your health,” he says.

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