"They're among the most popular pieces of fitness equipment, known for offering a great cardio workout that torches calories and builds muscle. Both the elliptical and the treadmill allow users to work out in a controlled environment while offering customized workouts, instant numeric feedback, and options for speed, incline and resistance.
But when it comes down to it, how does the elliptical really compare to the treadmill? And is one better for you?
Q. What's so great about the treadmill?
A. The treadmill has always been king of the fitness machines. It's familiar to people, relatively safe to use and offers a top-notch cardio workout that translates into real-life activity, be it walking or running, says Tony Galvan, a health and fitness expert at Monarch Landing, a retirement community in Naperville. For older people, it can be crucial in helping to maintain independence, he says.
Athletes preparing for an event, like a race, may prefer the treadmill because they can do specific types of training for their goals, says Arlington Heights personal trainer Mark Bostrom. It's great for sprint or marathon training, for example, in which they can focus on speed or stride length.
Q. What are the challenges with the treadmill?
A. Running is a high-impact activity, and the continuous pounding of your feet on the machine belt can stress the joints over time. So there's an increased risk of injury, especially the more you use it, experts say. "There's more wear and tear on the ankles, knees, hips and spine," Galvan says.
Q. What's so great about the elliptical?
A. In recent years, the elliptical has soared in popularity. If the machine has arm handlebars, it offers a great total-body workout that's intense, but lower impact than the treadmill. It's ideal for people who are injury-prone or recovering from an injury. Also, whereas the treadmill can be all-or-nothing (you're either running or not), the elliptical "keeps you at a nice pace if you're trying to do a long, slow, burn type of workout," Bostrom says.
There's another advantage, too: "It feels like a ride," said Kerri O'Brien, director of Chicago's Life Fitness Academy. "It's just a little more fun." And if you're a workout-hater, there's the entertainment aspect - it's generally easier to watch TV, snack or drink on the elliptical.
Q. What are the challenges with the elliptical?
A. There's still a risk of injury; the machine offers a fixed and unique range of motion, which may bother the joints over time. It's also a 'newer' machine and may be intimidating. If you've never used it before, "the learning curve can be high," Galvan says.
Q. So which machine is safer to use?
A. Unless you're walking on the treadmill, most experts would agree the elliptical is less stressful on the joints, while still being a great cardio workout. "Ultimately, the elliptical is the safer workout," says fitness expert Marcus Brent of Chicago Training Core.
As with any piece of fitness equipment, it's best to ease into a workout, building up intensity so your body has time to adjust.
Q. Is there a benefit to using both?
A. This is the ideal scenario, experts say. Doing both decreases the risk of injury from one and the boredom factor, making it more likely you'll continue to work out. "It's great to have both, even just for the sake of variety," Galvan says.
Sandra Chionis of Naperville uses both, though she prefers the treadmill, doing a mix of running and walking a few days a week. It's easier to make adjustments when she wants a change, she says. "I know I can slow it down," she says. "On the elliptical, I can't cheat."
Linda Takei, who lives in Arlington Heights, also uses both, but prefers the elliptical. "It's not so hard on the knees," she says, "but it somehow seems you're working harder on it. You're able to switch directions. I feel like I can go a little longer on the elliptical."
Q. Which machine burns more calories?
A. This is a tricky one. First, it depends on your pace and intensity level. Many experts will give the edge to the treadmill, as it requires the user to launch his or her body through the air. If all factors are equal, there's no substitute for ramping up the incline and running fast, says Bostrom. "You're really just able to do an intensity that you can't on the elliptical," which, if maintained, can translate to more calories burned, he says.
Other experts say since you're able to work the upper and lower body simultaneously on the elliptical, this machine may be better and more efficient at burning fat and calories, all while you put forth less exertion. But overall, studies have shown that the elliptical and treadmill appear to be comparable in terms of calories burned.
So the real answer, experts say, is that you'll burn more calories on whichever machine you enjoy more - because that's the one you're more likely to use again and again, and the one you're more likely to push yourself while on. And you'll burn more calories on either machine than you would on any other piece of equipment, like the stationary bike or stair stepper.
Q. Are calorie counters on machines accurate?
A. Calorie counters on any fitness machine, especially older models, often are inaccurate due to fluctuating factors like weight and intensity of exercise. But it's even harder to predict calories burned on an elliptical, experts say, because users are entirely responsible for their pace at all times, whereas the treadmill 'sets' the pace for them.
However, experts say the newer machine models have more accurate calorie counting formulas, particularly when a user enters personal information like weight and age.
Q. So which machine is better for you?
A. That answer depends on a slew of factors. First, which machine do you enjoy more? No sense in using the machine you struggle with, just because you think it gives you a better workout. Stick with the one you're more likely to use for the long-term.
Second, what's your goal? If you're a regular runner training for an event, or you're working to reach a specific cardio goal, the treadmill may offer the more 'genuine' training experience, experts say. If you're a runner on the verge of or recovering from an injury - or you just need a break from the treadmill - the elliptical is a good option. If you're short on time and looking for a total body workout, or you're aiming to just get in regular cardio, the elliptical again might be your choice."