It’s a tough choice: riding or biking? Do treadmills burn more calories than exercise bikes? Do exercise bikes provide greater safety?
Either way, whether you’re looking to add cardio equipment to your home gym or deciding which machine at the gym to use, both the treadmill and the exercise bike can offer a great workout. But the positives and negatives associated with each machine depend on you and what exactly you want to get out of your workout.
There are some important differences between the two types of gym equipment, and there are several factors you should consider when looking for the right one. These factors include:
For many people, a top consideration for selecting a piece of fitness equipment is how many calories you can burn while using it.
Both treadmills and exercise bikes are effective for calorie loss and muscle conditioning, says Jessica Brown, a New York City-area certified fitness trainer and founder of The Glute Recruit, a personal training service. However, because a traditional treadmill means standing up and bearing your own body weight, the actual calorie burn may be a little higher.
For example, if you’re running about 5 or 6 miles per hour on a treadmill, Brown says that you can expect to burn about four to six calories per minute. If you’re cycling on a stationary bike, depending on your resistance and speed, you can burn about three to six calories per minute.
Over an hour, those calories can really add up, explains Matt Camargo, regional director of sports performance at ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California. You can burn around 600 to 800 calories in an hour on a treadmill versus about 400 to 500 calories in an hour on a bike, he notes.
“But that’s with the big caveat that calorie burn rates vary greatly depending on your age, genetics, weight, gender and other factors,” he adds.
Still, it’s worth noting that your effort makes a big difference.
“You can burn more calories with an exercise bike at high intensity for only 15 minutes if you compare that to walking on a treadmill for an hour,” says Dr. Hooman M. Melamed, a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon and founder of The Spine Pro, an orthopedic spinal care practice based in Beverly Hills, California.
Your level of experience
If you’re new to working out, here’s some good news: The treadmill and the exercise bike are very beginner-friendly, both in terms of ease of machine use and the workout they provide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week to avoid chronic illness. Breaking that down to a daily, 30-minute brisk walk on the treadmill or light bike ride is a very practical way to start exercising.
“Typically for a walker or leisurely rider, the calories burned per hour will be roughly the same,” says Jenny Harkins, an ACE-certified fitness instructor and owner of Treadfit, a group fitness franchise in Chicago. “However, a difference occurs when the walker becomes a runner. Running on a treadmill will beat a stationary bike any day on calories burned.”
So, again, it comes down to whether or not weight loss and calories burned are part of your fitness goals. And as with any new workout, ease in slowly to avoid injury.
Two factors to consider as you’re deciding between machines are your age, and any health problems you might have.
For instance, those with arthritis in their lower joints may do better on an exercise bike. Karena Wu, a doctor of physical therapy and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy, a practice with locations in New York City and Mumbai, India, recommends clients use the bike when they can’t tolerate weight-bearing pressure, or force, through their hips or knees. It’s also a good choice for seniors, who can remain seated while exerting energy, Camargo notes.
If you have lower back issues, such as disc herniations, Wu recommends walking on a treadmill. If possible, try using the incline to help with lower back extensions, a kind of back exercise.
The traditional treadmill may also be a better option for people with no injuries or mobility issues and those wanting a more intense workout.
“Treadmill work is more dynamic since you are not just sitting, meaning more energy is required to be effective during movement,” Camargo explains.
Still, it’s not always a cut-and-dry, either-or decision when finding the right machine for your mobility needs. Newer devices have begun to crop up in the space between the treadmill and the exercise bike as a sort of hybrid of both. Namely, treadmills that you can use while seated have surged in popularity as many people pivoted to working from home during the pandemic.
Joanna Medin, CEO and co-founder of Onthemuv Inc., the Silicon Valley-based maker of the miniTREAD seated treadmill, says their portable treadmill was originally designed to help older adults with mobility problems get some exercise where they were, in a gentle and efficient way.
However, during the pandemic, the company, which had been using a business-to-business model to sell to nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other congregate living facilities, started selling their small device to the throngs of people now working from home.
“Because you’re seated, the stretch (in the legs) is more like what you’d feel on a bicycle,” Medin says. “You’re engaging your hamstrings and your quads.” And because you can sit on the couch or in a comfortable chair and use it, that eliminates the sometimes uncomfortable bike seat. It’s a good option for people with limited lower limb mobility because it’s not weight-bearing and has minimal impact.
No matter your specific situation, when selecting a piece of equipment, think about what movements you’re able to do and what will help you achieve fitness without exacerbating existing mobility limitations or other health conditions.
Even without preexisting mobility issues, the risk of injury should be a concern for all active adults – and the treadmill and exercise bike have different risk levels.
Running, whether outdoors or on a treadmill, is considered a high-impact exercise. The repetitive motion of your feet hitting the ground puts stress on your joints. While there are benefits to high-impact exercises – such as increased bone density – overexercising or improper form can risk injury to the knees and back.
Your feet stay firmly inside the pedals when you use an exercise bike, so biking is considered a low-impact exercise. This means that even during a high-intensity exercise, the smooth, circular motion trains your muscles without putting too much pressure on your joints.
“Injury can come from any type of exercise,” Harkins says. “It is important to make sure that you have good form and stay at a pace that is comfortable for you on both the treadmill and stationary bike.”
Another factor to consider when using home exercise equipment is what you’re hoping to accomplish.
“A treadmill is great for a relatively healthy individual – someone with no significant joint pain or cardiovascular problems – who’s looking to really improve their cardiovascular fitness and endurance,” explains Ryan Olson, a doctor of physical therapy and clinical director at Capitol Physical Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin.
Brown adds that the treadmill can come with numerous health benefits. “(It) is good for belly fat loss, strengthening the heart, muscle toning and bone strengthening,” she says.
The treadmill can also offer some upper-body workout benefits; your core must be engaged to keep you standing upright, and you can pump your arms as you walk or run or add resistance bands to create a full-body workout all at once.
A stationary bike, however, typically doesn’t offer much in the way of upper body exercise, unless it’s a version with an upper-body component.
“The stationary bike provides more of a workout for the glutes, calves and thighs,” Brown explains. “It’s also good for muscle toning, weight loss, strengthening the heart and increasing lung capacity.”
Think about what you really want to do with this machine. If you’re training for a marathon run, for example, a treadmill may be the more directly helpful purchase. Plus, Olson notes that if you live in a colder climate like Wisconsin and are training for a running race, a treadmill can help you do that without the risk of injury or exposure to extreme cold outside.
If you’re into triathlons, either machine is good. The exercise bike can help simulate the biking portion of the race, while the treadmill can keep your training on track for the running portion. Both build overall fitness to help you endure longer athletic efforts.
If you just want to get fit without putting too much impact on your feet and knees, an exercise bike is probably the better choice.
If you’re looking to age well, then either machine can help because they’re highly adjustable in speed and incline and thus comfortable for a large majority of people. If you have to choose, Olson leans toward a treadmill.
“The benefits of utilizing a slightly greater array of muscles in a weight-bearing, upright position is my preference,” he explains. “The act of walking on a treadmill directly mimics the daily activity of walking, and there is great research that shows the faster you walk as you age typically correlates with a longer lifespan.”
The cost of an exercise bike varies widely. While you can find some bare-bones models around the $200 price point, more tech-savvy models cost a few thousand dollars. For some bikes, you have to pay a monthly subscription fee to unlock all features and classes the machine has to offer.
Still, bikes tend to be a little less expensive than treadmills on average. “Bikes can run in price around $200 to $800, while treadmills typically range from $200 to $2,500,” Camargo says.
Brown also recommends considering machine durability and maintenance. “The treadmill is more likely to need some type of servicing as there can be issues with the motor, belt and incline,” she says. Keeping up that maintenance may require additional money as the machine ages.
Both exercise bikes and treadmills are one-person machines, but that doesn’t mean you have to exercise solo. For the price of a bike and the monthly fee of its adjoining app, Peloton, for example, offers live-streamed and prerecorded spin classes, which provide the group exercise class experience at home. The company NordicTrack offers a similar model for the treadmill. Other companies have programming options for both treadmills and exercise bikes as well.
There are many benefits to a class environment, such as accountability and a positive, high-energy environment. However, if you’re not ready to take the plunge and purchase such a large piece of exercise equipment, you can always check to see if your local gym offers cycling or treadmill classes.
Space in the home
You also have to consider where you’re going to put the machine and how much room it’s going to take up. Traditional treadmills can be heavy, so you have to make sure your home can withstand the weight of the machine and the wear and tear of pounding away on it.
Exercise bikes tend to have a smaller footprint than most treadmills, but not always. Although they often weigh less and take up less room, they still need a designated area in the home.
For the smallest spaces, Medin says the miniTREAD is ideal. It weighs less than 25 pounds, so it’s much more portable than a traditional treadmill. “If people are coming over and you don’t want to leave it out, you can tuck it in your coat closet,” she explains. That’s not usually possible with most traditional treadmills or exercise bikes.
Before You Get Started
Camargo recommends working with a fitness professional, such as a trainer or coach, to develop reasonable fitness goals and a detailed training plan. This can help you figure out which machine offers the best bang for your buck and help you meet your goals most efficiently.
No matter which option you chose, Dr. Justin Mullner, a sports medicine physician at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Florida, recommends starting out slowly on the machine and working your way up.
“One of the biggest problems that I see in my clinic are people who have either started exercising after a period of inactivity or who have transitioned to a new and much more intense exercise program,” says Mullen, who also serves as team physician for the Orlando City Soccer Club and the Orlando Pride. “The muscles, tendons and bones have not been allowed to adapt properly to the amount of force that is being placed on them.”
This can lead to injury and can curtail your well-intended move to fitness before you even start seeing results.
Melamed agrees that gradual progress is the key to a sustainable fitness routine. Once his patients have settled into a workout and gotten stronger, he sometimes encourages them to incorporate 2-pound hand weights while on the treadmill or exercise bike.
“Using the weights, thrust them as if you are punching an imaginary figure in front of you, then adjust and thrust your arms right above you,” he explains.
This adds a little extra upper body strength building and can boost your calorie burn rate.
Mullner also recommends making sure that whatever equipment you buy works properly and “is sized appropriately.”
“Ill-fitting footwear or shoes that are too old and worn out can lead to problems in the feet as well as the knees and back,” he says. “Or, if the seat on the bike is too high or too low, then you run the risk of putting excess stress on the joints or leading to back or neck pain.”
There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to treadmills versus exercise bikes, Mullner says. At the end of the day, the better machine is the one that you enjoy and will use regularly.
Medin notes that for some people, a treadmill can become an expensive clothes rack as enthusiasm for workouts on the machine can wane over time. A machine that you can use while watching TV or engaging in another activity is one way to avoid that kind of boredom and encourage consistent use.
Brown notes that you don’t have to use just one kind of workout either.
“I would recommend incorporating different types of workouts into your routine, not just cardio training,” she says. “Try integrating strength training, flexibility training and other types of exercises to target different muscle groups. Using only a stationary bike or a treadmill for fitness without any weight-bearing exercises doesn’t provide a well-rounded fitness routine.”