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Sunday, December 10, 2023
Dr. Brown: What’s best: Exercise or exercise machine?

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the Infohealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

Dr. William Brown
Special to The Lake Report

A friend asked, what’s the best exercise machine? Cut off as we’ve been for nine months from the workout facilities at the Prince of Wales or Pillar and Post, his question was timely.

It wasn’t so long ago that fitness for me was as simple as lacing up my running shoes, wearing whatever clothes suited the weather and heading outdoors to put my miles in.

Unfortunately, creeping degenerative changes in my knees forced me to cut back on running and increase my time on eliptical trainers and to a lesser extent, stationary bikes – that is until I discovered my old NordicTrack machine gathering dust in the basement.

Twenty-five years ago when I was in Boston, I was recovering from yet another surgical fix for one of my knees and resorted to a NordicTrack machine built to simulate cross-country skiing, to keep fit.

It was a rugged, simple affair made mostly of wood with some steel parts and which, like cross-country skiing, engaged all the major muscle groups in my arms, legs and trunk, with surprisingly little impact on the joints. And, much to my surprise, when I began to run again eight weeks later, my fitness had barely skipped a beat – the machine had done the job while I recovered from the knee surgery.

The NordicTrack machine I own, like me these days, is showing its age, what with occasional slipping belts and loose connections, but well worth the morning effort for maintaining my overall fitness.

That said, occasionally I was reminded of why those simple machines never really caught with the public despite their training potential. Unlike stationary bikes and elliptical trainers, learning to use a NordicTrack machine was fraught with the odd sudden unexpected backward slip and frantic clutches of the handles to prevent a fall.

Most new users gave up too soon and as a result, many a machine was later found curbside waiting for someone one to cart it away. But whatever its shortcomings for beginners, like cross-country skiing, the NordicTrack machine offers an efficient way to become aerobically fit and work all the body’s major muscle groups with one machine, unlike stationary bikes.

For me, all indoor fitness machines are just that – indoors. And for that reason I took up road biking this summer and enjoyed every minute of it, whatever the headwinds and even the odd storm.

In the Niagara region we’re blessed with lots of concession and line roads where road traffic is light except for other bikers often strung out in single file. Some purists deride road biking in Niagara because of the absence of challenging hills, except for the escarpment. Maybe, but the area is beautiful in all seasons and well worth a brisk walk, run or bike ride – or mixing two or all three even in the winter when conditions allow.

We’re in the season of starkness – the tiniest of skeletal tree branches, no longer hidden by leaves – a season of whites and sombre greys but still beautiful. That’s what I miss most about training indoors – the beauty of the outdoors, whatever the season.

So for me, the way forward with my exercise and fitness, is a compromise. Indoors for those days that are thoroughly miserable outside and a combination of indoor and outdoor exercises that combine training as many muscle groups as possible with intense enough intervals to keep my heart and lungs in good shape.

These days my exercise routines involve one or two short runs outside a week, the NordicTrack machine first thing every morning and, for good measure soon, an elliptical trainer to provide some indoor variety.

So, in answer to the question posed by my friend – an elliptical trainer makes sense because, like the NordicTrack machine, it conditions the arms, legs and trunk muscles without the trickiness of the latter to worry about. To that I add a variety of stretching and strength training floor exercises.

Next, we’ll explore the science of exercise as an aid to picking and choosing what may work for you.


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