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Treadmill or Elliptical?

Two of the most popular fitness machines used today are the treadmill and the elliptical trainer. What makes these machines so popular? Why are they favored over other exercise machines?

The treadmill has been around for a number of years and remains popular among experienced and new athletes, alike. Obviously, the appeal is that it accommodates both runners and walkers.

A newer exercise machine, the elliptical, is gaining on the treadmill in popularity. How do treadmills compare with elliptical training equipment? What benefits do each type of machine offer? Which one is right for you in obtaining your fitness goals?


Also known as walkers and joggers, treadmill machines are created for performing functions such as walking, jogging, or running, as well as simulated hill climbing. (Some treadmills are better suited for walking and are not made to support users over a certain weight limit.) Higher quality treadmills tend to be suitable for walking or running and can handle larger and heavier users. Commercial units that are found in gyms are generally capable of supporting more weight than most home units. However, high-end models of home treadmills can be quite sturdy and comparable to a commercial unit.

Exercising on a treadmill is a great way to burn calories, build bone density, maintain good cardiovascular health, and increase your energy level. Of course, if you engage in a less intense workout, you will have to increase the length of your workouts to get the most benefits.

Most power treadmills offer a number of pre-set programs and intensity levels from which to choose. On these particular machines, you may program in your personal information (i.e. age, weight, height, fitness level, etc.). Then, you may choose a pre-set program (such as ‘interval’ or ‘weight-loss’), and the unit will automatically adjust the workout to fit your specifications.

If you’d rather manually control your treadmill, you can bypass the pre-set programs and adjust the incline, speed, and the duration yourself. And, even if you’ve chosen a pre-set program, you have the option of changing the incline level or speed level at any time.

If you’re just beginning a treadmill exercise program, you should begin at a lower intensity level and work your way up to a higher one, as your fitness improves. For the seasoned athlete, increasing the incline and the speed to accommodate your level of fitness can challenge your body and produce the benefits you desire.

Running on a treadmill with a nicely cushioned running surface provides less impact on the knees, shins, ankles, back, and joints than does running on pavement or concrete.

As a result, the runner who uses a treadmill is less likely to sustain a running injury than a runner who runs upon a harder surface. (Nonetheless, a runner’s body will still experience impact when the foot lands on the belt. Up to 2 1/2 your body weight)

When running in the great outdoors, you could possibly trip over a rock or twist your ankle in an unseen hole in the ground. You don’t have to worry about road or trail hazards when exercising on a treadmill. You need only maintain your rhythm on the moving belt.

It is true that some people have a difficult time feeling at ease when treading on a constantly rotating belt. If you’re a little nervous about keeping up with the belt’s motion, try holding onto the handrails until you feel comfortable about letting go. And, keep your pace nice and slow until you are ready to pick it up. However, try not to depend upon the handrails forever. By doing so, you are limiting the benefits your body will receive from your exercise sessions.

Another fabulous reason for working out on a treadmill is that you can do it indoors …regardless of the season or weather. You don’t have to brave the extreme heat of summer or the brutal cold of winter to get your walk or run in. You can work out in a climate-controlled environment and be comfortable.

Elliptical Trainers

Elliptical trainers allow the athlete to burn a similar number of calories as jogging…but without the risk of injury to the back, knees, hips, or ankles. Your feet never leave the pedals. As a result, this type of machine is quite low-impact and goes easy on the joints. In fact, whereas exercising on a treadmill requires your body to absorb the impact force of walking or running, exercising on an elliptical can be compared to running in midair.

Because ellipticals are so low-impact and easy on the joints, this type of exercise equipment may very well be one of the best choices for older people or for individuals who are recovering from a joint injury.

Elliptical machines mimic the normal elliptical motion of the foot, the extension of the leg, and the rotation of the hip during walking or running. This motion uses all the leg muscles, giving you a total lower-body workout.

Elliptical motion machines ALSO simultaneously work the upper body (unlike the treadmill, which works only the lower body). As the feet go through their elliptical motion, the hands grip the moving handlebars, exercising the arms. The movement of the dual handlebars mimics cross-country skiing. Now, this particular type of workout may not necessarily pump you up to look like a bodybuilder. However, because you are including the upper 30% of your body in your workouts, the results will be more efficient.

Because elliptical trainers DO work the upper and lower body simultaneously, the heart rate climbs more quickly. Thus, less time is required to achieve more results. The amount of energy expended is optimized. As the legs are being worked, the back, shoulders, chest, biceps, and triceps are also working …making it possible to burn more calories in less time. (An optimal workout need only be about 20-30 minutes long.)

Some elliptical devices offer the option of shutting down the handlebars and working only the lower body. Even when this option is available, it evidently is not used very often …likely because individuals appreciate being able to work the entire body at one time.

The foot pedals can be worked in a forward or reverse direction. When you change the direction of the pedals, you’ll target your lower body in different ways. It is nice to be able to add versatility to your elliptical workouts, and such a change works to ensure optimal training of the leg muscles.

The intensity level can be adjusted on elliptical equipment to fit your personal level of fitness. Resistance may be added as desired to increase the workload on your legs throughout the forward or backward stride.

Previous studies have shown that working out on an elliptical unit can trick the body into believing it is working easier than it actually is. Therefore, as you’re burning more calories in less time on an elliptical trainer, your body feels as though it doesn’t have to work as hard to achieve its goals. This phenomenon is known as the “Rate of Perceived Exertion.”

Additional benefits of elliptical training include its ability to build bone density and to inhibit the onset of osteoporosis. Everyone needs strong, healthy bones. This is especially a concern as we grow older, and our body’s bone mass begins to deteriorate. Elliptical exercise can inhibit bone deterioration and actually improve bone thickness.