So you’re headed to the gym to get in some cardio. While you might prefer to take a high-energy spin class or a similar group activity, you have a few solo workout options when it comes to standard cardio equipment on your gym’s main floor — typically, ellipticals and treadmills.
While you might just jump on whichever machine is free, each piece of equipment has benefits and drawbacks. Here’s what Elaine Moen, health coach and director of wellness relations at Arootah, says about the elliptical versus treadmill debate.
When to Use an Elliptical
Simply put: Use the elliptical when you want to use a wider range of muscles, including your arms, shoulders, back, and lower body. The treadmill works fewer muscle groups overall — mainly the muscles in your legs.
The elliptical is also easier to use than a treadmill. According to Moen, you want to hop on the elliptical “when there is a knee injury” or when you’re “looking for an active cooldown.”
Healthline also notes that, while elliptical workouts are low-impact, and do seem easier than your standard stint on a treadmill, they’re still effective and can improve your overall body composition and fitness.
When to Use the Treadmill
So, when should you use the treadmill instead of the elliptical? Moen says treadmills are “great for HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or if you’re trying to get your steps in.” And there’s no denying that walking is good for your health — remember, just because most people at the gym are running like their lives depend on it on the treadmill, that doesn’t mean that running is the only way to use this piece of equipment. You can use a treadmill for jogging, walking on an incline, or even walking on a flat surface.
It’s this versatility, Healthline says, that makes the treadmill such a useful exercise tool. If you do push yourself to complete a HIIT workout on the treadmill, Healthline points to studies that show how doing so can reduce body fat, improve cardiovascular fitness, and burn calories while helping you to build strength.
Additionally, treadmill workouts may be more intense than elliptical workouts. Healthline explains that, though elliptical machines will work more muscles overall, that workout might not be as intense as a treadmill workout.
Which is Better? How to Pick the Healthiest Workout for You
At the end of the day, both treadmills and ellipticals come with their benefits and drawbacks. When choosing your machine at the gym (or to purchase for home use), you have to take your daily needs into consideration as well as your overall health goals. And when it comes to the gym, you may find it’s best that you use the treadmill on one day and the elliptical on the next. As Moen says, “Bring it back to your goals and don’t be afraid to switch it up. Both have their benefits — it all depends on your goals.”
Cleveland Clinic agrees with Moen’s recommendations. Not only does the change provide a little bit of mental variety to your workout, but alternating between using various parts of your body can sometimes prevent overuse and overuse-related injuries.
Keep in mind though that improper usage of both machines, or even just improper footwear in the gym, can lead to injury. It’s important to maintain the proper form while using both machines, and not to just jump on and go.
For beginners, Cleveland Clinic additionally recommends you start your elliptical or treadmill running routine at just 10 minutes of use for either machine, and then increase that amount of time as you build up your endurance. Overall, you should try to get in at least 30 minutes of cardio, five days per week. However, your healthcare provider can provide more tailored advice, based on your individual health needs.
Shape points out that, for many gym-goers, there is another, similar option beyond the elliptical and the treadmill: the stationary bike. Like an elliptical, a stationary bike allows you to set your own pace, which can be a nice option if you’re recovering from an injury or need to go easier on your joints. Like a treadmill, though, a stationary bike really only works your legs, not your full body, the way an elliptical might.
If you don’t like the stationary bike, you can always try cycling, which can be a fun, sustainable way to get exercise.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the information above can make you healthier and help you increase your cardio and fitness levels — which will benefit you no matter which machine you choose to use.
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