Look in any gym and count cardio machines. You’ll see more treadmills than anything else.
Ironic, since running and walking are the simplest of physical activities — the things for which you least need equipment. I know there are rational-sounding reasons to use a treadmill. But for most guys in most situations, outdoors is better exercise, no more injury-threatening, better for your well-being, and more sustaining of long-term fitness.
Let’s assess the validity of each “treadmill reason,” and also look at “treadmill drawbacks.” I hope this motivates to choose outdoors more often, man!
TREADMILL REASON #1: PERSONAL SAFETY
If an outdoor run/walk risks personal safety from crime or truly scary vehicle traffic…then yes, a treadmill is safer! Or if there’s an ice storm outside.
But on a sunny late afternoon in a safe neighborhood, with walking/running options nearby, you’ll still see people on treadmills. So, while personal safety is an overriding reason when there’s real concern…often, this isn’t the explanatory.
Verdict: TREADMILL clear winner (but this reason only occasionally exists)
TREADMILL REASON #2: INJURY PREVENTION
This reason is mainly about running, not walking. But there’s more to it than just “lower impact is better,” as treadmill proponents would say.
Impact. Some believe running on a treadmill is “safer” because the belt has some spring to it, and thus has less impact on joints (especially knees). Yes, treadmills have less “impact” than roads. But modern running shoes tremendously reduce this problem for those prone to it (e.g. HOKA and other “maximalist” shoes from major companies). And, trail running is lower impact, if you have access to trails.
Repetitive motion. A treadmill means never-changing terrain, and can lead to overuse injuries from unvarying repetition. Also, because a treadmill is moving backward underneath your feet, it requires less “kick back” (the part of the stride that propels you forward in normal running). So, treadmills tend to under-develop hamstrings and glutes, and contribute to unbalanced “quad dominance.” Which in turn can lead to knee problems, especially Patello-femoral syndrome (a.k.a. “runner’s knee”).
Strengthening of micro-balance muscles. Treadmills don’t bring micro-variety in terrain. Treadmill runners are therefore more susceptible to ankle and other injuries when they do run outside –for exercise or sports. This is because they haven’t been working the small micro-balance muscles (and tendons/ligaments) that varied terrain exercises.
Verdict: arguments both ways, but OUTDOORS wins…counter to popular perception
TREADMILL REASON #3: CONVENIENT PROXIMITY TO STRENGTH EQUIPMENT
OlderBeast often talks about importance of maintaining strength training for 40+ guys. So if you’re thinking “I use the treadmill because I can jump off it when done and do strength stuff,” I totally support that priority.
But there are three easy ways to mix outdoors running/walking with strength work:
- Do strength work at home with body-weight and dumbbell exercises.
- Start/end your run or walk at the gym. You are “allowed” to do this!
- Within your weekly plan, have an outside run/walk (or two) on non-strength days. Not every day is a strength day, anyway.
TREADMILL REASON #4: IT’S HOT, OR COLD, OR RAINY OUTSIDE
For extreme weather, sure, sometimes outside conditions are too brutal. But if it’s between 25 and 85 degrees, and not a monsoon, blizzard or hurricane…suck it up, dude. Get outside. You’ll feel that much more accomplished when done.
If you travel during cold weather, packing cold-weather running gear sometimes isn’t convenient, and it’s always 68 degrees in the hotel gym. So this could be an exception. Maybe.
Verdict: shouldn’t be a consideration for most of the year (but TREADMILLS do sometimes win)
TREADMILL DRAWBACK A: CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH & METABOLIC IMPACT FROM EXERCISE.
Running/walking on a treadmill is less work than outdoors. It burns fewer calories during your workout and has less “metabolic effect” – via which your metabolic rate remains elevated post-exercise.
In part, a treadmill is less work because there’s no “wind” resistance from pushing your body through the air (most relevant to running at a faster pace). More importantly, the “treadmill moving underneath you” feature means you’re not actually using muscles to propel yourself forward. You can test this for yourself. Run your fastest comfortable minutes-per-mile pace on a treadmill. Then try that same pace on a flat outdoor course. I’ll bet a case of beer you can’t sustain it comfortably.
To get equal work on a treadmill, you need to look to heart rate as opposed to pace, to ensure you get the same exertion. You’ll need a faster pace and/or higher incline than outdoors. Unless you adjust this way, a treadmill is less beneficial than running or walking outdoors for your long-term cardio health and ability to manage your weight.
Verdict: you can compensate on treadmill, but OUTDOORS wins.
TREADMILL DRAWBACK B: RELATIVE IMPACT ON WELL-BEING & STRESS MANAGEMENT.
Running/walking outside brings you into nature and contemplative solitude. These are documented as calming to the mind. Which in turn has measurable impacts on physical stress factors like heart rate, respiration rate, and production of happiness vs. stress hormones and neurotransmitters.
Meanwhile, a treadmill is usually in a loud, crowded environment. It’s often used with TV and/or having loud music blaring (rarely classic rock, brothers). These conditions are NOT stress reducers!
So running/walking outside fosters mental retreat and restoration, and allows creativity and problem-solving to bubble up. On a treadmill…not.
I realize a treadmill reason could be “because I can watch TV while I exercise.” Not all bad if it gets you physically active, but you shouldn’t always need video entertainment while working out.
Verdict: OUTDOORS clear winner.
TREADMILL DRAWBACK C: RELATIVE CONTRIBUTION TO A HEALTHY LIFE-LONG FITNESS HABIT.
Running/walking outdoors is documented as giving you a greater sense of accomplishment and positive reinforcement, which are key to keeping motivation. Also, outside you can take different routes around your hometown, or explore new places when traveling. This decreases boredom and provides further motivation!
Running/walking outside are also great ways to be active with friends, colleagues or family. Not to mention this short-term motivation: If you do a loop route when running/walking outdoors, you can’t just “quit” and have the workout be over. You need to self-propel back home.
Verdict: OUTDOORS clear winner.
TAKE ACTION: GET OUTSIDE!
When you think about it, most reasons-to-treadmill aren’t very solid…and there are major drawbacks vs. running/walking outdoors.
One final perspective. Let’s say you’re 40, and intend to run/walk for 90 minutes per week for (at least) 35 years. That’s more than 2,700 hours (over 100 days) spent putting one foot in front of the other. (By the way — research says you’ll be extending your life by more than that…so you get a positive “return on investment” from this time, in all kinds of ways).
But you gonna spend all that time in a 20 square-foot area on the human equivalent of a hamster wheel? When there are sunrises and sunsets, blue skies and rain, autumn colors, moon and stars, bird calls, beautiful views, the latest cool-looking car models–basically, the whole world–on the other side of that gym wall?
That’s not me, man, Deep down, I don’t think it’s you either.
“They set you on the treadmill, and they made you change your name.” (Elton John, Candle in the Wind—click to listen)
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