What’s best, an elliptical trainer or a treadmill?
Both burn the same number of calories, so the best workout for YOU depends on your personal fitness and weight loss goals.
Both machines will give you a great workout, but there are some important differences.
In a nutshell, treadmills are a better simulation of real walking or running, while ellipticals feel easier. Ellipticals are also a little easier on your knees and joints.
Let’s take a look at some of the details.
Overview: Choosing Between an Elliptical and a Treadmill
Elliptical vs. Treadmill? They are the two most popular exercise machines and either one will give you a great cardio workout.
But depending on your specific needs and goals, one might be a better choice than the other.
When You Should Choose a Treadmill
- You are most interested in hiking or walking: you can save some money by buying a less expensive model.
- You are a serious runner or trying to become one: you’ll be able to log the miles you need, even when you can’t run outside.
- You are using it at home and have limited space: you could benefit from a folding treadmill.
When You Should Choose an Elliptical Trainer
- You need (or prefer) a low-impact workout that’s easier on your joints: an elliptical is lower impact.
- You want to include both an upper and lower body workout: an elliptical works more muscles.
- You think you’ll be more motivated because studies show an elliptical “feels easier” than a treadmill, even when you work out just as hard.
What’s the Same: Similarities Between a Treadmill and an Elliptical
Most modern treadmills and ellipticals share a set of similar features.
Most models include an electronic console to set the length and intensity of your workout.
Many consoles will track the distance you “travel” and calculate the calories you burn. Many models will also monitor your heart rate. Most also include pre-programmed workouts that vary the duration and intensity of exercise to target your specific fitness goals, such as weight loss, fat burning, or cardiovascular conditioning.
Creature Comforts (Like Cup Holders)
Most models also include amenities such as cup holders and a stand or shelf to hold your magazine or book. With both ellipticals and treadmills, the features you get vary by manufacturer and price — more expensive models from better manufactures will have more bells and whistles than the lower priced models.
An Elliptical or Treadmill Is Great for Your Home Gym
Both elliptical trainers and treadmills make a great addition to your home gym. By enabling you to work out at home, they can really boost help you reach your fitness goals.
While some people prefer the motivation of the gym, it’s certainly more convenient to be able to get a solid cardio workout at home. You don’t have to brave bad weather (too hot or too cold or too wet) to exercise outside or travel to the gym. And you never have to wait for someone else to finish their workout and free up a machine for you to use!
Elliptical Trainer Workouts “Feel” Easier
The difference in the workout — full body for an elliptical vs. only lower body for a treadmill — may be a key reason for another difference: the Rate of Perceived Exertion.
For most people who try both an elliptical trainer and a treadmill, they perceive that the elliptical provides a more effortless workout. They feel the workout is easier or less intense, even though they are actually burning the same number of calories.
Perhaps sharing the workload with your upper and lower body makes it feel easier. But whatever the reason, the “lower rate of perceived exertion” makes it feel easier and can motivate you to follow through on your workout.
We’ve all heard about “no pain, no gain,” but “less pain, same gain” can be a good motivator.
Treadmills Are More Like Real-World Walking, Hiking, or Running
Although the elliptical machine simulates running or walking, it’s not actually either one. The treadmill is a much closer approximation of real walking, hiking and running.
So if your goal is to get in shape for a 5k, you’ll certainly want the treadmill over the elliptical.
Similarly, if you prefer walking or hiking and you are using the treadmill to replace that exercise during bad weather or challenging schedules, then you’ll want to stick with a treadmill.
Ellipticals Provide Lower-Impact Workouts
Another difference is that ellipticals give you a much lower-impact workout than treadmills.
Treadmills do typically include some cushioning that limits the impact as compared to running outside on concrete or asphalt. But running on a treadmill is still a relatively high-impact activity, and it can be hard on your knees, shins, ankles, back, and joints.
Ellipticals on the other hand were invented specifically to create a low-impact approximation of running. This difference has been born out in many studies. For example, researchers from that University of Mississippi found that ellipticals provide the same cardio workout as treadmills. But they found that ellipticals do it with a much lower impact and strain on joints.
So an elliptical is a good choice if you are recovering from a running injury of if you have other conditions that could be negatively affected by a high-impact workout.
You should note, however, that while the high-impact of the treadmill might be tough on your joints, such activities do help to promote better bone health and have been shown to help protect against osteoporosis. The elliptical trainer is a weight-bearing exercise, so it will also promote healthy bones much more than other cardio exercise such as swimming or biking. But the constant pounding of the treadmill will do it a bit better.
Space and Noise: Elliptical vs Treadmill
If you are considering one of these machines for you home, you need to make sure you have space for it! They are big machines and can easily take up as much space as dining room table or a good sized sofa.
If space is a problem, many treadmills fold when not in use. Of course, you’ll still need the full amount of space to work out. But when you are done, you can fold up the ramp and save some space. Ellipticals typically do not come in folding models.
If noise is an issue, ellipticals are usually a little quieter than treadmills because they don’t have an electric motor. But the noise of either machine depends a lot on the manufacturer and the model. So you should try one out before you buy it and make sure the noise level is acceptable.
Treadmill vs. Elliptical: Which Cost Less
There is a wide range of pricing for both treadmills and ellipticals. You can get cheap treadmills and cheap elliptical trainers, or you can spend a small fortune. But like you’ve heard before, you usually get what you pay for.
Consumer Reports took a look at both elliptical machines and treadmills and found that you need to spend at least $2,000 to get a quality machine that will hold up to serious workouts. Cheaper machines feel flimsy and shaky and are much more prone to defects and breakdown. While these issues might be covered by warranties, you will likely waste a lot of time and energy tracking down the manufacturer and coordinating the repairs. And once the warranty expires, you are out of luck.
Once you hit the $2,000 range, any quality treadmill or elliptical from a good manufacturer will serve you equally well. So price should not be a consideration when deciding between these two types of machines.
The one exception is for walkers. If you plan to walk on your treadmill instead of running, then it’s OK to buy one of the cheaper treadmills. You won’t give it as much of a beating and the flimsy, shaky feel of lesser models will be minimized if you are only walking. Just make sure that you are happy to stick with walking. If you plan to start walking but then move up to running, you should get started with a better model that will work well for both activities.
Choose the One You’ll Use!
In the end, perhaps the most important factor in deciding on an elliptical vs a treadmill is thinking about which one will motivate you the most.
The more you use it and the harder you work out, the better the results. If you work out equally hard on either machine, you’ll get the same fitness benefits.
If you are a runner (or want to become one), you’ll probably prefer the treadmill. But otherwise, the elliptical may be a better choice because it feels easier and works both your lower and upper body.
Remember, if you don’t go to the gym, or if your home gym elliptical or treadmill sits in the corner gathering dust, then it doesn’t matter which one you choose. So choose the one you’ll use!
Do you prefer a treadmill or an elliptical trainer? Have you had a great (or bad) experience with one or the other? Leave a comment below and share your insights.
- “Elliptical Guide.”
- Consumer Reports.
- “Blast Fat with Exercise Machines.”
- Men’s Health.
- “Relative exercise intensity, heart rate, oxygen consumption, and caloric expenditure when exercising on various non-impact cardio trainers.”
- La Crosse, WI: University of Wisconsin.
- La Crosse Exercise and Health Program. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.
- “Are elliptical machines better than treadmills for basic aerobic workouts?.”
- Mayo Clinic.
- Web. 4 June 2011.
- “The cardiopulmonary responses of elliptical crosstraining versus treadmill walking in CAD patients.”
- Journal of Exercise Physiology.
- 5.4 (Nov 2002).
- United States: American Society of Exercise Physiologists.
- Department of Exercise Science and Leisure Management, The University of Mississippi.