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Which aerobic machine provides the best workout: Elliptical or treadmill?

Aerobic machines, like the elliptical or treadmill, are one of the most popular methods of performing cardiovascular exercise.  But if your goals range from weight loss to increasing endurance, which machine works best?

“It depends,” says Avril James, M.P.H., ACSM-HFS, a personal trainer and mindfulness instructor at Piedmont. “Both an elliptical and a treadmill will help you tone muscles and burn calories.  But they function in different ways.”

Pros and cons of an elliptical

Elliptical machines offer a low-impact cardiovascular workout, which puts less stress on your knees and joints.

“The elliptical was designed to simulate running in water or sand,” James says. “You're never hitting or smacking into the ground.  So you don’t have that joint impact to the knees and lower back.”

This is better for people who have knee injuries, or even runners who want to protect their joints between runs.

Elliptical machines are also valued for their ability to deliver a full-body workout. The machines are equipped with hand levers, allowing the user to push and pull while moving their legs. And many models allow users to pedal backward and forward, targeting a variety of leg muscles.

And while an elliptical helps you burn calories, it can be difficult to determine what speed and resistance you need to choose, because each machine is calibrated differently. 

“Ellipticals are tricky because they are not standardized,” James says. “Each machine burns calories differently. To optimize your workout, you may need to wear a heart monitor.”

Most ellipticals also lack an incline feature, which would actually increase the heart rate and help users burn more calories.

“Listen to your body when you are on the elliptical,” says James. “If your heart rate isn't going up but your knees are aching, you may want to decrease your speed and try more resistance.”

Pros and cons of a treadmill

Treadmills offer a workout that is more consistent with running outdoors. You can run, walk or jog on a treadmill. And with a variety of training programs, like climbing, interval training and weight loss, they are highly versatile machines.

Because of the incline and the ability to adjust and maintain speed, you can also burn more calories on a treadmill than you can on an elliptical.

“You generally go faster on a treadmill,” James says. “You can also measure how many miles you need to run to burn a certain amount of calories because all treadmills are calibrated the same way. So 5 mph is the same on every treadmill everywhere.”

And though treadmills provide a full weight-bearing workout, which is great for bone density, they can cause more impact on your joints.

“The best choice to make when deciding between a treadmill and an elliptical is to consider your needs,” says James. “If you have arthritis in your knees or lower-back, use an elliptical or walk slowly without a steep incline on a treadmill. If you run, a treadmill can be lower impact than running outside on asphalt and concrete. And for diehard runners, give your joints a little break while still getting great cardio by adding elliptical workouts to your routine.”

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