Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: Which is better: A walk outside or a workout on an elliptical or treadmill?

Avoid danger while pounding the pavement

Runners and walkers can become so engrossed in their routines that they forget their surroundings. Here are some tips for staying safe while exercising outdoors.
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Runners and walkers can become so engrossed in their routines that they forget their surroundings. Here are some tips for staying safe while exercising outdoors.

This week, Janis Newton, interim director of the Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Center, discusses what makes a workout on an elliptical or a treadmill and a walk outside different from each other.

Question. Is there any difference between a brisk 30-minute walk and 30 minutes on the elliptical? What about a brisk 30- minute walk on a treadmill? A 30-minute run? Which one is a better work out?

Answer. First, let’s consider the definition of a “better workout.” What is the goal of the workout? Is the goal to burn more calories, challenge the cardiovascular system, decrease stress on the joints, train for a particular hike or run, exercise in a safe and controlled environment, or possibly create a varied terrain?

Each of the listed workout choices will improve cardiovascular fitness and burn calories.

The elliptical or treadmill will be easier on the joints, while walking or running outside might offer a varied terrain. The elliptical features an uninterrupted circular motion that allows for an impact-free workout. This can be invaluable for individuals with knee, ankle, hip or lower back injuries. The surface of a treadmill is more forgiving than concrete and its consistent surface is excellent for beginners or injured walkers, too. If there is not a safe walking route available or optimal weather, a treadmill or elliptical is the better exercise choice.

Exercising outside offers the challenge of proprioception (the neural-muscular response to outdoor stimuli such as a rocky or uneven terrain), which will keep the brain engaged in the workout. Machines do not engage the brain’s sensory receptors as completely as outdoor walking does and do not offer any air resistance, which could increase the difficulty of the walk or run. Also, a brisk walk or run outside does not require any equipment other than a good pair of shoes.

An important consideration besides defining the desired goal is to ensure that the 30-minute exercise session is done at the appropriate intensity. Each of the above choices can produce an equal calorie burn and cardiovascular improvement by manipulating intensities. Intensity can be manipulated by increasing or decreasing the speed, resistance and incline on a machine, which will increase the muscular effort needed and will burn additional calories. For example, a 160 pound person will burn 157 calories walking at a 3.5 mph pace for 30 minutes on a treadmill, while running at a 5 mph pace burns 303 calories for a person of the same weight exercising for the same duration, according to

The same is true for running and walking outside for 30 minutes. The muscles can be worked harder by increasing the speed, running or walking on hills, or varying the speed within the 30-minute workout.

Generally speaking, when walking on a treadmill with no incline, you may burn fewer calories than you do walking outdoors since the moving tread does some of the work for you. This can be corrected by raising the incline on the treadmill by 1 percent or by focusing on pushing off with the back foot. Also, it is imperative not to hang on the handrail when exercising on a machine since that will reduce calories burned and will impair posture.

So, which is the best workout? It is the one you will do consistently. When choosing the optimal workout it is important to not only challenge the cardiovascular system, but also choose a workout that you will do consistently. Even the best workout in the world will produce no results if not done consistently.

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