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The Pros and Cons of Using a Treadmill

Treadmill Workout

Story at-a-glance -

  • You may be forgoing many important health benefits of exercise if all you’re doing is walking or jogging on a treadmill; to counter some of the downsides, opt for an interval cardio workout when using a treadmill
  • Sample demonstrations are offered for both treadmill and elliptical, showing how to modify your treadmill workout to make it more intense
  • The ideal amount of exercise for optimal health is between 150-450 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Adding bouts of strenuous activity will also provide you with an additional longevity boost

By Dr. Mercola

The treadmill is still one of the more popular pieces of exercise equipment, but while it has some appealing characteristics, it's important to realize that you may be forgoing many important health benefits of exercise if all you're doing is walking or jogging on a treadmill.

You're also wasting precious time, as it's one of the least efficient forms of exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has proven to be far more efficient and effective. You can complete an entire HIIT session in 20 minutes, and you only need to do them twice or three times a week.

HIIT is safer for your heart as well. While exercise has been shown to prevent heart disease as effectively as medication,1 regularly exercising intensely for extended periods of time may actually do more harm than good, especially if you have a history of heart disease.

High-endurance training, such as running for an hour at a time, puts extraordinary stress on your heart. And while stressing a muscle usually makes it stronger, extremely high, prolonged stress can have the opposite effect.

The take-home message here is that to protect and optimize your health (especially your heart), you need to:

1. Exercise safely and effectively. Short bursts of intense activity are safer and far more effective than conventional cardio—for your heart, general health, weight loss, and overall fitness.

Twice-weekly, 20-minute long sessions can help you lower your body fat, improve muscle tone, boost your energy and libido, and improve athletic speed and performance

2. Allow for sufficient recovery between sessions. An equation to keep in mind is that as intensity increases, frequency needs to be diminished

3. Get the ideal amount of exercise. An ideal amount of exercise has been shown to be around 450 minutes of moderate exercise per week, with occasional bouts of more intense activity

Pros and Cons of Using a Treadmill

All of that said, you don't have to avoid the treadmill altogether if you happen to be particularly partial to it, or already own one.

As a workout tool, it does have some benefits, and while running outdoors is best (just be sure to properly stretch prior to sprinting to avoid injury), using a treadmill (especially during inclement weather) is certainly better than no exercise at all.

Below, I'll present some suggestions that can help optimize your benefits from a treadmill workout. While the treadmill is inadvisable for doing HIIT sprints, you can still do interval training on one.

Time Magazine2 recently addressed the pros and cons of treadmills. One of the pros is that it's easier on your joints than running on hard pavement. You can also control the difficulty level by increasing the incline, and more advanced machines even allow you to simulate a custom race environment.

On the downside, treadmills can lead to loss of agility, as it fails to mimic real-life conditions of running on uneven ground. You also don't use as many muscles when walking on a treadmill as you do running outdoors or using certain other machines.

It's also worth noting that treadmills are associated with more than 24,000 injuries each year—usually muscle strains and the like— and even a few deaths.3 This danger was recently highlighted by the death of David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, who died as a result of falling off a treadmill and hitting his head.4

Aside from such risks, running on a treadmill can also become mind-numbingly boring, and that in and of itself could make you less willing to actually get your exercise done. Varying your routine can help. Popsugar5 recently published a list of different treadmill workouts you can try to get more variation into your routine.

You can also consider retro walking, or walking backwards. Though it might sound a bit strange, it can be quite beneficial. When you walk backwards, it puts less strain and requires less range of motion from your knee joints, making it ideal for people who have knee problems or injuries.

Also, because backward walking eliminates the typical heel-strike to the ground (the toe contacts the ground first), it can lead to changes in pelvis alignment that help open up the facet joints in your spine, potentially alleviating pressure that may cause low back pain in some people.

When walking backward on a treadmill, start by standing on the side rails, and make sure you have some sort of support bar to grab on to. Also set the speed far lower than you would normally set it to walk forward.

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Interval Cardio Performed on a Treadmill

If you really like the treadmill, switching up your routine as instructed in the above video may help boost results and minimize some of the downsides of the treadmill.

By varying the intensity, mixing slow strolling with power walking and jogging, you will get more of the benefits associated with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) from your treadmill workout.

Be aware however that it's far easier and safer to do a HIIT workout on an elliptical machine or stationary bike.

It is necessary to take safety precautions when using a treadmill so you don't fall off, as the treadmill will keep going at the speed you set it to, and you have to press a button to alter the speed setting.

Your safest bet is to start and finish by placing your feet on the side rails. Here's a summary of how to perform an interval cardio session on a treadmill:

  • Each challenge is a 60-second power walk followed by a 30-second jog, and then a 15-second modified sprint, with slow strolling in between to recover. Start out with slow strolling, then raise the speed setting to a comfortable power walk stride. Power walk for one minute, then raise the speed setting again for your jog.
  • The technique for the 30-second jog is to lean forward, keep your core tight, and bounce softly off the balls of your toes. Your heels may not hit the tread at all. This assures that more of the jolt of your stride will go into your muscles rather than your bones, joints, and ligaments. To create a sprint type effect for the last 15 seconds, simply drive your knees high while you squeeze your upper body muscles tight.

    The sprint is merely a more intense version of the jog by driving your knees as high as possible. This way, you don't have to alter the speed setting on the treadmill. At the end of the 15-second sprint, hop onto each side rail with your feet as you hold on to the handle bars. Reduce the treadmill's speed to a slow recovery pace. Also, bring your incline down to zero for the recovery phase. Let the tread slow down a few seconds before you start walking on the tread to recover.

  • Do four to eight repetitions

HIIT on an Elliptical

An elliptical machine is a far better and safer choice especially when doing HIIT. Ellipticals have an oval-shaped pedaling motion, which is even easier on your joints than running on a treadmill. In fact, the circular-shaped motion helps provide excellent knee range of motion, hip flexion, and extension. It also provides more gluteal involvement than a treadmill, along with a weight-bearing workout that helps promote bone strength and protect against osteoporosis.

If you use an elliptical that allows you to change the incline, you will be able to workout all of your different leg muscles. Some of the less expensive ellipticals don't allow you to change the incline angle. I would only select a model that allows you to do this. In terms of calories burned, an elliptical machine burns a similar number of calories as a treadmill exercise with the same amount of effort. For a HIIT demonstration using an elliptical machine, please see the video above. Here's a summary of the core principles:

  • Warm up for three minutes
  • Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds
  • Recover for 90 seconds, still moving, but at slower pace and decreased resistance
  • Repeat the high-intensity exercise and recovery 7 more times. (When you're first starting out, depending on your level of fitness, you may only be able to do two or three repetitions of the high-intensity intervals. As you get fitter, just keep adding repetitions until you're doing eight during your 20-minute session)
  • Cool down for a few minutes afterward by cutting down your intensity by 50-80 percent

Be mindful of your current fitness level and don't overdo it when you first start out. The speed is completely individual, based on your current level of fitness. Some may reach their anabolic threshold by walking at a quick pace, while others may need to perform a mad-dash to get the same effect. Also remember that recovery is a key factor of high-intensity workouts. Again, as you increase the intensity, you can decrease the frequency. It's really important to allow your body to fully recuperate in between sessions, so it's NOT recommended to do high-intensity exercises more than three times a week. Both Phil Campbell and Dr. Doug McGuff have addressed this in previous interviews.

What's the Ideal 'Dose' of Exercise?

When it comes to the recommended "dosage," intensity and duration both play an important role. Too little, and you won't get much benefit. Too much, and you could potentially do harm. Again, while your muscles, including your heart, are designed to work hard, and will be strengthened from doing so, they're designed to do so intermittently, and for short periods. This is particularly true for your heart. As discussed in a recent New York Times article,4 there's a "Goldilocks zone" in which exercise creates the greatest benefit for health and longevity.

Based on two large-scale studies5,6 the ideal amount of exercise to promote longevity is between 150-450 minutes of moderate exercise per week. During the 14-year follow up period, those who exercised for 150 minutes per week reduced their risk of death by 31 percent, compared to non-exercisers. Those who exercised for 450 minutes lowered their risk of premature death by 39 percent.

Above that, the benefit actually began to diminish. In terms of intensity, those who added bouts of strenuous activity each week also gained an extra boost in longevity. Besides doing HIIT exercises on an elliptical, bike, or treadmill, super-slow strength training is another excellent high-intensity exercise worth considering.

If You Have Health Problems—Including Arthritis—Buck the Trend of Being Inactive

Arthritis in the knees is a common problem, and many make the mistake of avoiding exercise for fear of worsening the condition. It is an interesting paradox that the converse is actually true—exercise can go a long way toward controlling this condition and maintaining mobility.7 Pounding the pavement is not recommended however, and this is where a treadmill, or better yet, an elliptical machine can come in handy. As recently reported by the New York Times:8

"In a 10-year study9 of more than 2,000 men and women with arthritic knees, Jungwha Lee and her colleagues found that fewer than 10 percent met the national guidelines of doing 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. But if they improved their physical activity, 'they functioned better and had less disability...'

In a study10 that Pamela A. Semanik, Dr. Lee and colleagues published... the more time people with arthritis spent in sedentary behavior, the greater their loss of function over a period of two years. 'They went from bad to worse,' she said in an interview. 'People control their pain by doing less physical activity... But being more active can delay the functional decline that accompanies aging. Any activity is better than being sedentary... Build movement into your daily routine.'"

Here, Semanik touches on another very important facet of physical activity, which is non-exercise movement. Chronic sitting is an independent risk factor for an early death, and the remedy is to stay as active as you can all day long, and avoid sitting for more than three hours or so each day.

I also recommend walking more, over and above your regular exercise routine. Get a fitness tracker, and aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day. While walking outdoors is certainly your best bet, a treadmill can be useful to meet your daily quota on days when you can't take a walk outside due to inclement weather.