Elliptical vs Running Outside – Which is Better?


Are ellipticals really as useful as going for an actual run? When you want to get fit while staying comfy inside, ellipticals can seem really useful, but you might’ve heard some people saying these machines don’t exercise your body as much as real running.

This in-depth guide will go over all the ways both running and ellipticals change your body, so you can decide which option is right for you.

Is running on the elliptical the same as running outside?

The short answer to this question is “no.”

They might feel like similar cardio workouts, but the reality is that they’re very different. Running mostly targets muscles in the calves, thighs, hips, and abs, while ellipticals also engage the core, oblique, and shoulder muscles.

You press your feet against a moving surface with an elliptical while running is pushing off against the flat ground, so the two workouts put different types of stress on joints too.

Finally, your feet stay stationary on the elliptical, so you do not focus as much on balancing yourself if you use this machine.

Top 7 Benefits of Working Out on the Elliptical Machine

Should you exercise with an elliptical? Here are a few of the most common reasons people workout on ellipticals.

  • It’s a good form of cardio that burns calories.
  • You can avoid extreme weather by staying inside.
  • You’re less likely to fall.
  • You can pedal backwards to target different muscles.
  • It lets you track your workout and heart rate.
  • You workout every part of your body.
  • You can read, watch tv, or browse the internet while you exercise.

7 Cons of Elliptical Workouts

Ellipticals might sound like an awesome workout tool, but there are a couple downsides too.

  • Machines are expensive.
  • Improper form can result in less calories burned.
  • You don’t get as much of a calf workout.
  • Regular maintenance may be required.
  • It can be boring to stay in the same spot all the time.
  • You don’t improve your running endurance as much because the movement is too different.
  • It takes up a lot of space inside your house.

The Pros and Cons of Running on a Treadmill

So what are the pros and cons of using a treadmill instead?


The main pro of using a treadmill instead of an elliptical is just that it does a better job of mimicking the real running experience.

If you are training for a sport or a race where you actually have to run, a treadmill can be better preparation. It helps you train the muscles you need to run long distances effectively.

They are also more of a weight bearing activity, so they can help strengthen your bones against osteoporosis as you age.


However, just like a real run, treadmills are far tougher on your joints. Dr. Casey Kerrigan explains that running puts a lot of stress on your knees and ankles (1).

Treadmills also don’t provide as much of a full-body workout. You can end up with thick legs and a flabby torso and arms if you always pick the treadmill over the elliptical.

The Pros and Cons of Running Outside vs Using the Treadmill or Elliptical Indoors


Running outside can be a great way to boost your mood. 2017 research indicates that those who can spend time outdoors, especially in environments with grass and trees, have better mental health (2).

When you run on an uneven surface, your body has to work harder to stay coordinated and balanced. This means running outside can be a more effective workout.

Exercising in chilly climates can provide further benefits because a 2019 study linked it to higher calorie consumption and more fat burning (3).


The main cons of running outside are weather related. It can be too hot, cold, wet, or icy to enjoy a run sometimes.

There are also some safety concerns like having to dodge cars, tripping on uneven surfaces, or encountering criminals or harassers.

All of these problems can make runners more likely to skip a workout if they planned to exercise outside.

What burns more calories: running outside or the elliptical?

This depends on how you use the elliptical.

When you look at the same person running at the same perceived level of exertion, running outside burns slightly more calories at 100 more calories per hour(4).

However, if you turn the resistance way up, you can burn more calories than a person running the same amount of time outside.

What’s better for weight loss: running or the elliptical?

When you just look at the numbers, it does seem like running might result in slightly faster weight loss.

However, it is important to remember that the key to weight loss is consistency.

If you like the elliptical better and will actually use it, you may lose weight faster than constantly planning to run outside and procrastinating.

Ellipticals can also help to build more muscle than running. This helps to increase your overall resting metabolism, so you can lose weight more easily.

Another thing to take into account is that you can customize your elliptical workout to make you burn calories faster.

Is it better to use the treadmill or elliptical?

Which option is better depends heavily on your own preferences and fitness goals.

Getting ready for a marathon or trying to get heavily defined calves? A treadmill may be helpful.

However, if you want a more customized workout that is easy on the joints and targets multiple muscle groups at once, the elliptical can be a great option. It lets you exercise major muscle groups without all the stress of running.

There is no ultimate best choice, but many people find they prefer the elliptical.

Do ellipticals help lose belly fat?

It is true that ellipticals will work out all your core muscles instead of just your surface abs.

But this does not mean that they help you lose belly fat faster than other cardio.

As a 2013 clinical trial showed, you cannot exercise one area more to make the body lose fat in that area faster (5).

The only way to lose belly fat is to lower your overall body fat percentage, and fortunately, ellipticals do a great job of burning calories so you can lose fat.

How long should I be on the elliptical?

General public health recommendations suggest that people aim for 150 minutes of cardio per week.

Depending on your schedule, this can mean just a couple hour long sessions, or 20 to 30 minute sessions spread out throughout the week.

This is enough to improve your heart health and build a little muscle and endurance. If you are interested in more intense weight loss, you may need to consider additional elliptical time.

Keep in mind that extensive cardio can actually make it hard to build huge muscles though, so if you’re interested in bodybuilding try not to overdo your elliptical time.


(1) https://www.livescience.com/amp/6027-study-running-shoes-joint-strain.html 

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5663018/#__ffn_sectitle 

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/30759802/ 

(4) https://www.medicinenet.com/elliptical_vs_running/ask.htm 

(5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23222084/ 

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