Using the elliptical machine and walking or running for exercise have several similarities. Both offer the cardiovascular benefits of raising your heart rate, increasing blood flow and delivering oxygen throughout your body. But although similar physiological responses occur with both exercises, the question remains, which is better for you?
A recent post by Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times Wellness section cataloged some of the differences between “ellipticaling” and walking. The elliptical machine is less weight-bearing than either running or walking. According to a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, on average, 201 percent of your body weight strikes the ground with each step during outdoor jogging, 175 percent during treadmill jogging, and 112 percent during walking—compared to only 73 percent during elliptical training. If you suffer from knee problems or sore joints, the elliptical is likely to be your preferred option.
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In terms of muscle activation, another study found glute and thigh engagement are greater during elliptical training than during walking (but less than other activities.) However, elliptical training may put greater stress on the low back due to the way the muscles fire.
The elliptical trainer seems to significantly reduce impact on the joints compared to running or walking, but it is commonly thought that high-impact weight-bearing exercises strengthen bone health, cell regeneration and density.
Ultimately, whether walking or ellipticalling is better depends on your fitness goals, your personal preferences and any injury issues you might have. If you maximize the time you spend during your workouts (e.g., by performing interval training, using increased resistance, or climbing higher inclines), the results will be comparable regardless of the manner you use to achieve them.