At first glance, the differences between elliptical trainers and treadmills may seem purely aesthetic: Would you rather walk and run on a moving belt or pedal in place? But there are quite a few subtle differences between these exercise machines. Here's how to decide which is best for you:
Do you have limited workout space?
Choose a folding treadmill
Most full-size elliptical trainers and treadmills are 75 to 80-inches long. You may see the occasional elliptical trainer that folds for storage, but these usually suffer poor stability when in use. Many treadmills fold as well but without sacrificing balance, making them a much better choice if your workout space is limited.
Can you handle high-impact workouts?
Buy an elliptical trainer
Most high-end treadmills have cushioned belts to reduce the impact of your footfalls, but a hard run can still add up to a lot of pounding on your joints. With an elliptical trainer, however, your feet never leave the pedals no matter how hard you run. That makes an elliptical trainer with a smooth, comfortable stride a better choice if you want to run fast without your knees or back suffering.
Are you worried about numb feet?
Use caution if you're buying an elliptical trainer
Since your feet never leave the pedals as you're walking or running, the constant pressure of standing on an elliptical trainer's pedals can compress the nerves and blood vessels. Sometimes exercisers report numb feet as a result.
In an interview with ConsumerSearch earlier this year, Dr. Michele S. Olson, an exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine, recommended a few solutions for what some have dubbed "sleepy foot syndrome." Possible remedies include wiggling your toes, pedaling backwards periodically, and not lacing your shoes too tightly. That said, if you already know or suspect that you're prone to developing numb feet on an elliptical trainer, you might want to consider buying a treadmill instead.
Do you want an upper body workout?
Buy an elliptical trainer
Almost all elliptical trainers have moving handlebars you can use for a modest upper-body workout. Just make sure they offer enough resistance and a smooth, comfortable motion.
A few low-end treadmills like the Gold's Gym Crosswalk 570 (*Est. $570) offer the same type of handlebars, but many reviewers say they just get in the way.
Are you planning on sharing your exercise machine?
Treadmills are more affordable
If several people are going to use the same exercise machine, it should fit all of you well. That's easiest to manage with a treadmill; as long as the belt is big enough to accommodate the longest stride out of the bunch, everybody can move freely. Your odds of finding an elliptical that fits multiple people well are best with high-end "free motion" models that allow you to determine your own stride length.
Do you want incline training?
Buy a treadmill
Although several elliptical trainers offer adjustable incline ramps, such as the Sole E35 (*Est. $1,170), this feature is rare on lower-priced models and forces a change in your stride. Treadmills that tilt up and down to vary your workout are much more common, and will not force you into a different gait.