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Treadmills vs. Exercise Bikes

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Fitness professionals and medical doctors agree that aerobic activity is a key building block of any fitness program. While there are countless ways to get your heart pumping and energize a cardiovascular workout, many people are turning to treadmills and stationary exercise bikes to meet their needs. When considering how you would like to approach your workout, it is important to know the differences of treadmills vs. exercise bikes. There are models of both that range from the most basic to cutting-edge technology, so it is important to know what your goals are and what features are most important to you. To help you better understand some of these features and how they will impact your experience, we’ve got a side-by-side look at the key points of both types of equipment.

Understand Your Needs

When considering a treadmill, it is important to know your needs. For example, if you are a competitive athlete, your treadmill will need to serve a very different purpose than a beginner fitness enthusiast. Treadmills are available with a bounty of options and capabilities.

Similarly, stationary bikes are designed to perform in a wealth of different ways. From upright units with easy-change gear ratios for aggressive spinning classes to recumbent units designed for physical therapy, bikes are as unique as their users. Knowing what you hope to accomplish and what your body is currently capable of is paramount in choosing the right kind of equipment to best suit your needs. Take a look at our picks for the top bikes for weight loss.

Man running on treadmill in gym

Ease of Operation

A treadmill is one of the earliest and most basic pieces of exercise equipment available. The concept behind treadmills dates back more than 200 years. Prison reformers had realized that convicts needed physical activity but worried that allowing them unfettered access to common areas might be dangerous. Treadmills offered incarcerated men the opportunity to simulate walking in a confined area. So successful was this means of allowing physical exertion in a confined space that the well-to-do soon set up similar units in their homes. The simplest units are simply a wide belt over rollers with little to no resistance. The participant simply walks, as they would normally, and the belt moves beneath them. While it may sound dull, there are many ways to make your treadmill workouts more fun.

Remarkably, the stationary bicycle can also trace its origins back more than 200 years. An exercise apparatus called the “Gymnasticon” was created by Francis Lowndes as a way to exercise joints. The Gymnasticon gave the user the ability to move their legs (and their arms, if they wished) in an oppositional, circular motion. The motion was not as basic as walking but was still quite intuitive. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that a seated position, like that of the “safety bicycle”, became available. The seated position of the stationary bike provides a lower impact work-out and can be beneficial for people with physical challenges or disabilities. In its most rudimentary form, a stationary bike has a seat and a crank with pedals.

Variable Resistance

Somewhere along the way, someone figured out that simply walking or pedaling without resistance provided limited benefit to the user. Jailors in the United Kingdom added resistance to the exercise equipment being used by the incarcerated men, making their activity more strenuous and more tiring. The jailors would screw a tightening mechanism down to create more resistance. Thus, jailors became known to prisoners as “screws,” a nickname that has remained to this day.

Treadmills, like the XTERRA TR150 folding treadmill, are now available with a number of ways to change the resistance or difficulty of the workout. By changing the speed of the belt or the incline, the user is challenged. A steeper incline simulates changes in the terrain someone might experience when running. Increasing or decreasing the speed of the belt forces the user to keep pace with the equipment.

This is where there is a fundamental difference from treadmills to stationary bicycles. Whereas the treadmill dictates the speed of the person’s movement, the stationary bicycle relies on changing the physical resistance to achieve a greater challenge. The stationary bicycle rider can simulate the use of gear ratios, like a road cyclist might on varying terrain, to get a variable workout or optimize their physical exertion.

Choose a Format

Treadmill designs have grown from the simple, single track. Options like elliptical machines, cross-country ski simulators, and stair steppers have expanded the treadmill market. While many of these machines might seem like they offer a new, more effective workout, professionals warn to choose carefully. Overwhelmingly, physical trainers and medical personnel recommend simplicity over trends. A single platform, variable speed, variable incline treadmill will serve most people well.

Similarly, stationary bikes come in a countless number of variations. Determine whether you prefer upright or recumbent seating, stationary handlebars, or integrated motion grips. Choose a saddle you find comfortable or a bike that allows you to switch out the saddle for one you find comfortable.

High Versus Low Impact

Medical professionals consider running a high-impact sport. It is well documented that people can suffer injuries to the knees, ankles, and other joints when running. This can occur over time, even in the healthiest people. Treadmills do offer a number of features that are meant to help limit the potential for injuries. Cushioned decks, shock absorption systems, and independent belts can help keep the impact on knees and ankles to a minimum, but the fact remains that running requires the legs and feet to bear the weight of the participant, which can be magnified by the movement of running.

Stationary bikes, by their very nature, are one of the low-impact exercises that is best for your body when compared to other forms of exercise. Whether an upright bike or recumbent (or seated with legs forward), the full weight of the body is not put upon a participant’s legs. Furthermore, the circular motion of cycling does not create the focused impact of the motion of running. Medical professionals prefer station bike exercise for their patients with a history of joint injury or back and hip pain. More athletic users tend to choose upright models, that more closely imitate traditional cycling. Recumbent seating tends to be more padded and can even include seatbacks.

All the Tech

Regardless of whether we’re discussing treadmills or stationary bikes, integrated technology has become a popular option on exercise equipment.

The world of exercise took a major leap forward when one start-up introduced a stationary bicycle system with an integrated video system. Utilizing wi-fi, users can now subscribe to a service that offers live trainers and spinning classes while on the exercise bike. The user can easily link cardio monitors, smartwatches, or other personal tech to track their progress and even compete with other users. An example of this, the Schwinn 270 recumbent, does an excellent job at combining these features to make an exercise a much more enjoyable experience than you would think.

This technology quickly expanded to other kinds of equipment, including treadmills. Runners, like their cycling counterparts, can now subscribe to training programs that challenge the user and measure the results. Treadmills are now offered that have their own touchscreens, interactive technology, and conveniences to make the experience more enjoyable.

Compact Design

For many years, stationary bikes held a very obvious advantage in their design. By their very nature, upright-style stationary bikes have a smaller footprint than traditional treadmills. This means that precious floor space at the fitness center can accommodate more bikes than treadmills. In a home gym, this consideration is even more obvious as the fitness equipment must often share a room with traditional furniture.

Fortunately, treadmills have recently been designed with the ability to fold. The platform still requires enough room to accommodate an adult’s full stride to be effective, so the treadmill still commands a larger area for operation, but with newer models able to fold for storage, there is an improvement.

Growing Versatility

No two people have the same fitness goals, and for that reason, designers of both treadmills and stationary bicycles are building equipment that meets a wider array of capabilities. For treadmill designers, that has meant wider platforms, adjustable inclines, and stronger motors. Treadmills can now be found with individual tracks for each foot, to mimic stair climbing, to further challenge the user.

Traditional bicycle companies have entered the stationary bike market, drawing on their experience building different styles of bicycles. This means creating stationary bikes with adjustable geometry, to allow the rider to find the most comfortable position. Seating can range from comfort to competition style, giving users different support levels. Add to the mix the recumbent bikes, that have larger, more comfortable seats, and stationary bikes can accommodate any skill level.

Spin bikes in a gym

Quiet Operation

Treadmills and stationary bicycles have historically been noisy pieces of equipment. For treadmills, the friction of the belt running creates a constant source of the noise. Depending on the step dampening technology of the machine, it is possible for the user’s own movement to add to the noise from the machine.

Stationary bikes have the potential to be much quieter. Older fan and flywheel models were often quite noisy, but the modern systems offer excellent sound dampening.

Attractive Styling

The engineers that design exercise equipment has not only upped their game in the technology of the equipment but the styling, as well. And while the most slick-looking piece of equipment is not necessarily likely to provide you with better fitness outcomes, people are more apt to use a piece of equipment they find attractive.

Treadmills have gotten leaner and smoother in their lines. Clumsy side-rails have given way to cleaner grips. The controls are more ergonomic and the screens are larger, easier to read. The decks are gracefully extended from more compact motor housings.

Stationary bikes are no longer clunky, awkward relatives of their outdoor brothers. Large, heavy flywheels or fan wheels are gone. Now cranks emerge from clean frames with blade-like form and geometry that looks fast, even standing still.


In the end, choosing exercise equipment is all about your comfort. Whether your preference is to get in a good run while watching the morning news program or gunning it through a spinning class, taught remotely and viewed through a subscription, the first thing to consider is the machine’s ability to provide a safe, injury-free experience.

Either a treadmill or a stationary bike can be a safe, effective choice for indoor training and fitness needs.