Elliptical Vs. Treadmill: Which Is Better For Your Bones?

Exercising regularly is essential to building new bone. It’s a foundational part of the Save Our Bones Program and one of the most important activities Savers use to reduce the risk of falls and fractures.

As we’ve featured here before, running, jogging and walking are all excellent sources of bone- healthy weight-bearing exercise, but some days the weather just won’t allow these activities. If it’s too hot, too cold, or too wet to venture outdoors, you might find yourself with some competing indoor exercise options.

Today we’ll compare the bone health qualifications of treadmills and ellipticals, looking at the science behind how they impact your body. As it turns out, one is better than the other for bone health. Read on to find out which, and why.

What’s The Difference Between Ellipticals and Treadmills?

Both of these exercise machines aim to provide an aerobic workout that burns calories and improves cardiovascular and general health. Both accomplish those goals with flying colors, and are good choices for a workout. But there are some significant differences that you should take into account, especially with regard to bone health. Let’s have a look at what each machine has going for it.

Reasons To Use A Treadmill

Treadmills Are Tried And True – These machines have been around since the 19th century, and they’ve only gotten better and more efficient over time. Their use has been thoroughly researched over the years, so you know what you’re going to get out of this machine.

Natural Movements – You already know how to walk, jog and run, so you know how to move on a treadmill to get the most out of it. The simplicity of the treadmill is a major strength.

Treadmills Burn Calories Fast – When you’re running on a treadmill you’re burning about 400 calories per hour, but it varies with speed, of course. That high rate helps you to keep your calorie input/output balanced, which is good for maintaining a healthy weight and an active lifestyle.

There’s More Than One Way To Treadmill – Variation is important in a workout routine. If you get bored and give up on your exercise practice, or stop putting effort into it, then it’s not going to work. Treadmills have incredible versatility, offering different options for speed, incline, and training programs. Every run can be different, and that helps keep you engaged.

Weight Bearing Exercise – Running (or walking!) on a treadmill is a weight bearing exercise. As Savers know, weight bearing exercises trigger the addition of new material to your bones. The stress your muscles place on your bone to resist the pull of gravity creates bone growth.

Downsides Of Treadmills

Treadmills Are High Impact – The flip side of the weight-bearing benefits of treadmills is the impact on joints. If you have joint problems such that the impact from running causes you pain or discomfort, you might want to find a different form of weight bearing exercise to take its place. And remember that walking is also bone-healthy, but lower impact, and you can walk on a treadmill too.

Variations In Equipment – Not all treadmills are created equal. Sometimes you might find that the handles make running awkward, or that the width of the belt affects your stride. Or maybe the treadmill available to you doesn’t have some of the features to create a varied running experience. All of these factors might make you less likely to choose this machine.

Running Requires Effort – Because treadmill running is harder than using some other machines, many people are lured to easier workouts, or give up entirely. While it’s certainly better to find an alternative than to remain sedentary, consider the great benefits of treadmills before taking the easy way out.

Benefits Of Ellipticals

Ellipticals Feel Easier – Related to the last bullet point, ellipticals make it feel like you’re doing less work than you are. In exertion studies, people underestimate how hard they’re working on an elliptical, so it might be a great machine to help you get more while feeling like you’re doing less.1

Ellipticals Are Low Impact – Because your feet never break contact with the pedals of the machine, your joints don’t have to absorb the force of your body striking the ground. This is great news for those who have achy joints.

Full Body Engagement – Ellipticals allow you to engage your entire body, both upper and lower, so you’re getting a workout that strengthens and conditions more than just your legs. You can even stride in reverse on an elliptical, allowing you to work yet another muscle group.

Downsides Of Ellipticals

Ellipticals Burn Fewer Calories – Compared to treadmills, ellipticals are slightly inferior at burning calories. However, the difference isn’t very significant, so this isn’t a good reason to rule out ellipticals entirely.

Less Engagement – Because they don’t offer the same array of options for varying your workout, ellipticals are less engaging, which may lead to shorter or skipped sessions. Even if an elliptical does have an incline feature, it won’t be as effective as on a treadmill.

Low Impact- This is the most important shortcoming of ellipticals, and should be the tiebreaker for Savers. While using an elliptical is a weight-bearing exercise, it lacks the impact necessary to stimulate new bone formation. The cardiovascular and calorie-burning benefits of ellipticals are certainly valuable for improving general health, and using an elliptical is better than remaining sedentary. But for those seeking to build bones, the treadmill has more to offer.

The Science Behind The Bone Strengthening Benefits Of The Treadmill

As always, the Save Institute goes a step beyond advising on living a healthier life: we provide the scientific evidence that supports and explains that advice. Let’s have a look at a few studies that examine the relationship between treadmill use and bone health.

The first study is titled “Effects of treadmill exercise on bone mass, bone metabolism, and calciotropic hormones in young growing rats.” Researchers at the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo separated 20 rats into four groups of five: A group that exercised for seven weeks, a group that exercised for 11 weeks, and two sedentary control groups, one for each time span. Before and after each exercise period, the scientists tested the rats bone mineral content at the tibia and fifth lumbar spine and measured femoral length and levels of bone markers and calciotropic hormones.

Here is what they found:

“The present study demonstrates that treadmill exercise stimulates bone formation and suppresses bone resorption, increases the serum 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D(3) level, and decreases the serum parathyroid hormone level, resulting in an increase in bone mass with stimulation of longitudinal bone growth, especially at weight-bearing sites, in young growing rats.”2

Another study from scientists in Japan examined how much running is the right amount for bone building. This research also used groups of rats, made to remain sedentary, to run 30 minutes a day five days a week, or to run 180 minutes a day five days a week. After eight weeks of following the routine, the researchers found that the rats who ran for only a moderate 30 minutes at a time had higher bone mineral density than both the sedentary group and the group who ran six times longer per day.3 Here’s an excerpt from the study:

“These findings suggest that short-duration exercise may increase BMD through suppression of bone resorption, whereas long-duration exercise may reduce BMD through suppression of bone formation. Exercising for short duration but not prolonged exercise is recommended to increase BMD of loaded long bones.”3

This is a great reminder that moderation is a good philosophy since too much of any one thing is never good. Variety is important, both in diet and exercise. Use your treadmill as a part of your workout routine, but be intentional how much you run. Don’t overdo it!

Walking On Your Treadmill Is Equally Valid And Healthful

This study brings us into the realm of research on humans, and opens up the inquiry to the benefits of walking on treadmills. Thai scientists tested bone turnover in a group of postmenopausal women who participated in a three-month program of supervised treadmill walking.

Three times a week for those three months, the eighteen women in the study walked on a treadmill at an intensity of 55-75% of maximal heart rate. Their bone turnover rate was determined by measurements taken before the experiment, at one week, and again after the three-month program. The measurements determined their levels of crosslinked C-terminal telopeptides of type 1 collagen and N-terminal propeptides of type 1 procollagen, both of which are biomarkers of bone formation.4

The test results showed that “bone resorption and formation markers were significantly increased after treadmill walking.”4 By stimulating increased bone turnover, these women built stronger, younger, more resilient bones. And that was measurable after only three months of the routine described above. That’s an incredible (and rigorously scientific) testament to the power you have to make lifestyle changes that will improve your bone health!

It’s Not Too Late To Start Using A Treadmill

The first couple of studies above were on young rats, but this study specifically looks at whether the impacts of treadmill exercise translate to older female rats. Australian scientists conducted studies similar to the rat studies above, but comparing young and old rats on a treadmill running program.

Even though the older rats were starting at a bone density disadvantage due to the effects of aging, both the young and the old saw gains in bone formation rates. Their bone improvement response to treadmill exercise was not dependent on age.5

That means that it’s not too late to start making a difference in the strength and quality of your bones. And you can do it by walking or running outside, or inside, using a treadmill. Remember that these effects do not extend in the same way to elliptical use, because ellipticals don’t offer the same weight bearing exertion. But much like swimming, ellipticals can be a valuable addition to a regimen that includes other forms of weight-bearing exercise.

Any safe and consistent exercise routine is going to offer you health benefits, but as these studies have shown, the details of that routine do make a difference. If you’d like to learn more about how different types of exercise can benefit your bones, and the quality of your life, check out the Save Our Bones Program. It goes even deeper into the science of bone health and provides a broad, holistic approach to building stronger, more resilient bones through exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle adjustments.

Stop Worrying About Your Bone Loss

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Till next time,

References:

1Batté AL, Darling J, Evans J, Lance LM, Olson EI, Pincivero DM. “Physiologic response to a prescribed rating of perceived exertion on an elliptical fitness cross-trainer.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003 Sep; 43(3):300-5. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14625510
1Iwamoto J, Shimamura C, Takeda T, Abe H, Ichimura S, Sato Y, Toyama Y. “Effects of treadmill exercise on bone mass, bone metabolism, and calciotropic hormones in young growing rats.” J Bone Miner Metab. 2004; 22(1):26-31. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14691683
1Hagihara Y, Nakajima A, Fukuda S, Goto S, Iida H, Yamazaki M. “Running exercise for short duration increases bone mineral density of loaded long bones in young growing rats.” Tohoku J Exp Med. 2009 Oct; 219(2):139-43. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19776531
1Wisaneeya Siwapituk, Wasuwat Kitisomprayoonkul. “Bone turnover increases during supervised treadmill walking in Thai postmenopausal women.” Osteoporosis and Sarcopenia. Volume 2, Issue 1, March 2016, Pages 41-44. Web: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405525516300012
1Bennell KL, Khan KM, Warmington S, Forwood MR, Coleman BD, Bennett MB, Wark JD. “Age does not influence the bone response to treadmill exercise in female rats.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Dec;34(12):1958-65. Web: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12471302

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22 comments. Leave Yours Now →
  1. Elle August 18, 2017, 10:02 am

    Off topic.. I use a rebounder and love it. Age 66 with ms & im really fit. The rebounder works my whole body..

    • Donna August 19, 2017, 5:07 pm

      I just got a rebounder about 2 weeks ago and LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I am 61 and for the first time in a long time (despite doing lots of walking and other exercises), my thighs and butt are shrinking and toning. There’s also something about bouncing that is childlike and fun, and makes me happy!

  2. Elene Gusch, DOM August 18, 2017, 1:35 am

    I’ve been leery of treadmills since I encountered a patient who had badly damaged her hip joint using one. She had been told that this is not unusual. I’ve only seen this in one person, but most of my patients walk outdoors, so I am not sure how prevalent a problem it may be. Have any of you seen this kind of injury?

  3. Sue August 17, 2017, 1:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this informative article, Vivian. I use both machines at my gym. Ellipticals are weight-bearing machines but do not stress the bones enough to form new bone as I’ve just researched. See “Elliptical Trainers & Bone Density” by Cindy Killip. I will walk on the treadmill at my gym more often than I have been after learning this information. I had been using the elliptical more. It has its benefits as well but not for bone building. Thank you!

  4. victoria August 17, 2017, 11:49 am

    Thank you for your valuable offerings. Please address the NASA research re stationary vibrational platforms and Peak Intensity Exercise….MicroBursts (45 second plus full heart recovery before repeating) which is the great breakthrough of the moment. Heart Recovery seems to be the Secret Code for Effect.
    Keep going, you are providing a terrific service. Most of us do not expect you to get it all perfect. Neither do we. Just working on it!

  5. Diane Martinson August 17, 2017, 11:49 am

    Has anyone read that running or jogging could cause micro fractures in your spine because of the up and down movement? I have only walked because I have read this more than once and any doctor I’ve asked doesn’t know what to tell me, although one told me walking didn’t help because it wasn’t enough on the bones, although maybe that was just with me because I don’t weigh much so I don’t put much pressure on the bones when walking.

  6. Patricia Cooper August 17, 2017, 10:56 am

    I have found that the elliptical, after only 5 minutes or so, causes my feet to go numb because I’m not lifting them up at all. I like the elliptical because they engage the arms better but if I want to go more than a few minutes, the treadmill works better for me.

    • Vivian Goldschmidt, MA August 17, 2017, 2:13 pm

      That’s interesting, Patricia. Sounds like you will be using the treadmill more. 🙂

  7. Maureen August 17, 2017, 9:58 am

    Why is nothing ever mentioned about a Rebounder or a Whole Body Vibrator? Both are excellent for building bone which is why NASA uses them for the astronauts.

  8. Mary August 17, 2017, 8:53 am

    Just a few thoughts: When I run on a treadmill, I am sure at all times of the footing. If part of treating osteoporosis includes fall risk reduction, then I think running outside might be more helpful for that. I have to be cognizant of sidewalk cracks, uneven pavement and careful foot placement, all things that I believe help my balance in general.
    And an additional note on ellipticals, I found out the hard way that this is the WORST piece of equipment to use if you have sacroiliac issues. Look it up, it’s been well documented.

    • Vivian Goldschmidt, MA August 17, 2017, 9:20 am

      Interesting, Mary. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and you make a very good point about variations in terrain honing your balance. Just make sure you’re confident in your ability to handle bumps and cracks before you head out!

  9. Donna August 17, 2017, 7:57 am

    Same question as Kat—–walking on street vs. treadmill for bones.

    Will you be posting answers to these questions?

    • Vivian Goldschmidt, MA August 17, 2017, 9:19 am

      Please see below, Donna – I included a link to an article that goes into detail about the different types and locations of walking. 🙂

  10. Joyce Jensen August 17, 2017, 6:33 am

    I have been receiving the email and thank you but have not gotten the free info you offered. Some reason?

  11. Tadams August 17, 2017, 5:52 am

    I read this article with interest, but I have two concerns. I would like to see the pace that someone is running on a treadmill (or outdoors) to burn 400 calories a mile. I don’t know what it would take, but I would venture to say that if someone burns half that on a run, they are really moving. In addition to this, an elliptical is a weightbearing exercise. The term weightbearing means that one’s legs are supporting one’s body weight against gravity. Unless one is using a seated elliptical, one is weight bearing. An elliptical provides weight bearing exercise without impact. I stopped reading after the ‘elliptical is not weight bearing’ section because it made me question the accuracy of the rest of the article (I was willing to skip the 400 calories a mile).

    • Nancy August 17, 2017, 8:01 pm

      Perhaps ladies you should revisit the article with a more open mind, the statement Vivian made is that although an elliptical machine provides weight bearing exercise, it is low impact, and therefore not a valuable form of exercise for bone formation/modelling. However it does provide useful cardiovascular benefits. In another post for which the link is given in response to a question, Vivian’s answer was that if the choice is between a rebounder and treadmill, then the rebounder is the better choice for bone health. There are so many exercise machines available that to do comparisons is quite tricky, and Vivian always provides information on her sources of research.

    • Vivian Goldschmidt, MA August 17, 2017, 9:21 am

      I think it’s great that you’re thinking this through so thoroughly, Tadams and Kelli! Elliptical machines are low-impact and do not make use of the body’s weight against gravity the way high-impact, true weight-bearing exercise – like walking or running on a treadmill – does.

    • Kelli August 17, 2017, 7:02 am

      Same here! After I read that I scrolled to the bottom to see if they were selling treadmills.

  12. Kat Toups, MD August 17, 2017, 4:21 am

    Thank you for this informative article! I’m going to save it to share with my patients.

    I’d like to know your opinion on the comparison between walking on a treadmill versus walking on a trail or street? Is there anything magical about the treadmill for building bones?

    My one thought is that the treadmill keeps you at a pretty constant pace.

    • Vivian Goldschmidt, MA August 17, 2017, 9:10 am

      I am glad you’ll be sharing this information, Kat. If only more doctors would take some time to educate their patients!

      As far as walking on a treadmill vs. walking along the street, in nature, etc., some interesting research points to walking in nature as optimally beneficial. Of course, if the choice is between walking on a treadmill or not walking at all, the treadmill is the healthiest choice.

      For more about the research comparing different walking locations and their benefits, please click on this link:

      https://saveourbones.com/7-little-known-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-walking-besides-building-your-bones/

    • Kelli August 17, 2017, 7:04 am

      Please do more research before you share this with your patients! If my Dr told me this I’d find a new Dr.

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