Treadmill or Outside Walking - Which is Better?

Should You Hit the Gym or Head Outdoors?

Family Walking Through Flowers in Idaho
© Karl Weatherly / Photographer's Choice / Getty

Is it better to walk indoors on the treadmill or outside on a path, sidewalk, or track? The workouts are similar but have some basic differences. See the advantages and disadvantages of both types of walking.

Calories on the Treadmill vs. Walking

Using a motorized treadmill with no incline, you may burn fewer calories per mile than you do outdoors. The moving tread of the treadmill does some of the work for you, and you have no wind resistance.

According to research, you can overcome these by adding a slight incline, as little as 1 percent.

Even compared with walking indoors, the habit of holding onto the handrails on a treadmill will further reduce the calories you burn. Plus, it will wreck your walking posture. It is best to train yourself to walk at a speed you can sustain without holding onto the handrails. You may need to slow down until you have gotten used to it, but you will be getting a better workout.

Work More Muscles Walking Outside

Walking outside has its biggest advantage in challenging your balance and stability with all of the small obstacles, dodges, starts and stops. This will give you an advantage for distance walking as well as overall health as you age—maintaining your stabilizing muscles. Here is what you face walking outside vs. on a treadmill:

  • Up and down curbs, steps, short stairways, and stepping over small obstacles. These are a little workout for your climbing muscles.
  • Sloped sidewalks and roadsides. These are a challenge to your balance muscles.
  • Dodging people, puddles, and poodles. This challenges you to move side-to-side as well as forward.
  • Stops and starts at street crossings. It's a challenge to the muscles to come to a halt and to start from zero.
  • Many treadmills only go uphill or level, with fewer models having downhill incline. Going downhill challenges muscles in a completely different way.
  • On the treadmill, the tread is moving, and you may not be giving yourself a good push off with your back foot. Concentrate on doing this correctly on the treadmill.

Distance Training Outdoors vs. Treadmill

Take your training outdoors for long distance mileage when training for a 10K, half marathon or marathon, rather than doing it all on the treadmill. Go ahead and use the treadmill for your within-week workouts of 30 to 60 minutes and to work on your walking posture and form. But for your long, slow distance mileage, do it outdoors.

On a longer distance event, your muscles will begin to tire, and you will need to remind yourself often of good walking form. You end up with aches in odd places as you "recruit" different muscles when your usual walking muscles tire. Outdoors training is more likely to be using those muscles for balance, stability, and ups and downs than the smooth ride of the treadmill. You will end up with fewer aches after your long distance events if you have been doing your long slow distance training outdoors.

Incline on the Treadmill Is All Uphill, No Downhill

Treadmills can be useful for adding incline if you are in an area without hills. But you can work some stairs into your workout to help build your uphill and downhill muscles.

This is the big problem with treadmills that have no downhill incline. You use different muscles to go downhill, and downhills are inevitable on any loop course (what goes up must come down). You need to train those downhill muscles as well. Look for treadmill models that include a negative incline or decline function if you want to add downhill to your treadmill workouts.

Increased Mood and Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

A review of studies, published in February 2011, found increased benefits for mood and mental wellbeing. "Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy," according to the study abstract.

Further studies showed walking in a park or natural setting decreased rumination and improved memory while walking in an urban setting did not. Studies in Japan found stress-relief benefits for walking in a forested area. You may want to add a park or green space to your daily walk. See how to take a ​30-minute nature walk to reduce stress and boost mood

Advantages of Treadmill vs. Outside Walking

Using a treadmill for your regular workouts is a great way to burn calories and give basic training to your walking muscles and practice your walking form.

  • Workout Programs: You may enjoy the pre-programmed workouts the treadmill offers to give you a controlled workout challenge. The treadmill may also have readouts for heart rate, calories burned, etc. which give you data feedback.
  • More Speed Equals More Calories Burned. Most people set their treadmill workout for time rather than for distance, and can often go faster on a treadmill due to lack of obstacles. More speed equals more distance for the same amount of time, which in turn equals more calories burned than if they walked outside for set distance rather than for time.
  • Safety: If you don't have access to a safe walking route, a treadmill is a good substitute.
  • Weather: You can usually control the indoors weather, but never the outdoors weather.
  • Easy access to restrooms, water, and changing your gear.
  • Entertainment: Some of us are bored with treadmill walking, while others prefer watching TV or listening to their music indoors to walking outdoors.
  • Fewer excuses: If your treadmill is always available, you can't use excuses such as the weather, darkness, etc.

Walking Indoors But Not on a Treadmill

Other options for indoors walking include mall walking, indoors tracks, walking the halls and stairs, and marching in place. See more about the best ways to walk indoors.

Sources:

Jones, AM, JH Doust. "A 1% treadmill grade most accurately reflects the energetic cost of outdoor running." Journal of Sports Science 14(4)(1996): 321-7.

J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge. "Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review." Environmental Science & Technology, 2011; : 110203115102046.

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