An elliptical trainer puts less strain on the joints. However, people with osteoarthritis (OA) in their knees can still reap the benefits of exercising on a treadmill by taking some precautions.

Both elliptical trainers and treadmills have health benefits. A person with OA can generally use either as long as they take safety precautions to limit the impact on their joints.

This article explains how exercise can benefit OA. It also discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each elliptical trainer and treadmill. Finally, it considers which option may be most suitable for people with OA.

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Exercise can be very beneficial for OA, which is considered a degenerative joint disease. This means that the cartilage within the joint begins to break down over time. However, that does not mean that moving and exercising affected joints will cause harm and wear them down faster.

High impact exercises that put extra strain on the joints, such as jumping or long-distance running, can be detrimental to knee joints with arthritis. However, activities such as swimming, walking, or using an elliptical can be beneficial for OA.

In a 2022 review, researchers examined the effect of exercise on OA. They concluded that exercise can slow down or even prevent a joint’s extracellular matrix (ECM) from breaking down. ECM is a naturally occurring substance that protects the joints. The enzyme MMP-2 causes ECM to break down in OA. The reviewed studies suggest that exercise prevents this enzyme from being overactive.

Additionally, exercise can help strengthen the muscles that support the knee joints. This puts less strain on the joints themselves.

Read more about osteoarthritis and other exercises for knee OA.

Since a treadmill belt is softer than most outdoor surfaces, walking or running on one puts less stress on joints.

A 2021 study suggests that combining physical therapy with incline walking on a treadmill is more effective than physical therapy alone in managing OA. The study participants who added uphill walking to physical therapy could step farther, walk faster, and experience an overall increased range of motion in their knee joints.

Additionally, exercising on a treadmill exerts more energy than exercising on an elliptical. This means it can help people burn calories faster. Maintaining a moderate weight puts less daily strain on knee joints. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every lost pound (lb) reduces the weight load on the knees by 4 lb.

Safety tips

The Arthritis Foundation recommends walking on a treadmill at a 2% incline, which puts less strain on the knees. However, walking at a steeper incline can have a reverse effect.

People who opt to exercise on a treadmill should always wear shoes. Shoes with less than a 1-inch heel are the most ideal since higher heels can cause ankles to roll. Other tips to prevent falling on a treadmill include:

  • looking ahead
  • choosing a slow operating pace
  • opting for a model with handrails and an emergency stop feature

Learn tips for running with osteoarthritis.

Exercising on an elliptical trainer puts less strain on the knees than on a treadmill. This is because there is little to no impact from the foot hitting the ground, as with a treadmill. This also offers the added benefit of making it a full-body workout.

One 2021 study examined the impact of movement direction and incline angles on an elliptical machine. Their findings suggest that opening the elliptical in a reverse direction at a low incline is best for people with OA. However, the findings also indicate that operating it in a forward direction and at an incline can strengthen the quadriceps. The quadriceps are the muscles responsible for extending the knee.

This means opting for lower inclines and a reverse motion the majority of the time might be the most beneficial. Using higher inclines and a forward motion occasionally may help strengthen the muscles that help the knees extend.

Safety tips

People with OA can generally safely exercise on an elliptical. However, posture is important.

Ellipticals encourage the knees to bend slightly. Maintaining a straight back and relaxed shoulders can prevent unnecessary injury. Additionally, wearing supportive, low heeled shoes and looking ahead can also prevent falls.

Ultimately, each person’s body responds differently to certain exercises. Working out on an elliptical is generally a better option for individuals with knee joint issues such as OA.

However, some people may find they can benefit from exercising on a treadmill occasionally without any negative effect on how their knees feel. An individual can consider trialing both pieces of equipment and determine the best routine based on personal factors.

It is important for people to discuss exercising using either a treadmill or elliptical with their healthcare professional before beginning a new routine.

The following are some common questions about OA and exercise.

What is the best cardio for osteoarthritis knees?

Cardio activities that are low impact put less strain on the knees. Types of low impact cardio include swimming, water aerobics, walking, cycling, and using an elliptical at a slight incline and in reverse motion.

What should you not do with osteoarthritis of the knee?

Doctors generally do not recommend running for long distances on hard surfaces to people with OA. Other activities to avoid include workout routines that require jumping or partial squats.

An elliptical trainer puts less strain on the joints than a treadmill. However, individuals with knee OA can still use a treadmill with certain precautions, such as operating it at a slight incline, walking instead of running, and wearing supportive shoes. Exercise, in general, is beneficial for OA as it can slow down or prevent the breakdown of the joint’s extracellular matrix and strengthen the supporting muscles.

Treadmills provide a softer surface than running outside and can aid in weight management. Elliptical trainers distribute weight and offer a full-body workout. Using reverse motion and lower inclines is recommended.

Ultimately, the choice between the two depends on individual preferences and needs. A person should speak with a healthcare professional before beginning any new exercise routine.