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How Ellipticals Took Over the Fitness World

In 1997, we stopped just walking, running and biking for exercise, and instead, started working out on the newly created elliptical, which combined all three — and then some

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Engineering expert Larry Miller couldn’t have known what sort of seismic shift he was about to unleash on the exercise world when he began tinkering with plywood, junk parts and inline skating wheels in his Rochester, Michigan home in the mid-1990s. “I wanted something you could really do for half an hour or an hour at a time and not put a lot of jolts and strain on the body,” the former human factors engineer for General Motors explained to the Miami Herald in September 1997. “I jogged for a while, but I didn’t really enjoy it because it was pretty rough on the body. I kind of gave that up, which was part of the motivation for this I guess.”

“This” was in reference to the prototype of what would eventually become the modern elliptical machine. Precor was so impressed with Miller’s creation that they purchased the rights to the prototype and designs in 1995 and agreed to pay him royalties from future sales of the resulting products — the first of which was the Precor EFX 544.

The Precor EFX 544

The initial reports of this new “elliptical climber” — as it was referred to in a January 1996 edition of the Chicago Tribune — lumped it in with treadmills, bikes, steppers, rowers and ski machines. But early advertising for the elliptical focused on its hybrid nature, depicting it as a clear rival to virtually every other form of cardio. To that end, a pre-holiday guide to burning calories in The Journal News in November 1996 described the elliptical as capable of simulating cross-country skiing, stair climbing, running and cycling in one fell swoop.

The Elliptical Hits the Gym

Soon thereafter, health club owners and employees offered testimonials expressing how popular elliptical machines were becoming with members. “It’s really an incredible piece of equipment,” Wisconsin gym owner Laurie Tackett told The Wisconsin State Journal after purchasing two ellipticals for her members to use. “I’ve been really impressed with it. The reason we’re finding it to be beneficial is because it incorporates three types of machinery into one piece. It’s a smoother angle, which means a lot of people with bad backs and bad knees can use it because it’s non-impact.”

Several gym goers quickly sought ellipticals for private use at home, resulting in an immediate back order in units. The Argus Leader reported in April 1997 that the hot new device was so popular that people were willing to spend $3,900 for the commercial model despite the fact that those designed for home use, which cost $1,200 less, would be available in only a few short months.

An Elliptical Arms Race

To get in on the elliptical craze, NordicTrack (the Ellipse) and Reebok (Body Trec) released a couple “total-body” machines of their own. Endorsed by NFL wide receiver and track-and-field champion Willie Gault, the Ellipse combined the smooth, rolling, foot-pedaling movement of an elliptical with the cross-country skiing handlebars of several of the gliders that were being sold at the time. The Body Trec did the same, except its pedals operated on a front-drive system capable of elevating similar to the Precor, and didn’t leave room for long strides. 

As the rear-drive design became accepted as an elliptical trainer, it strengthened the relationship between cross-country skiing and elliptical striding, and provided the full cross-country-skiing emulation model that would come to define the elliptical. Basically, the Ellipse and the Body Trec made it so that any upright pedaling design — handled or unhandled, flat or inclined, front-driven or rear-driven — could now be referred to as an elliptical machine.

Willie Gault on the NordicTrack Ellipse

But there was a problem: As the first elliptical models intended for home use finally reached spare rooms, garages and basements, not everyone believed their new machines sufficiently replicated what they’d experienced at the gym. Ellipticals that were both effective and inexpensive were difficult to come by — especially those priced $500 and lower. Moreover, the broadening definition for an “elliptical” had resulted in a rush of elliptical products flooding the market, and many of them lacked the stability and functionality of the industrial-grade options.

“The trainers enable you to get a good cardiovascular workout, but because these machines are fairly complex devices, it appears to be difficult to build an inexpensive quality version,” exercise physiologist Richard Cotton explained to the Gannett News Service in 1998. Meanwhile, a Gold’s Gym member told the Decatur Herald and Review in 1999, “I went to one club recently that had eight cross-country ski machines that were going unused because people thought they were too hard to use. People want machines they can operate right the first time.”

Nonetheless, ellipticals were still touted as the next big thing in home fitness equipment sales as the number of in-club users had surged from 2.4 million in 1997 to 6.2 million in 2000, and continued to climb steadily, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

The Elliptical Global Takeover

By 2003, every major player in fitness was in the elliptical business. Even Chris Clawson, the future CEO of Life Fitness, conceded in an interview with The Southtown Star that the company’s flagship product of his own design, the LifeCycle bike, had slipped from its bestselling position to third overall behind the Life Fitness treadmills and ellipticals. “Our first elliptical cross-trainer was in 1997,” said Clawson. “It was created in response to an unmet need: People wanted to exercise their total body, upper and lower, together.”

By the end of the aughts, Reuters reported that treadmills accounted for over half of all fitness sales in 2009, while ellipticals were running at a distant second with 8.4 percent. However, this represented a 27 percent growth in sales compared with the prior year, and analysts predicted the “silver tsunami” of Boomers would soon be graduating to ellipticals as a low-impact form of cardio. “You’ve got to keep up with a treadmill, or you’ll come off the back of it,” exercise science professor Henry Williford of the American College of Sports Medicine told the news agency. “Whatever speed you set, you’ve got to keep up pace. With an elliptical you can rest or slow down.”

2004 advertisement showcasing several elliptical models

Along those lines, a 1998 report by the Consumer Protection Agency cited more than 70 cases of people sustaining injuries while falling off treadmills. By comparison, ellipticals enabled their users to safely watch TV as they pumped away without ever being concerned about tumbling onto the floor.

Today, ellipticals continue to make their long ascent toward the top of the fitness sales charts, now holding on to roughly 30 percent of the cardio-equipment market. (Treadmills are still number one, with 50 percent.) While the popular adage says that if you can’t beat them, join them, the elliptical demonstrated that it could effectively beat all of “them” — stationary bikes, stair climbers and cross-country skiers — by joining all of their best functions together and eliminating their unpopular elements. 

The elliptical may never beat the treadmill in overall popularity, seeing as walking and running will always be the essential ways to move through the world. However, with its marketing emphasis on nothing more than pure caloric burn, the elliptical proved there is a major market for products that help people who want to get fit solely for the sake of fitness, and not because they necessarily want to be bigger, stronger or faster in any measurable way.