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Treadmill or Elliptical? Which Is Better for You?

Treadmills can build bone density, but ellipticals reduce pressure on your joints

Woman walking on a treadmill.

Looking to round out your home with the right exercise machine to punch up your workout routine? Or maybe you joined a new gym and aren’t really sure which of those contraptions you should be hopping onto first.

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The great treadmill vs. elliptical debate is a long-standing question. They’re two of the most popular kinds of exercise machines around. When you want to up your cardio game, is there a reason to opt for one over the other?

Both treadmills and ellipticals offer many of the same exercise benefits. Your fitness goals and your physical condition can help guide you when choosing which is more appropriate for you.

Exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd, shares here some considerations to help you decide which machine could be the better option for you.

What to know about treadmills

A treadmill most closely approximates walking or running outdoors but takes the traffic concerns, potholes and weather conditions out of the equation. It’s pretty standard fare for home gyms and local workout facilities.

Treadmill machines use a motor that controls a belt that you run or walk on. You can adjust the speed of the belt to pick up the pace or slow your roll. You can also change the angle of the platform to simulate walking, jogging, navigating trails or all-out sprinting uphill for a more intense session. There are even self-propelling treadmills, and ones that are curved that claim to allow for a more natural and proper running gait.

“Treadmills can be a good choice for people who want to build bone density,” Lawton says. “The impact of your feet while running or walking helps stimulate bone growth, which is especially important if you have osteoporosis.”

Treadmills can also be a safe option for people looking for a controlled exercise. That can be particularly helpful if you’re recovering from an injury. You don’t want to be walking outside and realize that you won’t be able to make it back home.

People who choose to run on a treadmill should be conscientious about keeping good form to avoid injury.

Pros

  • Treadmills don’t require much, if any, instruction, so they’re easy for people of all skill levels to get the hang of.
  • They can be helpful for building back up after an injury.
  • They can be adjusted to fit your speed and preferred resistance.
  • You’ll find treadmills at just about any workout space.
  • Some models can often fold up to be out of the way when not in use.
  • Some models even have a decline option to simulate trail walking.

Cons

  • Treadmills may not be recommended if you have an injury not related to walking or running that may become worse with use.
  • Can cause serious injury if you fall.

What to know about ellipticals

A treadmill offers a moderately cushioned flat surface to run or walk on. But on an elliptical machine, your feet are positioned on pedals, about shoulder-width apart. You move your feet in a circular or oblong shape, more similar to riding a bike, but while standing.

Ellipticals also have handles that you hold in either hand, moving your arms toward and away from your body as you move your feet, so you work more muscle groups than on a treadmill.

Using an elliptical can reduce pressure on your joints compared to using a treadmill. The lack of impact is beneficial for some people.

“Joint protection is why many healthcare providers recommend ellipticals over treadmills when reintroducing exercise, especially after injury or surgery,” Lawton says.

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If you feel tingling in your feet while using the elliptical, which is a common complaint, you can try pedaling backward. If it persists, you may want to consult a medical provider.

Pros

  • Lower-impact cardiovascular exercise that provides more of a punch than walking.
  • They can be adjusted to fit your preferred resistance.
  • You’ll find ellipticals at just about any workout space.

Cons

  • Can be slightly awkward to use at first, and may take some practice to get the hang of it.
  • Not recommended for people who have poor balance or difficulty using stairs.
  • They can be bulky for in-home use. Before buying, you’ll want to make sure you have the appropriate ceiling height in the room you’re using it in.

Treadmill or elliptical: Which is better for you

When it comes down to it, getting your heart pumping with a good cardiovascular workout is good for you. The most important considerations are your workout goals and your body’s response to your routine, Lawton states.

Consider this breakdown to help you choose:

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Treadmill
Ease of Use
Very easy.
Impact on Joints
Low to moderate.
Other Considerations
Good for bone growth and bone density.
Elliptical
Ease of Use
Easy.
Impact on Joints
Low.
Other Considerations
Good for joint protection.

Try switching it up

If both an elliptical and a treadmill will work for your health status and your goals, Lawton says you don’t have to choose one over the other. Alternating between the two machines can add some appealing variety to your routine and help minimize the risk of overuse injury.

“No matter your cardio machine of choice, cross-training can help with the boredom that can come from consistently using one machine,” Lawton notes. “You can round out your routine with other cardio work, too, like swimming, biking, rowing, stair-climbing or SkiErg machines. In the end, performing in some form of cardiovascular exercise is important for heart health, so I encourage everyone to try different methods and see what works best for them.”

Don’t forget to keep up with stretches and weight training, too, for maximum effect.

How to get started

For your optimal heart health, Lawton suggests aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity. That’s roughly 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week. You should sustain the intensity for at least 10 minutes per workout to get the most benefit from your effort.

Start slowly with 10 minutes on either a treadmill or elliptical. Incremental wins help you build endurance, as well as your confidence. Gently push yourself by increasing the speed and resistance of your machine.

Lawton also recommends checking with your medical provider before starting an exercise routine. They’ll be able to advise you on the best equipment and plan for your health status and your goals.

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