Comparing Workouts: Treadmill or Elliptical

December 10, 2015

Cardio exercise machines come in all shapes and sizes including bikes, rowing machines, stair climbers and upper-body bikes. Of all the cardio machines available, treadmills and ellipticals are arguably the most popular.

Treadmills and ellipticals, like all cardio machines, are good for your heart, lungs and muscles and burn calories and fat but is one actually better than the other? Consider the following when deciding on whether a treadmill or elliptical is best for you…

Ease of use

Treadmills and ellipticals are both pretty easy to use which is part of the reason they are both so popular. That being said, walking or running on a moving belt can be tricky for some people – especially treadmill newbies. Getting comfortable with using a treadmill shouldn’t take long but there is definitely a period of learning that ellipticals just don’t have.

In contrast, using an elliptical is simply a matter of getting on and getting going – there are no skills to learn and while people do occasionally fall off treadmills, this seldom happens with ellipticals.

Natural movement

Walking and running are very natural movements that most of us have been doing for many, MANY years. Subsequently, exercising on a treadmill could be described as a functional movement as it replicates how your body works in the “real” world.

In contrast, the action of an elliptical is less natural and while you will develop fitness using an elliptical, it might not cross over so well to the world outside the gym.

If you are exercising to improve your fitness for sports, a treadmill is your best choice, but if you have no such concerns, either machine will get the job done.

Weight bearing

Both treadmills and ellipticals are weight-bearing exercises – unlike exercise bikes or rowers. Weight bearing exercise is important for keeping your bones strong, preventing age-related bone loss and avoiding osteoporosis. The legs, hips and back are all under load when you use an elliptical or a treadmill so both will help keep your skeleton in shape.


Walking on a treadmill and using an elliptical are both low-impact activities meaning that at no time are both of your feet off the ground at the same time. Low impact activities are easy on your joints and ideal for older exercisers and those that are overweight.

Running on a treadmill is a high impact activity as both feet are off the belt at the same time as you transition from one step to the next. This impact can be quite severe and may be in excess of eight-times your bodyweight per step.

For lighter users and those with no impact-related joint issues, the impact of running should present no problem but heavier exercisers or those with a history of joint problems should stick to low impact exercises such as cycling, rowing and, of course, the elliptical.

Calorie burning

Treadmills and ellipticals burn similar amounts of calories. The factors that actually affect calorie burning are your weight and how hard you are exercising. Assuming that your heart rate is the same on both forms of exercise, there is very little between the number of calories that you will burn on a treadmill compared to an elliptical.


If you are going to get a cardio machine for home use, noise could be a major consideration – especially if you have neighbors or share your house with other people. Ellipticals tend to be quieter in use than treadmills as there is virtually no impact. In contrast, running on a treadmill is often a very noisy affair. If noise is an issue, an elliptical will provide a much quieter workout than a treadmill.


It’s nice to be able to mix up your workouts to keep things fresh and prevent boredom. Ellipticals often have an upper body action and can the pedals can be pushed forward or backward whereas a treadmill allows for walking and running and many also have adjustable inclines.

Although there is not much in it, treadmills are marginally more versatile than ellipticals. The adjustable incline and variable speeds mean that you can do a greater variety of workouts than on an elliptical.


If you use an elliptical or treadmill at a gym this section is not especially relevant but if you are considering buying a cardio machine for your home, cost is an important consideration.

Treadmills and ellipticals are easily comparable in price but where a moderately priced elliptical is usually great to use, a similarly priced treadmill may not be so good. Treadmills are inherently more complex and need to have large motors to produce a smooth and enjoyable workout experience. This is not the case with ellipticals as they do not require such big (and expensive) motors. A cheap elliptical will often provide a good workout whereas a cheap treadmill might not.

Make sure you try before you buy to ensure the machine you are thinking about purchasing does what you want it to do.

Treadmills and ellipticals both provide a good cardiovascular workout that will help you lose weight and get fit. They are similarly effective so deciding between them is a matter of personal choice. Of course, you could avoid making any such decision by simply using both in your workouts. Providing that you exercise regularly and for the correct duration and intensity, your fitness will improve whichever one you use.

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