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Elliptical machine vs. treadmill: Which cardio equipment is better for you? Pros, cons and use cases.

Choose the right cardio equipment for your home gym — here's how the elliptical machine stacks up against the treadmill.

Elliptical machine vs. treadmill: Which cardio equipment is better for you? Pros, cons and use cases.

Walk into any gym across the world and you'll be met by a sea of elliptical machines and treadmills. If you happen to become a regular at any of those said gyms, you're bound to start noticing the same people on the same machines, day in and day out, knocking out their 30 or so minutes of cardio, either on a treadmill or an elliptical but rarely switching between the two.

So how did these people decide which piece of cardio equipment is better? It really is a personal choice. If you're prepping to make a purchase, the decision between buying elliptical machines versus treadmills is a big one. Not only is home cardio equipment expensive and bulky, but it can function as a cornerstone of your personal health. Buying a piece of equipment that ends up sitting unused in a corner is an expensive mistake to make. "I have worked with many patients who now call their treadmill their 'most expensive clothes hanger,' as they no longer use it to exercise and just use it to lay out clothes to dry," quips physical therapist Jonathan Kirsch, PT, DPT, CMPT at ATI Physical Therapy in Oregon. So before laying out hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash, take your time, think about your needs and do your research. If you're trying to decide whether to buy (or simply use) an elliptical machine or a treadmill, here's what you should know.

While elliptical machines and treadmills are both considered "running machines," there are actually quite a few differences. Treadmills allow you to walk, jog or run in a fixed (and typically weather-controlled) space in a way that allows you to control your biomechanics. In other words, you continue to move naturally — your stride length, foot strike, the internal or external rotation or movement of your joints, torso angle and lateral step or body movement is under your control. While it's not exactly the same as walking or jogging outside, it's a very close substitute.

An elliptical machine, on the other hand, limits a significant amount of the natural movement of your body. The foot pedals track along a fixed or almost-fixed course, and your feet remain steady on the pedals as the machine guides you along the path that's been created for you. The result is a lower impact, more controlled workout (which has its advantages), but a movement pattern that's quite a bit different from walking or jogging outside. "The drawback is it doesn't translate well to other aerobic activities patients may wish to engage in for fitness or competition, such as running or bicycling," emphasizes Dr. William B. Workman, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert at DISC Sports & Spine Center in California.

In addition to the biomechanical differences (which ultimately affect the exercise outcomes), there are also the differences between machine size and space requirements. While there are exceptions to the rule, elliptical machines tend to be a little more compact (although they sometimes require more vertical space), which can make them a better option for a home workout environment.

Ultimately, though, the machine you choose to use should come down to your personal needs and health or fitness goals, so consider the following benefits and drawbacks carefully.

The entire reason the elliptical machine was invented in the 1990s was to provide a lower-impact full-body workout that mimicked running. Low-impact workouts (those that aren't jarring or pounding, like cycling, rowing or swimming) are easier on the joints, making them a good choice for individuals who have pain or injuries, particularly at their ankles, knees or hips. "The moment where our foot contacts the ground in walking or running, we see an increase in force that goes through our tissues and joints. Since the platform on the elliptical moves with the foot, this is eliminated when using this equipment. This can be ideal for people who have joint issues, like osteoarthritis, or if they are at a higher weight," explains Kirsch. "Research shows that 1 pound of body weight can equate to 4 pounds of pressure in the knees during walking. This can be greatly reduced by utilizing an elliptical."

The low-impact nature of an elliptical machine also makes it a good cross-training option for individuals who do a lot of running. Overuse injuries are a common problem for those who spend a lot of time training for races or events, so adding a few elliptical training workouts to the weekly schedule can help reduce the incidence of injuries.

While your legs, glutes and core are getting the bulk of the exercise when using a treadmill, many elliptical models stand out for a clear reason: the moveable arms. Pushing and pulling the handlebars engages your arms, shoulders and back, turning the elliptical machine into a full-body workout. This is further emphasized when you change the resistance level of the machine, requiring more muscle engagement to actively move the handlebars.

In addition to targeting more muscle groups, you may also enjoy a relative cardiovascular benefit. "The increased use of the arms is a great part about most ellipticals. The body has a more significant cardiovascular response with training of the arms relative to the legs. In other words, your heart rate and other cardiovascular measures increase more when performing upper body exercises," says Kirsch.

Specific features may vary between elliptical brands and models, but almost all versions allow you to adjust the resistance of the movement. By ramping up the resistance level you can work your muscles harder, ultimately building more strength with time and use.

In addition to variable resistance, some elliptical machines allow you to change your stride length or direction, giving you the chance to pedal backward. This backward pedaling motion actually works different muscles and can give you a more well-rounded exercise routine. There's even some evidence that a backward pedaling motion may reduce knee joint impact at lower incline levels, making it beneficial for those who have knee pain, injuries or osteoarthritis.

While low-impact exercise is an excellent choice for those with joint pain or injuries, there's one element it lacks: the ability to help support and develop strong bones. While walking, jogging, running and jumping rope all cause the "pounding" that helps promote bone-building cellular activity, the fluid nature of elliptical movements removes this impact. For individuals at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis, it's important to include higher-impact exercise to help prevent bone loss over time. Sticking solely to elliptical exercise may not be the best choice, long-term.

Another factor to consider when using an elliptical machine is the loss of control you experience by allowing the machine to control your movement pattern. If you struggle with balance or coordination, or you've experienced falls in the past, the moving pedals may prove to be a challenge to step up onto and to follow. If you choose to use an elliptical machine, you may want to hold on to fixed handles (rather than moveable ones) to help you maintain your balance as you grow accustomed to the exercise.

Elliptical training also won't help you develop balance and coordination in the same way a treadmill or outdoor walking or jogging would. "The supported nature fails to engage stabilizer muscles through the core and hips," says Dr. Farhan Malik, a board-certified family medicine and sports medicine doctor practicing in Atlanta and a consulting physician for the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission.

The elliptical machine is a great option for cross-training if you're a runner, but it shouldn't be used as a primary tool for training for a race. This is because the elliptical movement pattern isn't exactly the same as a running motion, so the muscles being worked are slightly different.

When training for a race, it's important to make sure you're training in the most accurate and efficient manner possible — this means you should prioritize running as your main activity. This can include treadmill running but should also include outdoor running in the same type of environment and conditions you expect on race day.

To that end, elliptical training doesn't cross over to daily life either. "It's a great tool to build cardiovascular endurance, as well as some muscle endurance, but it doesn't have a direct functional crossover into your daily activities," explains physical therapist Palak Shah, the co-founder and head of clinical services at Luna. "The motions you're practicing on an elliptical aren't exact to any 'daily life' movements."

Performing weight-bearing exercise is one of the best ways to preserve or build bone density. Walking, jogging and running, whether on a treadmill or outside, are all proven methods for engaging in exercise that preserves or enhances bone health. "A treadmill allows you to walk and run, which includes the entirety of your body weight striking the [treadmill belt]. As your body strikes the treadmill, the treadmill 'strikes back,' and there are forces that travel through all of your bones, joints, tendons and muscles. When done properly, you can use these forces over time to help your body increase bone density and improve the strength and endurance of your muscles," Shah says.

Anyone training for a walking or running event knows that sometimes Mother Nature doesn't comply with training plans. If high temperatures or heavy precipitation make an outdoor run untenable, having a treadmill at-the-ready allows you to stay on track.

Likewise, training on a treadmill makes it easy to manage your pace, distance and progress toward your race-day goals. You can manage your speed to make sure you're not slacking off when fatigue sets in.

With a range of speed and incline settings (and in some cases, decline settings), treadmill workouts are almost infinitely adjustable. You can work on sprints, hills or follow preset intervals. You can even set the pace to allow for backward walking, side slides or walking lunges. Treadmills work just as efficiently for beginners starting a new walking routine as they do for seasoned athletes setting their next race personal record. Treadmills can be an excellent choice for a household that needs a single cardio machine to meet the needs of multiple users.

If one of your primary goals is to build leg strength and endurance, treadmills are hard to beat. This is especially true if you plan to use the incline settings or add sprint intervals to your workouts, as the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves are all highly engaged when walking hills or running at higher speeds.

Walking or jogging on a treadmill is considered weight bearing exercise, which means your muscles, bones and joints are responsible for carrying the weight of your body as you move. This is accentuated when you perform higher-impact exercise like jogging or running. While weight-bearing exercise is fantastic for your bones, it can be hard on the joints, especially if you have a history of lower body injuries. "Treadmills can exacerbate impact-related injuries, especially in the knees and hips, due to the constant pounding motion of running," says Malik. "The lack of variation in movement can also lead to overuse injuries over time."

While treadmill walking and jogging are readily accessible and generally safe for most individuals, if you do take a fall, you may be more likely to suffer an injury. This is especially true if you fall off the treadmill when moving at a fast pace or if you fall onto the moving belt, which can cause a serious burn. In fact, according to a 2018 study, head injuries related to treadmills increased more than 1,000% over the course of the 18-year study period, with women and those over 50 more likely to experience an injury. It's important to always use emergency clips when exercising on a treadmill to ensure that the treadmill can be automatically shut off.

It's worth noting, too, that treadmills are one of the leading causes of significant hand burns in children. If you have children or grandchildren in your house, you may want to consider whether a treadmill is the right choice for you. If you do go with a treadmill, it's important to take precautions to prevent young children from accessing it, especially when it's in use.

While treadmills are fantastic for building muscular strength and endurance in the lower body, they won't do much for building strength and endurance in the upper body. If you use a treadmill regularly, it's important to balance your workout with an upper body strength-building routine.

Treadmills are often larger and bulkier than elliptical machines. If you're short on space and you don't have a preference between ellipticals or treadmills, you may be better off selecting an elliptical to help save on space. That said, many treadmills are designed to be folded up after use, so do your research on space-saving options.

"If you don't have a plan or a coach to guide you, going nowhere fast can be boring for many people," says Melissa Kendter, a certified personal trainer and running coach. "Also, running is hard, power walking is hard — it takes a lot of work to push yourself forward on the treadmill which can be discouraging to some people." If you know you find at-home cardio workouts tough to stick with, it may be worth shelling out the extra cash for a machine that allows for coach-led workout routines to help keep you engaged and on track.

Choosing between an elliptical machine and a treadmill is highly personal. It's important to consider your past or current injuries, your health status, whether you're training for a race or an event, what other forms of exercise you're doing regularly and, of course, your personal preference. That last factor is arguably the most important factor of all — the best piece of cardio equipment to buy is always going to be the piece of cardio equipment you'll actually use.

Whether you choose to purchase or use an elliptical machine or treadmill, cross-training with the opposite equipment is often a good idea. This is because the two types of machines offer benefits and drawbacks that complement the other. For instance, if you're primarily running on a treadmill, you may want to schedule one or two elliptical sessions each week to give your joints a break from the extra pounding. Conversely, if you're primarily using an elliptical machine, you may want to add a few weekly treadmill walking or jogging sessions to help support bone health.

Also, simply mixing up your routine on a regular basis can keep your muscles guessing and your mind engaged, both of which can help prevent boredom and burnout over time.

"Personal preference plays a crucial role when choosing between an elliptical and a treadmill," says Malik. "From a scientific standpoint, both machines offer excellent cardiovascular benefits, but their biomechanics differ significantly. Ultimately, the decision should be guided by factors such as personal fitness objectives, injury history, and individual comfort levels with each machine's motion patterns."

Once you've considered which machine is better suited for your needs, you also need to consider the cost, size, and specific features of the product you're purchasing.

You can pay practically anything for anything, and cardio machines are no different. It's possible to find low-end treadmills or ellipticals for sale for under $500, but as the saying goes, "you get what you pay for." On the other end of the spectrum, some high-end ellipticals and treadmills can cost as much as $10,000. Most people don't have the need (or the money) to purchase such a high-end option, but allocating a reasonable budget (between $750 to $4,000) is a good idea. The vast majority of high-quality cardio machines fall within this range, and you're bound to find one that offers the features you hope to use. Machines in this range usually have a decent warranty and are at lower risk for mechanical problems.

Cardio machines aren't small. If you're making a purchase for home use, you need to know where you plan to put the machine and how much space you can allocate. Most treadmills and ellipticals provide details on the space needed for the product, including vertical space and space that falls outside the specific dimensions of the equipment. For instance, an elliptical machine with moving handles or pedals that swing past the frame will need more space than the dimensions of the machine itself.

Make sure you carefully measure the area you have to put a cardio machine (again, including vertical space!) and compare the measurements to any equipment you're considering. If space is a concern, you may want to choose a piece of equipment that can fold up or be stored away. Just be aware that sometimes space-saving features limit some of the other features of a product. For instance, if you want a treadmill that can lie flat and be stored under a bed, you may have to sacrifice a more substantial deck or incline features.

Treadmills and ellipticals have a wide range of features that can enhance usability and overall enjoyment. For instance, treadmills often have incline and decline settings while ellipticals typically have a range of resistance levels to choose between. Both machines tend to have pre-programmed workouts available to use. Other features may include:

  • Built-in heart rate monitoring

  • A variety of fixed or moveable handles

  • Quick adjustments for speed or incline

  • A treadmill deck featuring extra cushioning or spring

  • The ability to fold up or put away the machine between uses

  • Built-in fans or water bottle holders

  • The length or width of the treadmill belt or the length of the elliptical stride (longer belts or strides may be better for taller individuals or those with a wider stride)

  • Weight capacity

  • Length and coverage of warranty

  • Maximum speed, incline or resistance settings

Pay attention to the specific features of the treadmill or elliptical you're considering to make sure it will meet your needs.

In addition to a cardio machine's standard features, modern machines may also offer innovative interactive technology. This may include large, built-in HD touchscreens, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology, built-in speakers and integrated apps to stream live or on-demand workouts. Some machines even include auto-adjust features to automatically change speed and incline or resistance to follow along with an instructor's routine.

Interactive technology can make sticking with a home cardio program more engaging, but these added features come at a premium. You can expect to pay upwards of $2,000 for some of the more advanced technological options.

Hands-on testing is underway here at Yahoo for a wide range of ellipticals and treadmills to help you find the best piece of home cardio equipment for your needs. While there are many factors to consider, initial feedback from our reviewers indicates high marks for these products:

At less than $2,000, this mid-range treadmill has many features of a more expensive model. It's appropriate for walking or jogging, and offers a wide range of speed and incline levels. The 22-inch x 60-inch deck is also wide and long enough to accommodate people of all heights and stride lengths. 

Early feedback from our tester is positive — it's easy to navigate and fun to use, especially when connecting to instructor-led classes through Bluetooth. 

Pros
  • Bluetooth connectivity with popular apps like Peloton and Zwift
  • Large running deck
  • Incline to 15%
  • Folds up to save space when not in use
Cons
  • No interactive touchscreen
$1,541 at Amazon
Explore more purchase options
$1,599 at Horizon

While more expensive than some popular elliptical machines, this "vertical elliptical" from Pro-Form has earned high marks from our reviewer with initial testing. She likes the almost stair stepper-like track that the elliptical trainer provides, and she loves the oversized, integrated touchscreen. Plus, it takes up less floor space at home, so you don't have to dedicate an entire room to a piece of cardio equipment. 

At just under $1,700, it's an investment, but it also features a 10 year warranty on the frame, two years for parts, and a year for labor. 

Pros
  • Large, integrated touchscreen
  • Bluetooth connectivity and built-in apps
  • Vertical elliptical that's a cross between a stepper and an elliptical
  • Doesn't require much floor space
Cons
  • More expensive than many options
$1,699 at Pro-Form

The best cardio machine for weight loss is always going to be the cardio machine you feel comfortable and excited to keep using over the course of weeks, months and years. Healthy, sustained weight loss requires time and consistency, and elliptical machines and treadmills can help support weight loss goals. Likewise, in terms of calorie burn, both types of machines result in similar levels of calories burned when users exert themselves in a similar manner between machines. In other words, if you feel like you're working at a level 7 of exertion on a scale of 1 to 10, the calories burned on an elliptical or a treadmill will be similar.

An elliptical machine may be more challenging to use for individuals with balance or coordination problems, which could result in injuries. That said, injuries resulting from tripping on or falling off a treadmill can be much more severe. If safety is a primary concern, consult your doctor before starting a routine.

Also, always be sure to use the safety features, like the emergency shut-off clip, provided on cardio machines. Kirsch suggests that, if you have the room, leave at least five feet of open space behind a treadmill. "In the instance you were to go off the back of the treadmill, you want to ensure there's sufficient clearance to reduce the risk of injury," he says.

As with weight loss, the best cardio machine for improving fitness is the cardio machine you'll use consistently. Fitness gains take place over time, so the only way to experience gains is to continue using a machine on a regular basis and to maintain a workout program that's challenging and engaging. Ellipticals and treadmills have slightly different benefits — they work different muscle groups and offer different features. For instance, using the elliptical machine's handles can work your upper body, leading to greater strength through your shoulders, back and arms. On the other hand, using the incline to run hills on a treadmill can significantly challenge your quads, glutes and calves. Both machines, when used at an intensity level that's challenging, can improve cardiovascular fitness. When deciding which machine to use for your personal fitness goals, you need to consider what you want to achieve, and which machine is better aligned to help you meet your goals.

Generally speaking, a high-quality treadmill costs more than an elliptical machine, That said, prices vary widely by brand, features and technology. In either case, it's important to allocate a budget that allows you to purchase a sturdy, well-made cardio machine that can support your fitness goals now and in the future. While it's possible to find versions under $500, you're better off purchasing a slightly more expensive model (or possibly a much more expensive model, depending on what features you plan to use) that will last a long time without the need for extensive repairs or replacement.