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While ellipticals offer stationary movement with low impact on the knees, they also seem to offer burning off insane amounts of calories when compared to equal time/work on a treadmill.

Same brand equipment, similar workout profiles

~200 calories 30 minutes on a treadmill 
~670 calories 30 minutes on an eliptical
~200 calories 30 minutes on a bike

I've heard from many different sources including personal trainers both sides that ellipticals are great for burning calories and also that they are just lies.

The equipment I have at home all have a calorie counter that continues to climb even if i'm stationary. It's making assumptions about my effort to determine calories burned so I dont believe either one.

The equipment at gyms ask for weight, height and even use your heart rate to determine your calories burned.

The spread between the treadmill and the elliptical calories burned readings both from my home equipment and the gym equipment are very similar.

What is the truth? Does the eliptical really just burn 2-3 times more calories per session than a treadmill?

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

I find it highly unlikely that you would burn more calories on an eliptical trainer than running at a similar pace on the treadmill. The treadmill is more like using free weights, whereas the elliptical trainer just needs a push in somewhat the right direction to keep going round. Also, pushing with one leg automatically moves the other, which is almost like a free lunch!

Basically: all the things that make it great are also what make it bad.

  • Yes, it has lower impacts on the knees, but that also means your knee extending muscles are trained less.
  • Yes, using your arms increases the intensity of the workout, but because the arms drive the legs, that's all energy your legs aren't going to provide. You win some, you loose some.
  • Also the enforced stride length may not be the right one for you, depending on your size and physical condition. Running at a different frequency effects the efficiency and intensity of the workout as well.
  • And lastly, the resistance on an elliptical trainer comes from a fly wheel, that requires air resistance. As I explained on another question this doesn't scale very naturally. So to workout at 75-80% of your maximal heart rate, which is probably what you would need for ~700 calories/30 minutes, you'd have either a ridiculous frequency or abnormal high resistance.

As for finding out the truth: I highly recommend you try all the devices with the same heart rate monitor, rather than trusting the built in one. That way you can compare the increases in heart rate when you increase the resistance of the machine in three/four steps. Do that for the elliptical trainer, bike and treadmill and you get a much better idea of whether it actually measures correctly.

Final note: it's more important you do something that's fun, so if the elliptical trainer makes you come back more often, than go for it! Also, there's a study that showed that elliptical trainers can be a great replacement during the winter times, but they had to workout at 80% of their maximal heart rate, which was comparable to the intensity of their normal running exercise and the runners complained it was hard to keep this up. Either way: 3x more calories than on a treadmill is absolutely not possible!

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Also note that it is not so simple to find out your maximum heart rate. Things like 220-age are not reliable! Some people say a max intensity 10km run with sprint finish will give you an idea... All the calories calculation in gym equipment is, I believe, bogus. They may have measured some skinny, mid weight and heavier people in different age groups and interpolate between the datasets. Most likely they have not done this with 1000 of people so it won't be representative. –  Martin H Mar 16 '11 at 11:30
    
@Ivo great answer. It covers all of what i've found in my own research. However, the elipticals don't all use air resistence (actually think thats just the first models only). All of the machines i've used and own use either a magnetic system or a belt tensioner. –  DustinDavis Mar 16 '11 at 14:52
    
Well in either case @Dustin, they won't adjust the resistance based on your range of motion, so it will become harder and harder to get it rotate over the extremes. Off course the arms can help in this regard, but it's not 'normal' running –  Ivo Flipse Mar 16 '11 at 15:19
    
@Ivo i agree with your point. –  DustinDavis Mar 16 '11 at 16:01
    
@Martin While I agree that it's hard to get a direct measurement (you can buy a device that measures lactic acid to find out anaerobic threshold) if you use your own heart rate monitor regularly it's pretty easy to get a feel for it. If your running, you hit your anaerobic threshold at the pace where you don't feel like you can keep going for an hour. 10% more than than it your max is the beginning of your V02 Max. –  Evan Plaice Mar 20 '11 at 21:09
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