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We spoke to a performance coach about the key differences between ellipticals and treadmills — here's what you should use to reach your fitness goals

INSIDER logo INSIDER 8/12/2022 insider@insider.com (Allison Torres Burtka,Joey Thurman)

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  • Treadmills and ellipticals each offer an effective method for getting cardiovascular exercise. 
  • Ellipticals deliver a low-impact workout, so they may be better for people with joint problems.
  • Treadmills are best for those wanting more intense cardio, as well as deeper customization and progress tracking. 

Treadmills and ellipticals are both great for ramping up your heart rate and getting an effective cardio workout. But the one that's better for you depends on your goals. 

Are you looking to lose weight or do you ust want a cheap option for your home gym? Maybe you're looking to increase your weekly cardio but need something low impact. 

Below are eight key points to consider when choosing to work out with a treadmill or an elliptical.

1. Ellipticals exercise more muscles

Ellipticals offer a wider variety of movements than walking or running on a treadmill, which in turn can help you work more muscles.

An elliptical machine, or elliptical trainer, has two pedals — one for each foot — that move forward in a circular motion, somewhat like riding a bicycle, except you stand upright. 

Some ellipticals have stationary handles, while other handles move forward and backward as you move your legs — this helps work your upper and lower body. Most ellipticals also let you pedal backward, which helps work different muscles.

These machines also allow you to adjust the resistance and speed, and some even have movable pedals to change elevation, letting you target specific leg muscles, said Keith Hodges, a performance and functional movement coach and founder of Mind in Muscle Coaching

2. Treadmills are perfect for runners

Treadmills are ideal for avid runners since using them is similar to running elsewhere, Hodges said. 

Additionally, a 2020 study of runners found that ellipticals worked their leg muscles less than a treadmill.

Note: A treadmill is a platform covered by a flat belt that rotates around it, allowing you to walk or run in place while the belt moves beneath you. You can adjust the belt's speed to walk, jog, or sprint and some treadmills have adjustable incline or decline to simulate hills. 

Treadmills are also less stressful on the joints than running on concrete or pavement, and therefore, may reduce the risk of injuries related to the high-impact force from running that affects 56% of runners. 

"The surface of a treadmill also has some spring to it, so it helps absorb impact and is less stressful on the knees and other joints than running outside," Hodges told Insider.

3. Treadmills burn more calories

A 160-pound person who exercises for an hour on an elliptical with moderate effort burns an estimated 365 calories. 

In comparison, that same person on a treadmill for an hour burns about:

  • 606 calories at 5 mph
  • 314 calories at 3.5 mph

Treadmills are better for aerobic workouts, too, said Hodges. 

A small 2021 study found that people using a treadmill burned more fat than those using an elliptical. The study suggested that exercising on a treadmill is a good way to improve cardio-metabolic health. 

Because running on a treadmill generally gives you a more intense workout, it may also be a better option for people looking to burn fat and lose weight.

4. Ellipticals are low impact

The impact of your feet striking the surface of a treadmill can be hard on your joints, but an elliptical causes much less pressure

Ellipticals provide low-impact exercise that's better for folks with joint pain or arthritis, or issues with their back, hips, ankles, or knees.

Important: Some impact can be good: As your feet hit a treadmill, the impact stimulates bone growth and builds bone density. Walking causes a lower impact than running, too, so if you don't have severe joint problems, a treadmill might be a better option.

5. Treadmills are more customizable

Treadmills generally offer more options to customize workouts, track progress, and participate in recorded and interactive workouts.  

Many also have screens displaying different backgrounds or landscapes, "so it can take your mind off [working out]," Hodges said. 

Others feature interactive workouts and guided runs led by personal trainers, which may be appealing if you get bored easily while working out by yourself.   

6. Foldable treadmills are better for small spaces

If you're bringing a treadmill or elliptical into a home gym, you'll want to consider how it fits in your space. 

Each varies in size, though treadmills are often a little wider. However, some treadmills fold up when not in use, making them a better choice if you have limited space.

7. Ellipticals are better if you're injured 

For anyone recovering from an injury or who has joint problems, ellipticals may be better.  

"I like to use [the elliptical] for people easing back into fitness or those recovering from an injury," said Hodges. "It's far less taxing on your joints, so it's a smoother ride."

8. Ellipticals are slightly cheaper

The typical price for each machine differs slightly but ellipticals are generally less expensive. 

They tend to range from $500 to over $2,000, while treadmills cost anywhere from $500 to over $3,000.

For example, NordicTrack is a popular brand that makes both, and its prices range from $900 to $2,500 for ellipticals, while treadmills vary between $1,000 and $4,000.  

Insider's takeaway

Using both a treadmill and an elliptical can be beneficial to most people's workout routine. But if you're looking to invest in just one for your home gym, it's important to consider your preferred cardio, what your fitness goals are, and whether you have any injuries or physical limitations. 

Running on a treadmill is a more challenging workout but an elliptical offers a low-impact routine that's easier on your joints while delivering a full-body workout. The one that's better for you depends on your unique needs.

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