Treadmill vs Elliptical Buying Guide

Not sure whether to buy a treadmill or an elliptical trainer?  How do you determine which machine would work best for you?  This buying guide is provided by a leader in the fitness industry, Smooth Fitness.  It is intended to help you make an informed decision. 

The guide explains the basic differences between a treadmill and an elliptical trainer.  It also discusses the benefits of each machine, and it describes how each machine works the body.

How do Treadmills and Elliptical Trainers Compare?
Treadmills have been around for several decades and have become quite popular among athletes.  Elliptical trainers became available on the market in more recent years (around 1995).  Since their first appearance, they have gained in popularity and have become well-established in both commercial gyms and homes across the country.

A treadmill is an exercise machine that is used for low-impact running or walking while staying in one place.  A motor operates a belt that turns beneath your feet as you walk or run.  Many modern treadmills have incline features that allow you to simulate walking or jogging uphill. 

An elliptical trainer is a stationary exercise machine that has foot pedals which rotate in an elliptical pattern to simulate walking or running, minus the impact.  Most elliptical trainers are equipped with moveable handlebars that allow you to work your upper body while working the lower body at the same time.  Some ellipticals come with incline features, too.  

Notice that both the treadmill and the elliptical trainer provide exercise that involves the motions used when walking or running, but with different techniques to accomplish those motions.  Both machines are also low impact.   

Treadmills and elliptical trainers may offer the user similar features, including a variety of workout programs from which to choose.  Nevertheless, the two machines differ in a number of ways, including design, size, the way they function, and the way they feel to the user.

Which Machine Suits You Most?
Before investing in a treadmill or an elliptical trainer, you need to know the facts about each type of machine.  You should determine what your needs are, and then decide which machine best meets your needs.  Here are a few points to consider that will help you choose the fitness machine that is right for you:

  • Space constraints
  • Versatility of each machine
  • Which machine is best for training for certain sports?
  • Which machine is best for certain health issues?
  • Health benefits of each machine

Let’s look a little closer at each of these points.

Space Constraints
Unless you have a really large area in which to set up fitness equipment, space constraints could be a major deciding factor on what you purchase.  You definitely want to ensure that you’ll have enough room for the machine you choose.

Some treadmills and elliptical trainers take up a lot of floor area.  If your home does not have adequate space for such machines, focus your search more on folding treadmills and compact elliptical trainers.  They have smaller footprints and are easier to move from place-to-place.

Keep in mind that most folding treadmills are suitable only for walking.  (The cheaper models are definitely not meant for anything more.)  Should you opt to buy a folding treadmill, however, there are a few models available that can handle joggers and runners.  Look for one that has a one-piece deck that folds up independently of a separate pedestal.  If the machine does not have a separate pedestal design, it won’t be stable enough to withstand the constant pounding of jogging or running.  Also, pay close attention to the maximum user weight capacity of the treadmill.  (If you are a runner and have enough space in your home, a non-folding treadmill is the best way to go.)

Compact elliptical trainers are another option for those who have limited floor space with which to work.  On a positive note, compact ellipticals weigh less and are easier to move around than bigger models.  They typically cost less, too.  Unfortunately, the smaller, lighter elliptical machines are not designed for high intensity exercise.  Thus, they are not as stable or as durable as those with heavier frames.  The maximum user weight capacity will be less with a compact elliptical trainer than with a larger model, and the stride will be shorter and, therefore, inadequate for taller users.

How versatile is an elliptical trainer?  What kind of versatility does a treadmill offer?  How can you change up your workout routines on either of these machines to reap the greatest benefits?

Elliptical Trainers
Elliptical trainers generally come with a variety of built-in workout programs from which to choose.  Ideally, they should have at least a weight loss program and an interval training program.  Obviously, an elliptical machine with several built-in programs will provide the user with a wider variety of preset workouts.  In any case, you can create your own program to fit your individual fitness needs. 

Elliptical trainers also are equipped with several levels of resistance.  The more intensity levels offered on an elliptical trainer, the more adjustability is available to the user.  This is important because, as your level of fitness improves, being able to increase the level of intensity can help to keep you motivated and your body challenged.   

On an elliptical trainer, you can pedal either forward or backward.  When you change the direction of your foot motion, you target muscles in the lower body in different ways.  This promises a better overall workout. 

Some elliptical units come with variable strides.  One such elliptical trainer is the Smooth Agile DMT, which has a 19” to 24” stride length.  The variable stride feature is great for households that have multiple users, because it allows each user to adjust the stride for a personal fit.  You can also vary the stride when you want to focus on a certain part of the lower body.  For instance, a shorter stride targets the thighs and calves more, whereas, a longer stride aims at the glutes and hamstrings.

It’s common to find today’s treadmills equipped with a number of built-in workout programs - even on the lower-end models.  Among the most common preset programs are weight-loss, cardio, incline, distance, and speed.  You can also create your own personalized program by manually setting and readjusting the speed and incline levels throughout the workout to suit your own preference and fitness needs.  You can also set the amount of time you wish to exercise.  On some treadmills, you can save your customized programs for future use.

Smooth Fitness offers quite a variety of workout programs on its lower-end model, the Smooth 5.65 treadmill.  Included on this model are five speed programs, five incline programs, one custom program, one distance program, and a heart rate control program.

If you want to walk, jog, or run on a low-impact flat surface, a treadmill lets you do that.  If you want to simulate hiking uphill, you can do that, too, by engaging the incline feature on a treadmill.  

Training for Sports
The weather can often hinder training for outdoor sports.  When it’s too cold, too hot, or too damp outside, having access to your own fitness equipment is quite convenient. 

A treadmill may be used to train for certain sports such as marathons.  It shouldn’t be used as the only method of training for a marathon, but it is a good substitute when it isn’t practical to train outdoors.  The treadmill can help you develop proper running form and work on a smooth stride while putting in your training miles.  Using the incline on the treadmill can help strengthen your leg muscles as you develop endurance.  Just keep in mind that you won’t have the same conditions on that treadmill as you’ll have outdoors.  Outdoors, you’ll have to contend with wind and weather, a harder running surface that can be uneven in places, and unexpected obstacles in your path.

If you have a long hike planned in the near future, you can use a treadmill to get conditioned for the hike.  Again, by engaging the incline feature, you can strengthen your leg muscles and get in shape for any uphill climbing you might do on your hike.

Bicyclers, hikers, and cross-country skiers might train on an elliptical trainer for upcoming events.  The motions of an elliptical trainer mimic the pedaling motions of a bicycle, the movements of a stair stepper, and the upper body motions of cross-country skiing.  To increase the intensity of your training on an elliptical trainer, you simply raise the pedaling resistance by hitting the “up” arrow.

Training with Certain Health Issues
Sometimes, a sports injury or other health problem limits the activities one is able to perform.  If you’re suffering from knee problems, for example, you surely do not want to be running on hard pavement. 

Both the treadmill and the elliptical trainer provide very low-impact exercise.  So, which IS the best fitness machine for working out with certain health issues?

Treadmills are often used for physical rehabilitation in hospitals and physical therapy offices.  They are also recommended for home use during rehab after an injury or surgery.  However, even though the treadmill provides a low-impact workout, there will still be some impact on the joints and back just through the mere act of walking.  That’s one reason elliptical trainers are becoming more popular—they create even less impact than do treadmills and are easier on the joints.  This is because your feet never leave the pedals.  Elliptical trainers are, therefore, less likely than treadmills to aggravate bad knees and hips, sore shins, weak or sore ankles, or the lower back.

Health Benefits of Treadmills and Elliptical Trainers
Exercising regularly on a treadmill has several health benefits.  Perhaps the most important benefit is building a strong, healthy heart.  As your heart grows stronger, your endurance improves, allowing you to work out harder and for longer periods of time.  In addition to improvement in cardio health and endurance, treadmill exercise will help to strengthen the core and leg muscles.  By using the incline feature, you can target more leg muscles.  The weight-bearing exercise on a treadmill can help improve bone density, and there is certainly a lot less impact created on a treadmill than walking or running on asphalt or concrete.  Routine treadmill workouts can also promote weight-loss and weight-maintenance as well as increased energy levels.   

As with the treadmill, regular exercise on an elliptical trainer offers health benefits, including an improvement in cardiovascular health and endurance.  When properly using the moving handlebars, an elliptical trainer will strengthen the upper and lower body simultaneously.  Because you work the shoulders, chest, biceps, and triceps while working your legs on an elliptical machine, calories are burned more efficiently.  The more calories that are burned, the more likely you are to shed any unwanted fat and lose weight.  Additionally, bone density may improve through consistent use of an elliptical trainer, thus, inhibiting the onset of osteoporosis. 

Which Machine Should You Choose?
Both the treadmill and elliptical trainer are efficient tools in the quest to get fit and stay fit.  Before investing your money on either of these machines, it’s a good idea to try them out and see what feels most comfortable to you.  Then, consider what your fitness needs are and which type of equipment best meets those needs.   

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