Is Treadmill or Outside Walking Better for You?

Family Walking Through Flowers in Idaho

Karl Weatherly / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Working out isn't just about long-distance races and trendy boutique classes. Walking can be an affordable, accessible way to stay fit and has been shown to promote weight loss, improve flexibility, and boost your mood.

Walking also provides a lot of autonomy—from choosing the time you start and stop to picking the music or podcasts you play. You also have the option of lacing up for the treadmill or hitting the great outdoors, and each setting comes with its own pros and cons.

Benefits of Walking Outside

Beyond the fact that it's free—after you've bought the right walking shoes of course—there are other added bonuses to heading outdoors. If you're headed outside, you can:

Burn More Calories

Walking outside comes with certain obstacles that make your body work harder, like wind resistance and pushing your own body to move forward, unlike a motorized treadmill that will keep you going with less effort on your part. When your body has to expend more energy, you burn more calories.

Strengthen Different Muscles

The sloping sidewalks, steps, and other variations of outdoor terrain help strengthen stabilizing muscles that facilitate balance and core strength, both of which are vital to your overall health as you age. And if you live in a hilly area, you can work glute and quadricep muscles when trekking uphill and lengthen and condition muscles when walking downhill.

Boost Your Mood

Multiple studies confirm the benefits of "green exercise," the connection between outdoor physical activity and improved mental health. A 2014 study comparing physical and emotional health after outdoor vs. indoor activity found that exercising in nature was directly related to better emotional well-being. Studies from 2013 and 2015 concluded that walking in nature was associated with less stress, less anxiety, and better working memory than walking in an urban area. The time away from your screens and stresses gives your mind and body a chance to take a break, breathe in fresh air, and connect with people in your community.

Train For Longer Distances

The treadmill is handy for within-week workouts of 30 to 60 minutes and to work on your walking posture and form, but for your long, slow distance mileage, head outdoors. On a longer distance event, your muscles will begin to tire and you'll need to "recruit" different muscles to push forward and reduce the chance of aches and pains. Outdoor training is more likely to use those muscles for balance, stability, and ups and downs than the smooth ride of the treadmill.

Disadvantages of Walking Outside

While leafy trees and beautiful vistas may make for a more visually pleasant workout, going outdoors isn't always the most practical choice. Walking outside comes with challenges like:

  • Harder surfaces: Pavement can put undue stress on knees, ankles, and other joints. If you have the option, avoid concrete and choose asphalt or better yet, dirt or pea gravel.
  • Safety concerns: Maybe your neighborhood doesn't have sidewalks or there are other obstacles like dogs occupying your path. No matter the reason, if you don't feel comfortable walking outside, it's best to stay indoors.
  • Weather issues: While some people embrace less-than-ideal conditions, rain, snow, or high winds can make for a dangerous excursion or even just give you an excuse to forgo your workout for the day.

Benefits of Walking on a Treadmill

Using a treadmill for your regular workouts is a great way to train your walking muscles, practice your form, and achieve greater walking speed. If you opt for a treadmill, you can:

Better Control the Workout

Beyond keeping your climate stable—fewer chances to skip your workout!—walking on a treadmill comes with the benefit of pre-programmed workouts, such as interval training or simulated hills. The treadmill may also have a digital screen that displays vitals like heart rate, calories burned, and average speed—feedback that can help improve your next walk. And if you live in a flat area, you can easily increase the incline to give yourself a more challenging workout.

Walk Faster

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, like wind resistance. 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.

Stay Entertained

Listening to music or podcasts outdoors can sometimes be dangerous, but in an indoor setting, you're relatively free to listen to anything, watch TV, or read a book. For those who get bored on a walk, having a distraction can help the time fly.

Disadvantages of Walking on a Treadmill

Posture, price, and cost are important factors to consider if you want to start a treadmill walking regimen. If you choose this route, it likely means you'll:

  • Burn fewer calories: Without hurdles like wind resistance or varied terrain, your body doesn't have to expend as much energy and in turn, doesn't expend as many calories. One solution is to up the treadmill incline—runners typically increase by 1 to 2%—to more closely mimic the outdoors. Keep in mind that holding onto the handrails will further reduce the calories you burn and affect your walking posture.
  • Have fewer downhill options: While most treadmills offer an incline option—great for building glute and quadricep muscles—it's less common to find a treadmill setting that simulates a downhill motion, which strengthens the anterior tibialis muscles. If you're training for a long-distance race, using only a select group of muscles may not adequately prepare you for a hilly course.
  • Spend more: Whether you're buying a treadmill for your home or paying for a membership at a gym with treadmills, that treadmill walk will end up costing more than simply running outside.

A Word From Verywell

As with any wellness practice, the best option is the one that will keep you consistent. Opt for the setting that will motivate you to move on a regular basis. That may mean initially starting at a slow pace—particularly if you're on a treadmill and not used to walking without using the handrails—but you'll ultimately get a better workout. And if you prefer walking indoors or are contending with bad weather, remember there are other ways to walk indoors, including walking through malls, on indoors tracks, and marching in place.

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