While many runners run for fun, one of the primary reasons people do it is to lose weight. Running can help you slim down, and it’s something most people can do.
The elliptical is another popular choice. Many have one at home, and it’s easy to find in a gym. But what burns more calories: treadmill or elliptical?
Here’s what we know so you can make the best choice for your goals and needs. They both have pros and cons, so compare carefully before deciding based on calories alone!
Which Burns More Calories: Treadmill or Elliptical?
Technically, if you base it on average speed and intensity, the treadmill seems to burn the most calories. A study from Harvard Health shows the number of calories burned in 30 minutes by 3 different people on both the elliptical and the treadmill.
Calories Burned on the Treadmill
- 125-lb person: 295 calories
- 155-lb person: 360 calories
- 185-lb person: 420 calories
Calories Burned on the Elliptical
- 125-lb person: 270 calories
- 155-lb person: 324 calories
- 185-lb person: 378 calories
A calorie is a unit of energy. We take in calories through our food; if the body doesn’t use them immediately, it stores them as fat. When we talk about “burning calories,” we mean that the body actively uses those energy units.
If you ate recently and the energy from those calories is immediately available, the body uses them to power itself through whatever exercise or activity it’s doing. If you haven’t eaten recently, then it might need to pull from your fat stores.
Burning one calorie means you’ve used the equivalent energy to one calorie you’ve eaten. You need to do a certain amount of physical work to use up one calorie’s worth of energy—it might be more work on one particular exercise and less work on another.
This is why one exercise burns more calories than the other. But your calorie burn also depends on a number of other factors, so if you optimize these, you can increase your calorie burn.
What Factors Affect the Number of Calories You Burn?
Calorie burn is different for everyone, based on several different factors. Here are some of the things that are most likely to influence calorie burn:
- Intensity: The more intensely you exercise, the more calories you’ll likely burn. Go hard, and you can maximize your caloric burn.
- Time: The longer you exercise, the more calories you burn. But keep in mind that you’ll fatigue more as time goes on, so you won’t be able to maintain a high level of intensity. Your calorie burn will slow down the longer you go.
- Your weight: The heavier you are, the more calories you burn. This is because the body needs more energy to move more weight.
- Form: Interestingly, poor form can lead to more calories burned. If your form is loose and all over the place, you’re wasting energy, which basically means burning more calories. Good form means there’s less energy wastage. The difference is likely to be small, though.
How Accurate Are Calorie Counters on Treadmills and Ellipticals?
It’s important to know that the calorie counters on any cardio machine are notoriously inaccurate.
Cardio machines are designed to give a rough estimate of calories burned based on your speed and duration. But they have no way to know important details about the user that could influence calorie burn, like:
- How much you weigh
- How tall you are
- Your body composition (muscle vs. fat)
- Your fitness level
Cardio machines routinely overestimate calories burned, sometimes by as much as 20 percent!
Wearables are more accurate because they take into account many more variables when coming up with a number. But even those aren’t highly accurate.
Pros of Using a Treadmill
The treadmill may slightly edge out the elliptical in terms of calories burned, but that’s not the only advantage it has. One of the biggest pros of a treadmill is that it’s a weight-bearing activity, which means you’re working against gravity and actively strengthening your bones while you’re using it.
It’s a natural movement, so it might be easier than the elliptical for most people. Another great feature is that the treadmill is super versatile. You can take a leisurely walk, do a hard hill walk, do tempo runs, and even speedwork.
Cons of a Treadmill
The biggest con of a treadmill is the impact on the joints. While it’s softer than running on the road, it’s still harder on your joints than an elliptical.
Another obvious con when comparing it to the elliptical is that the treadmill only gives you a lower body workout with some core activation—there’s very little upper body activation.
Pros of Using an Elliptical
The elliptical is low-impact, so it’s better for those with joint issues. That also makes it a good choice for runners looking for a way to stay fit when injured, so their joints can take a bit of a break.
In terms of muscular workout, the elliptical beats the treadmill. It engages both the upper and lower body, although you can choose to hold the stationary handles instead and focus the effort on the lower body.
Some ellipticals can also move in reverse, which is a handy feature that allows you to target the lower body muscles differently.
Cons of Using an Elliptical
As the elliptical is a non-weight-bearing exercise, it doesn’t offer the same bone-strengthening benefit as the treadmill does.
Also, incline is a less common feature on an elliptical than it is on a treadmill, so that makes this machine less versatile.
When to Use a Treadmill vs. When to Use an Elliptical
If you have access to both, you can alternate between them to mix things up a little. But there are certain times when one might work better than the other.
A treadmill is the obvious choice for runners who love running but can’t do it outdoors for whatever reason. It’s the go-to for those who don’t have joint issues, and it could be a good choice for those who need to strengthen their bones, as long as they go slow.
If you plan on building a serious set of legs and glutes, the treadmill is the better choice than the elliptical.
The elliptical is a good choice when you’ve got a leg or foot injury and need a cardio option that will keep you fit without placing strain on the injured part.
If you’re struggling with overuse injuries or unexplained joint pain, switch to the elliptical for a bit and see if it improves. You can also choose this machine if you want to get a bit of an upper-body workout simultaneously.
Which Is Better for Weight Loss?
Considering the treadmill and elliptical are similar regarding calorie burn, they’re both pretty good for weight loss. But the key to weight loss really lies in burning more calories than you eat.
So ultimately, it doesn’t matter what machine you use to burn those calories, and it doesn’t matter if one machine burns slightly more calories than the other. What matters most is your eating habits.
In the end, you’ll lose fat if you’re burning more calories every day than you’re consuming. Use a calculator like this one to get an accurate idea of how many calories you need to eat for weight loss.
Tips to Burn More Calories While Using a Treadmill
Decided to use the treadmill to reach your goals? Here’s how you can up your calorie burn on the belt.
Up Your Speed
The faster you go, the more calories you burn. Your body exerts extra energy to move you forward at a higher pace—or in this case, to keep you on the machine when the belt is moving at a high speed.
Don’t just go straight for the top speed setting, though. Gradually increase so your body can ease into each new speed. This significantly lowers your chance of injury as well as helping you to burn extra calories.
Uphill running is an amazing way to burn calories. You’re working even harder against gravity, so your body needs to use up more energy. Both running and walking on an incline can really boost your calorie burn… And build your glutes!
Try Interval Training
HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, can burn extra calories during your workout. It also helps you burn more calories in a shorter period, which is great for those who are short on time to exercise.
One of the best things about HIIT is that the calorie burn continues for longer after you’ve finished your workout. So this one can boost your overall daily calorie burn, not just during your exercise.
How to Burn More Calories on an Elliptical
Chosen the elliptical? Here are some tips and tricks to maximize your calorie burn on these cardio machines.
Add More Resistance
The more resistance you add, the harder you’ll need to push to move the pedals. This gives the feeling of working against gravity, so your intensity will increase, burning more calories as you go.
Increase the Incline
Not all ellipticals have an incline feature, but if yours does, don’t miss the chance to use it. Similar to an uphill run or an incline treadmill run, it’ll burn more calories because you have to work harder. Plus, you’ll build those glutes!
Try HIIT Training
You can do HIIT training on the elliptical too! Make sure your elliptical is stable, preferably on a rubber mat, so you can go hard without any danger of the machine wobbling or tilting.
Use your Arms
Using the moving handlebars recruits the muscles of the upper body as well as the lower body. As more muscles are working at the same time, it can effectively increase your calorie burn.
Mix Things Up
Change your resistance, incline, intensity, and duration on each workout. Hopping on the elliptical and doing the same thing every time can lead to a plateau in performance, not to mention boredom. Keep things interesting, and have fun!