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Treadmill vs. Elliptical: Which Is Better?

By Elaine K. Howley, Contributor Dec. 9, 2020, at 2:30 p.m. | Reprint from USNews

This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.

THE YEAR 2020 WILL probably go down in history as one of the best for the home gym equipment industry. As many people attempt to maintain fitness and manage their weight while navigating gym closures due to the pandemic, many have decided to build out a home gym.

But choosing what to put in that gym isn’t always easy, and treadmills and elliptical machines are often one of the first choices. So which one is better and how do they compare to each other?

Assess Your Fitness Goals First, you need to consider what your goals are. Either machine can help with a range of health and fitness targets including:

  • Improving overall cardiovascular fitness.

  • Building strength and endurance.

  • Training for an event.

  • Losing or managing your weight.

  • Rehabbing an injury.

  • Helping you improve overall wellness and manage chronic health conditions.

Calorie Burn

Both of these exercise machines emphasize the large muscle groups in the lower body, meaning that they can both help you burn through excess calories if you’re trying to lose weight. If burning calories is your main goal, you might get quicker results with a treadmill, says Dr. Timothy L. Miller, associate professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

“In general, a treadmill is going to burn almost twice as many calories in the same amount of time as what an elliptical would do with moderate effort.” He adds that it’s all dependent on the intensity level, incline and resistance settings you’re using on either machine. But generally speaking, treadmills torch calories faster than ellipticals.

That’s in part because the elliptical is helping move your feet. A treadmill “requires a lot more force to propel your body forward,” he says. “There’s an extra effort to pushing your entire body weight forward” on a treadmill versus keeping your feet in place as you do on an elliptical machine and moving your legs in a circular motion.

Matt Camargo, director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California, adds that treadmills are better when you’re looking for a high-intensity sprint workout, which can be a key to burning more fat than when doing steady-state cardiovascular exercise. You certainly can do high-intensity workouts with an elliptical, but treadmills seem to be more amenable to such workouts while ellipticals are often better for steady-state cardio work.

After a sprint, the human body’s metabolism increases to recover the lack of oxygen and to recover its resting rate, Camargo explains. That's because sprints are anaerobic – performed without the aid of oxygen. This process can result in a higher calorie burn for a period of time after completing intense exercise.

A treadmill provides a better means of sprinting than an elliptical machine does through the use of programmable sprint intervals and incline adjustment, and thus, “the treadmill will typically have the best opportunity to burn more calories,” Camargo says.

Low Impact

However, an elliptical machine can still offer an intense, efficient workout that’s also gentle on the joints. “It’s very low-impact and can be zero-impact depending on the type of elliptical you have,” Miller says. For this reason, if you’re “someone who just wants general fitness without a higher risk of injury, or you’ve had an injury that you’re recovering from or have had degenerative issues with your joints like arthritis, then the elliptical is definitely a better option.”

Also, if you’re just starting out with a fitness routine, an elliptical might be a better place to start. You can certainly walk on a treadmill; you don’t have to be running for it to be a good fitness builder. But an elliptical can provide a safer on-ramp to regular workouts.

As such, “if you want to stay fit with a minimal chance of getting injured or having ongoing joint pain, then definitely the elliptical is a better option,” Miller says. But of course, if your goal is to run a marathon, you’re going to need to run. Using an elliptical for such a goal “can work in a pinch, but it can’t be your primary source of training.”

Upper Body Workout

In addition, an elliptical offers an upper body workout.

“The elliptical actually works your arms a lot harder,” Miller says, because if you’re gripping the poles, the arms work in rhythm with the lower body. In contrast, a treadmill offers minimal upper body work, but “you can use just about every muscle group in the entire body” when you’re on an elliptical, he says.

Cost Considerations

For most people, cost is a major factor in determining which piece of equipment to choose, and here, ellipticals may have an edge.

“For a good quality elliptical, you might be able to find one priced around $250 or more, while treadmills are usually around $600 or more,” Camargo says. But, of course, the sky’s the limit in terms of bells and whistles available, and you could end up spending a lot more money on either machine, depending on the brand, the quality and the added frills.

However, Camargo notes that if you have to choose one or the other, consider what that cost differential might mean. “The money you save (on purchase price) could be used for strength training equipment or for hiring a dietitian to provide an optimal road map of excellent eating habits to best reach your training goals,” for example.

All that said, Camargo usually recommends a treadmill over an elliptical because of its higher calorie burn rate and its versatility. “For more advanced individuals, the treadmill could be used far more than the elliptical. It can also be used by beginners or non-competitive individuals walking far or at an incline level and pace that matches your physical capabilities.”

But, he also recommends mixing it up so that you don’t plateau along the way to your health and fitness goals. He also notes that in order to see continued growth, you need to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable – you need to continually stretch yourself to keep the gains coming. To that end, he recommends not “falling in love” with any one machine or type of exercise. Instead, he recommends incorporating "a variety of methods and tools that hit all ends of the training spectrum."

No matter which piece of equipment you choose, it’s critical that you ramp slowly to avoid injury and find a workout routine that you can stick with long term so that the machine you buy doesn’t just become an expensive clothes rack.


Elaine K. Howley, Contributor Elaine Howley began writing for U.S. News in 2017, covering breast cancer and COPD. Since ... READ MORE

Sources Matt Camargo, MS, CSCSCamargo is director of ProSport Performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. Timothy L. Miller, MDMiller is associate professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

Tags: exercise and fitness

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