The treadmill and the elliptical are usually the most-occupied machines at any modern gym, and for good reason. Both provide a good cardiovascular workout, and both are rooted in running, an exercise we've all done since we were toddlers.
The treadmill was patented as a training machine in 1913, but remained a fixture exclusively in hospitals and clinics until the late 1960s, when mechanical engineer William Staub created the first home consumer model. The Precor corporation marketed the first elliptical in 1995, the “Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer (EFX).” Both machines have their fanatically staunch adherents, but is either one better or worse? Let's look at the pros and cons of each.
If there is a benefit to be derived from our long-term familiarity with the exercise, then the treadmill is the gymnasium champion. It emulates our most natural movements: walking, jogging, and running. In this regard it is also more punishing on our joints than an elliptical, however. Knees, hips, and ankles can all take a beating on even a padded treadmill – just like they can in distance training in the great outdoors. Ellipticals provide “non-impact” conditioning, emulating a running motion without jarring the joints.
Ellipticals are favored by many as they provide cross-training, working the upper body as well as the lower via movable handles. However, treadmill users benefit from the fact that it is a weight-bearing exercise. Such training exercises muscles and bones and are particularly beneficial to older people as these can prevent osteoporosis.
Others favor treadmills as adjustments made to the incline and speed provide a greater variety in the workout owing to the changes in intensity. Some elliptical machines include this feature, but trainers agree they are not as effective in this regard. It is established sports science now that high intensity interval training provides the best workout and optimal fat loss.
If you are grinding on a treadmill or an elliptical solely to burn calories, there is no clear winner between the two. The Medical College of Wisconsin released a study that indicated the average calories burned while jogging on a treadmill for one hour was between 705 and 866. An estimate released by Health Status for an elliptical workout of the same duration was 766 calories. The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health did a 12-week study of gym-based stair-climbing, elliptical training and treadmill running program in females and concluded that all provided roughly the same physiological changes.
The bottom line? Those who by virtue of an injury, or just general inclination, favor a low-impact workout, should train on an elliptical. Most people however, will find that a treadmill will offer more versatility in their workout along with the benefit of weight-bearing, but all at the potential greater risk of injury. The calorie loss and fat burn difference between them is negligible, so pick the machine on which you feel most comfortable and just start moving!