Elliptical, StairMaster or Walking: Which Is Best For Weight Loss?

Emily Abbate
by Emily Abbate
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Elliptical, StairMaster or Walking: Which Is Best For Weight Loss?

When it comes to moving your body regularly, cardiovascular activity is important. Not only does it assist with weight management and burning fat, but it also has other science-backed benefits, like improved mental clarity and heart health.

With hectic schedules, it can be difficult to fit in the 150 minutes of recommended weekly moderate-intensity exercise, and you might wonder if you’re getting the most bang for your buck calorie-wise when exercising. When it comes to popular cardio machines like the treadmill, elliptical and StairMaster, here’s how they compare for weight loss:

THE BENEFITS OF A TREADMILL AT INCLINE

Using the treadmill to walk on an incline can be an awesome total-body workout. “This can be an especially useful workout for individuals who cannot jog or run due to an injury, lack of balance and coordination or limited range of motion,” says Todd Buckingham, PhD, an exercise physiologist at the Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation Performance Lab. “Treadmill walking at an incline can increase your cardiovascular fitness as well as strengthen the muscles of the legs, particularly the glutes.”

According to the Compendium of Physical Activity, the treadmill has an 8.0 MET (which stands for “metabolic equivalent task,” and is one way exercise physiologists estimate how many calories are burned during physical activity) value when walking 3.5 mph at a 6% incline. To calculate the number of calories burned, you multiply MET by weight (in kilograms) and time (in hours).

Make sure you’re not holding onto the railing when you’re hiking up the belt. If you do, the calorie output you see on-screen is less accurate since you’re using assisted stabilization, which decreases the required effort.

THE BENEFITS OF USING AN ELLIPTICAL

The elliptical machine is ideal for people of all fitness levels, especially those with joint issues. “Because they’re non-weight bearing, ellipticals offer the lowest impact option compared to treadmills and StairMasters,” says John Fawkes, a NSCA-certified personal trainer and nutritional counselor. “The machine’s low-impact, continual gliding motion is the gentlest of them all, making it fantastic for folks recovering from knee or hip injuries.”

Just don’t make this your only method of cardiovascular fitness or strengthening, cautions Buckingham. “Some stress on your bones and joints is good,” he says. “Our bones are just like muscles, where if you stress them, they will adapt and get stronger. Performing solely non-weight bearing exercise could potentially decrease your bone density and put you at risk for osteoporosis.”

Something else to keep in mind, adds Buckingham: The elliptical has a set motion, so there isn’t much room for variation in your stride. This means some of the small stabilizer muscles won’t get activated the same way they do during a walk, run or climbing the stairs. If you use the elliptical, try to incorporate some balance exercises along with your routine to make sure those stabilizer muscles are activated, too.

According to the Compendium on Physical Activity, the elliptical has a 5.0 MET value when performed at a moderate intensity.

STAIRMASTER

Before we dive in here, it’s important to highlight that the StairMaster and StairMill are two very different machines. The StairMaster is comparable to an elliptical, in that it has two stairs you stand on, and your feet don’t actually ever come off of the stairs during the workout. A StairMill is an actual set of rotating stairs you ascend, similar to steps that may be in your home or an office building.

Climbing stairs is one of the best ways to burn calories in a short amount of time,” says Buckingham. “Plus, the StairMaster is great for building your leg muscles, particularly your glutes, hamstrings and quads.” New research from kinesiologists at McMaster University and UBC Okanagan shows a few minutes of stair climbing, at short intervals throughout the day, can improve cardiovascular health.

According to the Compendium on Physical Activity, climbing stairs has a MET value of 4.0 at a slow pace and 8.8 at a brisk one.

THE BETTER WORKOUT

If weight loss is your primary goal, Buckingham says the StairMaster at a brisk pace is your best bet. To get a similar bang for your buck, you would have to walk on a treadmill at 3.5 miles per hour and a 15% incline, which is steep. As for the elliptical, well, it simply falls short in comparison.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Ultimately, the best types of exercise for weight loss are those you enjoy and can stick with long term. Switching things up can also help your body work different muscle groups and less stress on joints could be good for a recovery day or when you’re dealing with injuries, which is why all three machines can be great as you build fitness. Similarly, it’s a good idea to incorporate strength training and cardio to burn fat while building muscle.

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About the Author

Emily Abbate
Emily Abbate

Emily has written for GQ, Self, Shape and Runner’s World (among others). As a certified personal trainer, run and spin coach, she’s often tackling long runs or lifting heavy things. In addition to that, she’s working on Hurdle, a podcast that talks to badass humans and entrepreneurs who got through a tough time —a hurdle of sorts— by leaning into wellness.

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