But if you had to choose, do you know which one is a better workout for you: elliptical or walking? It depends on your fitness goals, preferences, and health needs. Here’s everything you need to know to make the best decision for you.
Does the Elliptical or Walking Burn More Calories?
Both walking and using the elliptical is cardiovascular exercise, so naturally, they’re great ways to burn calories if that’s your goal. If you’re interested in which will burn more calories for your time, using an elliptical is likely to burn more calories than walking.
According to recent estimates from the Mayo Clinic(1), for 1 hour of exercise, a 160-lb person using an elliptical for an hour burns on average 365 calories. The same person walking for 1 hour would burn 314 calories.
Keep in mind, many factors go into how many calories you’ll ultimately burn during a workout. For example, you can easily make your routine more challenging by picking up the pace or adding some resistance, hills, or incline to your workout.
If you don’t have a fitness tracker or an option for accurately tracking your calorie burn, you can easily estimate if you’re burning more or fewer calories based on how you’re feeling during your workout. Are you breathless? Are you sweating? Are you pushing the pace? If the answer is no, you can easily dial up your workout to make it more intense, effectively burning more calories.
Is the Elliptical or Walking Lower Impact?
The elliptical puts far less stress on your joints than walking. In fact, according to a 2014 study(2), the stress put on your body with each step while walking is about 110% of your body weight, but only 75% of your body weight when on the elliptical.
This makes a lot of sense when you think about how the body moves when on an elliptical as opposed to walking. When you walk your foot leaves and returns to the ground, and your body weight, as well as more force, is applied to each step. Whereas on the elliptical, your feet are continually supported by the footplates as you stride, reducing the overall impact on your joints.
This alone makes the elliptical a better choice for those with arthritis, achy knees, and hips, or recovering from an injury.
How Does Your Movement on an Elliptical Machine Differ from Walking?
When we observe human biomechanics, we find that while the movement when walking and on the elliptical is inherently similar, there are stark differences in muscle development and skills built from each activity.
When using an elliptical, due to the handlebars we see an increase in involvement in the upper body and core. It’s important to note the use of your upper body is a choice, you can choose to be as active or passive with the upper body as you’d like. Ellipticals do increase the activation of muscles around the hips and lower back(3), which makes them a great option for those interested in strengthening their core.
Walking on the other hand is a much better workout than elliptical machines for strengthening the hamstrings, calves, and ankles - all muscles that help increase balance and confidence in everyday activities. Because walking is something many of us have done for the majority of our lives it also has a relatively low learning curve and is a great way to train for life!
Another thing to keep in mind, because ellipticals control your path of movement as opposed to walking, some people may find it more uncomfortable, while others may prefer predictability - it all comes down to personal preference here.
Is the Elliptical or Walking Better for Weight Loss?
If you think about weight loss strictly from a numbers game, elliptical machines can indeed burn more calories than walking. However, as we’ve previously explored, there are many things you can do to alter the intensity of your elliptical or walking workout to burn more calories.
Being in a calorie deficit is an important piece of weight loss but choosing an activity you’ll enjoy doing consistently is arguably more important than choosing an activity simply based on the calorie burn.
The truth is the best workout for weight loss is the one you will do consistently. So, whether you’re leaning towards walking or using the elliptical - I’d say go with your gut! Also, don’t feel like you have to choose one or the other - choosing both is also an option.
Walking outside will always be an option available to you, but it’s not a terrible idea to have an elliptical machine as an option when the weather doesn’t agree or you’re feeling in need of some lower impact exercise.
Does the Elliptical or Walking Build More Muscle?
While both the elliptical and walking are better in general for cardiovascular exercise, they both can help contribute to building muscle and strength. Adding resistance to any workout will help to challenge your muscles, which in turn leads to an increase in strength and muscle over time.
To add resistance to a walking workout all you have to do is find a hill or add some incline to your treadmill workout. There’s also always the option to add some weight to your walking workout.
I would avoid holding dumbbells or wearing ankle weights during your walk as it can put unneeded pressure on your joints due to the high repetition of movement. Instead, consider adding a weighted vest that can be worn snugly, and is one of the easiest ways to distribute weight evenly and properly while allowing your limbs to move freely as intended.
When it comes to the elliptical, resistance can easily be applied if your machine has adjustable resistance (as most do). Because of how easy it is to adjust the resistance on a whim, and how challenging that resistance can effectively feel as you work out - an elliptical machine is a clear winner over walking when it comes to building muscle.
That being said, if your overall goal is to build muscle, I would highly recommend incorporating traditional strength training into your routine which is going to be the best way to build and maintain muscle.
Is Walking or the Elliptical More Flexible?
Walking is the clear-cut winner when it comes to workout flexibility. You can walk anywhere and everywhere. Whether you’re inside on your treadmill, at the gym, at a hotel gym, or simply outside exploring the world around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation or thick in your everyday daily routine - walking will always be accessible to you.
Is Walking or an Elliptical Machine Better for a Full Body Workout?
The elliptical may have a slight leg up from walking when it comes to which works more of your body. Both walking and the elliptical machine are primarily lower body-based workouts. However, due to the handlebars on an elliptical, it does offer more of a full-body workout than walking. Studies have shown an increase in upper body and core work while using your elliptical.
I recommend whether walking or using the elliptical to be mindful of your core, it should be a tight, strong, stable base while your limbs focus on moving. A properly activated core can help protect your back from injury or aches and pains. Keep your arms active and pumping as well, they’ll help keep your momentum moving forward.
Is Walking or an Elliptical Machine Better for You?
We’ve been through the highlights of both walking and the elliptical - they both have their benefits, and when it comes down to it you must decide which matches your needs and preferences. Think through the questions below to help make your decision.
Which Fits Your Health & Fitness Needs?
What kind of workout are you looking for? If you’re looking for lower impact on your joints, and a machine in your home that’s predictable and easy to access, an elliptical may be the right choice for you.
If you prefer a workout that’s great for training for real life, and something you can do anywhere and everywhere - walking might be the right choice for you. Keep in mind, with walking you have the option to walk outside, and inside on a treadmill too.
How Much Control & Variety Do You Prefer During Your Workout?
When on an elliptical, you have the option to control or push your speed, as well as increase the resistance to make your workout harder. What you don’t have is the option to move freely, since the set stride of the machine controls the path of each step you take.
When walking outside, you have the option to carve your path - right, left, up, or down you control your journey. You can walk as slow or as fast as you would like. If you’re walking on a treadmill, you have even more options - quick changes to incline and speed and can take up the intensity in an instant.
Who Else Will Be Using the Elliptical or Treadmill?
If you’re considering purchasing an elliptical or treadmill for your routine, consider who else in your house may be using the machine. What machine would they enjoy? Is there one that leans towards both of your preferences? Is the weight capacity accommodating to both of you? Is the stride length long enough to accommodate everyone in your house if you’re purchasing an elliptical? Lots of questions to consider before making your decision.
I’ve given you a lot to think about. If I can close this article by giving you a little clarity, remember the best workout for you is the workout you’ll consistently do, and enjoy while doing it. Go with your gut, and make it happen!
1) “Exercise for weight loss, Calories burned in 1 hour” Mayo Clinic, 2021 https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/exercise/art-20050999?pg=2. Accessed 17 December, 2021
2) “Referent body weight values in over ground walking, over ground jogging, treadmill jogging, and elliptical exercise” National Library of Medicine, 2014, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24095267/. Accessed 17 December, 2021.
3) “How do elliptical machines differ from walking: A study of torso motion and muscle activity.” National Library of Medicine, 2012, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22534321/. Accessed 17 December, 2021.