Without a doubt that if you were to walk into a gym or health club today (possibly even yours), the number one piece of exercise equipment in both number and popularity is the treadmill. What I like to refer to as the human hamster wheel, the treadmill is an easy, user friendly exercise device that requires little ability (you walked into the gym, didn’t you?), is generally a cinch to operate (push start to go), and doesn’t require any major instruction in technique. (Again, you can walk, you’re good.) But just like any type of exercise, just because it’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for you. In fact, it could downright be the wrong exercise of choice for you depending on what your goal is leaving you like the hamster, aimlessly moving your legs to nowhere.
The Obvious Advantages
First and foremost, the treadmill is a weight bearing activity. That is, you’re standing upright on two legs while supporting your entire bodyweight. Just from the vantage of being a weight bearing activity, the muscles work harder, thus burning more calories, thus capable of doing more work in a shorter period of time. But I’ll come back to that one in a shortly. As stated previously, it’s easy to use and there aren’t many people from the novice to the professional athlete who can’t use it – physical incapacities aside. The decks (belt surface) are generally more forgiving than the outdoors and provide less impact to the joints. The treadmills of today are like high performance sports cars with all of the bells and whistles you could possibly want and the comfort as if walking on air. Its best feature however is that it can provide a workout indoors that is very similar to one that can be completed outdoors, especially during the winter months or stormy weather. The treadmill becomes a solution when there’s simply no excuse to get a workout. (Again, you can walk, you can use a treadmill). And if you have a home gym, a treadmill provides the greatest return on investment since you and the whole family can use it. Home models never see the volume of use that a commercial health club sees either. But if a treadmill has such obvious positives, how could there be any negatives other than of course falling off?
The Not Always Apparent Disadvantages
To the novice exerciser, a treadmill (or dreadmill as I have heard a neighbor call it) can be inviting and intimidating at the same time. Sure it’s easy to get started but there’s always the inherent danger of falling off while the treadmill is running or worse, getting a loose shoe lace tangled in the belt. (I’ve seen it…and pants too but that’s another story). No one wants to look like a fool, especially on one of the most popular pieces of exercise equipment that in some gyms require a sign-up sheet. To the seasoned exerciser, using the treadmill may just be another day working out thinking that the treadmill is the best way to lose weight (more still to come on that). And to the running enthusiast, the treadmill is an essential part of their training, especially when weather conditions and/or daylight become factors. Aside from the novice fears of having technical difficulties, the major disadvantages of the treadmill fall in between the realm of false belief and potentially more harm than good.
A False Belief
If weight loss, more specifically fat loss is the goal, the treadmill is not the best choice. It is a choice but it’s not the best. Why? Because no one piece of exercise equipment is the best when it comes to fat loss. The method or choice of exercise you choose has little to do with your success. It’s the intensity (how hard you work) you use on the treadmill that matters most. Going back previously where I stated that the benefit to the treadmill is the fact that it’s a weight bearing activity, it’s easier to work harder when you’re supporting all of your bodyweight as opposed to a sitting (non-weight bearing) position, such as with a bike or rower. But, I challenge you to find an out of shape, overweight, or deconditioned cyclist or rower because after all, they’re sitting down for their selected exercise. The point here is that when it comes down to exercise selection, the intensity of the work is more important than the mode in which it is done. Can you have great success using a treadmill to reach your goals? Absolutely, but give credit to the work you do and not to the treadmill.
A running purist scoffs at the idea of running on the treadmill for exercise. No matter the weather or terrain, they make no excuse about it and they’re outside running in the elements. But not everyone needs or wants to be the extreme so the treadmill provides an outlet when some other things just don’t line up in the universe. There is a slight problem here though and it involves the mechanics of the body, your running gait, and the treadmill as a machine. Because a machine powers the treadmill belt, the mechanics of your running stride differ from when you run outside. When running on the treadmill, you use your quads to push off. But, unlike outdoor running, where you would typically rely on your hamstrings to finish the stride cycle and lift your leg behind you, the propulsion of the belt does much of that work for you. This means your hamstrings aren’t firing as much and don’t get worked running inside as they would outside. The extra effort demanded of your quads is also a factor to keep in mind. While not always initially obvious, this phenomenon can be blamed for affecting your gait and foot strike patterns which can ultimately lead to a host of knee, ankle, and Achilles injuries.
Furthermore, when running on a treadmill, it’s easy to just lock into a target pace. (i.e. 6 mph). Unfortunately, this doesn’t teach you how to properly find and maintain pace on your own. As a consequence, you stunt the development of your internal effort and pacing instincts. Overall, research is inconclusive when it comes to determining whether or not treadmills are better for your joints than track running. However, if you plan to run outdoor races and your primary mode of training is the treadmill, you’re not achieving optimal development and potential.
The treadmill can be a great training tool and like everything in life, should be used in moderation. As with any training program, have a plan and know the reason why you’re using it. If it’s fat loss you desire, understand it’s all about the intensity. If you want to run, use it sparingly and take your runs outside. And if you’re just looking for the health benefits, well, get on the wheel and spin. Just know and appreciate that you have lots of other options.
Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.