There is a common belief that the treadmill is the best cardio modality for burning fat. This belief seems to be supported by various books and internet sites that post charts showing a greater expenditure of calories associated with the treadmill when compared to similar time spent on alternative cardio modalities.
A recent study by Brown and colleagues (1), however, provides evidence that this might not be the case. Eighteen subjects (9 males and 9 females) were assessed while either exercising on the treadmill or the elliptical trainer. The results might surprise you. Researchers found that when exercising at the same rating of perceived exertion (a measure of how hard one is training), there was no significant difference in the number of calories burned between the two modalities.
Fat burning as it applies to aerobic exercise can be boiled down to two basic factors: intensity (i.e. how hard you are exercising) and duration (how long you are exercising). The key point is that with respect to training intensity, it doen’t matter whether you are running, biking, stair climbing, etc.; provided you are putting in the same relative effort, fat burning will be basically the same.
The take home message here is that if you don’t like to run, don’t force yourself to slog through a treadmill workout in hopes of burning a few extra calories. As long as you train at a comparable level of intensity, the differences in fat burning between modalities will be negligible. Given that the most important aspect of any exercise program is adherence (you can’t get results if you’re not training, right?), you should choose a cardio modality based on your goals and preferences–not because it purportedly burns more fat.
1) Brown GA, Cook CM, Krueger RD, Heelan KA. Comparison of energy expenditure on a treadmill vs. an elliptical device at a self-selected exercise intensity. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):1643-9.