Elliptical Machine vs. Running: Which Is the Better Cardio Activity?

The elliptical machine puts less stress on your joints than running does.
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Cardiovascular activities like jogging or using an elliptical machine offer a variety of health benefits. But you may be wondering: Is the elliptical better than running?

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As with many fitness-related questions, there's not one correct answer. Which activity is most beneficial for you depends on a few factors, including your fitness goals, your injury history and your personal preferences.

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Ahead, we dive into how running and using the elliptical machine affects weight loss, joint stress, bone density and heart health and help you decide which type of exercise is right for you.

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How Many Calories Do You Burn on the Elliptical vs. Running?

If your exercise goal is weight loss, you may be searching for the type of exercise that burns the most calories. Running and the elliptical trainer are two popular modes of exercise that help you burn calories. But is the treadmill or elliptical better for weight loss? Let's break it down.

How many calories you ultimately burn in, say, 30 minutes of jogging versus using the elliptical depends on the intensity of your session and your body weight. Typically, using an elliptical machine burns more calories than jogging, per Harvard Health Publishing. A 155-pound person will burn about 324 calories in 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. Meanwhile, a 155-pound person will burn about 288 calories jogging at a 12-minute-per-mile pace for a half hour.

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You would need to run at a pace of 10 minutes per mile or faster to burn more calories than you would with a basic 30-minute elliptical workout, according to Harvard Health Publishing. (A 155-pound person running at this pace would burn 360 calories in 30 minutes.)

An Important Note About Weight Loss

The science of weight management is rapidly changing, and weight loss is more nuanced than “eat less, exercise more.” Yes, cutting and burning calories is a key component of weight loss, but there's much more to it. Your ability to lose weight can be influenced by a wide variety of factors, including your genetics, sleep quality, insulin resistance, hormones, gut health and how you manage stress.

Talk to your doctor before you make any big changes to your exercise routine (or diet). They can help you determine if your weight-loss plan is healthy and appropriate for you based on your medical history, health status and medications.

Does Running or the Elliptical Put More Stress on Your Joints?

The leg movements involved in running and using an elliptical are similar. However, running may be too stressful on some people's bodies. That's because when you're jogging, especially on hard surfaces like concrete, every time you land from a step, your ankle, knee and hip joints absorb stress from the impact, per Advanced Orthopaedic Centers.

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Because your feet remain on the pedals on the elliptical, there is less impact and thus no stress to your joints. So, the elliptical's smooth movement may be a better choice for weight loss if you have joint problems, back pain, arthritis or any previous ankle, knee or hip injuries.

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Does Running or the Elliptical Improve Bone Density More?

The lack of impact while working on an elliptical means it is not an effective activity for improving bone density. When your bones and the tendons that pull on your bones undergo stress, the tissue adapts and increases their density and strength.

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This makes jogging effective at developing bone density, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). As you land while running, your foot, leg and hip bones are subject to impact. "When your feet and legs carry your body weight, more stress is placed on your bones, making your bones work harder," per the AAOS.

The denser your bones, the stronger they are, making them less likely to break, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is of particular interest to middle-aged and older adults, per the Cleveland Clinic, because after the age of 35, you begin to gradually lose bone mass.

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Is an Elliptical as Good as Running for Heart Health?

Both jogging and using the elliptical are effective at improving your cardiovascular health as long as you train within an appropriate heart rate range. Your heart rate should be at 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate while you exercise, per the Mayo Clinic.

One way to determine your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220, per the American Heart Association (AHA). There are a few other ways to determine your max heart rate that take your age and sex into account to give you a more accurate number:

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  • 206 - (0.88 x your age): A more precise method for women to determine max heart rate (Gulati Formula)
  • 206.9 - (0.67 x your age): A more precise method for adults over the age of 40 to determine max heart rate (Tanaka Formula)

Once you've figured out your max heart rate, multiply that number by 0.50 and 0.85 to find your target range.

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Increase or decrease your speed or resistance level while on the elliptical to keep your heart rate in the appropriate range. When jogging, you can add sprint intervals, inclines or hills to work your heart in its optimum range.

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Running vs. Elliptical: The Bottom Line

Using the elliptical machine is easier on your joints than running is, and it can burn more calories in a 30-minute session (depending on how fast your running pace is). However, running is better for building stronger bones.

No matter if you're jogging or using the elliptical, it's important to do at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This breaks down to 30 minutes of cardio exercise five days a week.

Doing so can reduce your risk of conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, dementia, depression and anxiety, per the CDC.

Ultimately, it's best to do the activity you enjoy most because that's the one you'll be more motivated to stick with. After all, there's no worse feeling than forcing yourself to do something you hate and being miserable during your workout because of it.

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