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December 3, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: What's the best machine in the gym?


Christian DeBenedetti, in a November 24 New York Times story, attempted to answer this question.

In a most interesting approach to the ongoing controversy — among users and machine–makers alike — about which of the many varieties of machines provide the best workout, DeBenedetti "... asked 10 experts — physiologists, researchers, doctors and personal trainers — to rate the five most popular cardio machines on five criteria" —

• Cardio benefit

• Calories burned

• Muscles used

• Wear and tear

• Monotony factor

They compared the stair climber, treadmill, rowing machine, elliptical and stationary bike.


The results, in order, winner first:

1) Elliptical

2) Treadmill and Rowing machine (tie)

3) Stair climber

4) Stationary bike

So that settles it, right?

Get on the elliptical and forget about the others... right?


Not so fast.

Let's go BehindTheGymspeak for a moment, shall we?


The rankings were established by the following formula:

1) Each of the 10 experts gave each of the five machines a rating of 1 to 10 in the five categories noted above

2) 10 = excellent for a given category; 1 = poor. Thus, a 10 in monotony means a machine is not boring at all, because to be not boring is a good thing = a high score

3) The highest possible score for a machine is 500 (10 x 10 x 5)

Now, take a look at the actual raw numerical scores in the table below. (Unless you're a robot or a hawk, you'll find it easier to click on the graphic to enlarge it.)


Wrote DeBenedetti in his article, "The winner, by a solid margin, is the elliptical trainer."

Say what?

This guy is a drug company representative in the making, with that kind of statistical "analysis."

Because when I consider the final scores — 369, 340, 334 and 313 — on their scale of 50 to 500 I see no practical difference at all.

This kind of number massage is precisely why most science articles in the lay press — and many in scientific journals — draw unjustified and often erroneous conclusions from the raw data presented.

You tell me that those are blood sugar values, I'll tell you they're essentially the same.


High, but functionally the same in terms of what I'd do to treat them.

Often attributed — erroneously, it turns out — to Mark Twain is the following statement: "There are three types of lies — lies, damned lies and statistics."

In confirming that "fact" I learned it was not at all a fact, or even remotely the case.

Here's a nice bit of detective work that seems to pin down the origin of the famous phrase.

Would that my crack research team were capable of this kind of performance.

But I digress.

Catherine Saint Louis wrote a useful accompanying article entitled "What Not to Do At the Gym," about how not to use the five machines featured in the main story.

You'll find me here


tomorrow morning and every morning after that.

Same as it ever was.

December 3, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Best things in gym for me were: bar with 300lbs for deadlifts, chin-up bar, and jumprope. Oh, and health insurance, lots of health insurance.

Posted by: Hugo | Dec 3, 2005 9:38:06 PM

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