How does walking on a treadmill compare to walking outside?

When it comes to fitting in daily exercise, not much can beat walking. It is an easy-to-use, adaptable and equipment-free activity that can be squeezed into even the busiest schedules. And while getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine has many incomparable benefits, sometimes jumping on a treadmill or walking pad is easier, especially in inclement weather.

But knowing how walking on a treadmill compares to logging your steps outdoors can help you get the most out of your walking. Both setups have pros and cons that can guide you as you try to choose between them or serve as motivation to enter wherever you are. According to lifelong Oakbrook Personal Trainer and restorative exercise expert Juliet Rodriguez, walking has many benefits beyond the physical. “As we know, walking generally has many benefits beyond cardiovascular health; things like mood and cognitive function, coordination and balance can improve,” he says.

The benefits of walking outside

Walking outside provides variety, fresh air, sunlight and many benefits for physical and mental health. Here’s a breakdown of the big pluses:

Muscle engagement, balance and coordination

It’s no surprise that walking outside comes with several benefits beyond the physical, but natural terrain comes with unique benefits for your body. “No two strides are exactly the same, especially on a trail or road or sidewalk; you get slightly different muscles, which can help reduce overuse injuries, and you may even work more muscle groups outdoors than on a treadmill,” explains Dr. Theresa Shoemaker, physical therapist at Teton Therapy in Wyoming.

Several studies support this: Walking on uneven and complex surfaces provides unique challenges that improve coordination, muscle strength, balance, and quality of life and help develop motor skills that prevent falls in later years.


According to Rodriguez, walking outside on uneven terrain can cause discomfort if you’re not used to walking on cement or uneven surfaces. Starting with short walks and getting used to the environment is the easiest way to work up to longer walks without discomfort. “Make sure you have the right shoes for walking outside versus the treadmill,” Rodriguez says.

Mental, emotional and cognitive effects

“While there are many physical benefits, many people overlook the mental and emotional support that walking can provide you, clearing your mind and reducing external stressors like work, family and friend drama,” says Jen Rulon, MS. triathlon coach and 15-time triathlete.

Numerous studies show that being in outdoor environments, especially green and blue ones (moving water), lowers stress levels, improves mood, positivity and working memory, reduces anxiety, increases feelings of calmness and creativity, and helps give the brain a lot of activity. – needed a break. “Just a change in environment releases endorphin chemicals that improve mood and even relieve stress,” says Rodriguez. Researchers also believe that the feel-good hormone oxytocin is behind these effects, as it promotes feelings of security, calm and peace.

Walking outside is also a great way to connect with your community or friends. “Walking in the neighborhood can create a greater sense of community as you meet people on your walks, especially if telecommuting limits face-to-face social interaction,” Rodriguez explains. Instead of meeting, Rulon suggests coffee or lunch to meet your friends. or on a date in the park or on a nearby beach, and you’ll get in and get in touch.

Exposure to sunlight

A sunny environment stimulates the body’s production of vitamin D, which has many health benefits. “There is a beautiful correlation between natural sunlight and better sleep, when a person wakes up with the sun and ‘shuts down’ when the sun goes down, the body is in a natural circadian rhythm,” says Rulon.

Your circadian rhythm is like your body’s internal clock that regulates your sleep and wake cycles. It is very sensitive to light exposure, and natural, bright light increases alertness and prepares you for restful sleep later. Walking in the sun, especially in the morning, is an excellent way to support the natural rhythm and quality of sleep.

Vitamin D has several other important functions in the body. It is essential for the normal growth and development of bones and promotes overall health, helps prevent disease and boosts the immune system.

Disadvantages of walking outside

Despite the benefits of moving outside your four walls, there are some disadvantages to walking outside that you should be aware of.

First, access to the outdoors or to safe walking spaces can be restricted, especially in the absence of sidewalks or ice. “The most complicated challenge is if you live in a cold environment, whether it’s snowing, windy or raining, the ability to get out for a walk can be more challenging,” says Rulon. Also, in winter, when the nights are long and the days get dark early, walking outside can be dangerous.

The environment, crime, nature and other threats can make walking outside less safe. In these cases, bringing a friend along for safety can be a wise choice.

Overcoming the challenges of walking outside

  • Walk earlier when the sun rises before your work day begins to avoid walking in the dark.
  • Use reflective gear and lights to ensure better visibility.
  • Pair with warmer clothes, gloves, scarves and beanies. Plan to wear layers; As Rulon points out, walking can get 10 degrees warmer. “Once you get moving, your body warms up and you can start shedding layers,” she says.
  • Jaktraks or spikes in shoes to prevent slipping, according to Shoemaker. “Walkers can also use a walking stick if they are unsteady,” he adds.
  • Use sunscreen and moisture-wicking materials in warm weather and focus on moisturizing.
  • Always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.
  • Stay in well-lit and populated areas. Rodriguez recommends public songs.

The benefits of walking on a treadmill

Treadmills offer a convenient alternative to walking outside, but they also have their own unique benefits that must be considered.

Convenience and accessibility

When colder, darker or rainier weather threatens your step count, the treadmill is there to help. “The beauty of going to the gym or using the treadmill is that you have no excuse; you can’t complain that it’s too cold or dark, you can get on the treadmill when the gym opens and if you have a treadmill at home or after the kids go to bed.

Shoemaker notes another bonus: you can multitask more efficiently. While it may not be ideal if you have a very busy schedule, walking on the treadmill can allow you to check a few things off your to-do list, such as a meeting, an important phone call, or something to read to work on. While it may not be the most stress-reducing way to spend your walking time, it can mean the difference between sitting and the benefits of exercise. and can increase your concentration and energy at the same time.

Manage your training

Treadmills have the advantage of providing better speed control and tracking, and can measure changes over time. “Tracking these changes can help you progress with speed and time because it’s easier to measure,” says Shoemaker. You can also control your incline and try new and trendy exercises like the 12-3-30 method, or slow it down and enjoy watching TV for a nice cardio workout.

Most treadmills have built-in programs that offer different types of workouts without manual programming. One such program is “hills”, which challenges the user with varying gradients. You have the freedom to adjust the incline if you want to increase your workout. According to Rodriguez, combining a higher walking speed with an increased incline can create a zone 2 heart rate workout. Zone 2 heart rate training has many benefits, such as improving metabolic health, cardiorespiratory function and longevity.


Newer treadmills usually have shock absorption technology. So if you have creaky joints or need extra cushioning when you walk, walking on a treadmill might be more comfortable than getting your steps outside, Rodriguez notes.

Disadvantages of walking on a treadmill

Despite their convenience, treadmills have some drawbacks. It’s clear that if you’re not enjoying nature’s bounty outside, at the beach, in your neighborhood, or on the trails, you’re naturally missing out on the benefits that only fresh air, green or blue spaces, and sunshine can provide, including vitamin D synthesis, circadian rhythm regulation, improved mood, reduced stress and so on.

You can also get bored on the treadmill, which can become monotonous after a while even with the trendiest workouts. “Treadmills can feel a little understimulating in terms of environment because they’re in one place and the view is the same all the time; it can feel repetitive and make for an unmotivated workout,” says Rodriguez, who recommends planning ahead. what you plan to do during your walk, such as reading an e-book, listening to a podcast, or watching a show.

What’s more, Shoemaker points out, you’ll likely have to “work harder” to get the same benefits as walking outside. “To achieve the same amount of work, you need to keep the speed constant but increase the incline by 1-2% to mimic ‘steady’ walking outside,” he says.

Here’s how to get the most out of your treadmill workout

Rulon offers the following tips to get the most out of your treadmill workouts:

  1. Find your own reason: Why do you work out? Will it be around longer for your children or grandchildren? Or maybe you want to feel amazing as you change your life or prepare for a big event like a wedding or graduation. Finding the why feature is really powerful because it can make it easier to get to the gym.
  2. Get a good pair of headphones: Listen to your favorite podcast or put on your favorite playlist if you want to share. It can make time go by faster.
  3. Change the incline and speed: Want to challenge yourself? Here’s a quick treadmill workout to try: warm up for 5 minutes at 1% at a nice walk, 5 minutes at 1.5-2%, increase the speed by 0.5 mph and repeat this every 5 minutes until time OR you can’t keep up with the incline. Don’t forget to add 5 minutes of cooling time.

Bottom Line Which is better?

Walking, whether through natural scenery or walking on a treadmill, is an effective way to take care of your physical and mental health. But choosing between the two isn’t always easy or even possible, depending on where you live, the climate, or whether you have access to safe outdoor spaces. Treadmills offer a safe and effective alternative to increasing activity and can increase circulation, focus and energy during breaks from sitting. But when the sun is shining and the fresh air is calling, it’s hard to beat the outdoors. Combining the positive effects of the natural environment with physical activity strengthens almost all the health benefits of walking.

Each has advantages and disadvantages, but there is no reason to stick to just one method. Mix things up and choose what keeps you motivated and good. Whether you’re into outdoor adventures or spinning on the treadmill (perhaps along with your favorite TV show), it’s best to find what keeps you moving.

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