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Walking Outside vs. on a Treadmill: Differences, Weight Loss & Injury Risk 

9 min read
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Chetendeep Micky Lal post Reviewer Chetendeep Micky Lal post Reviewer
MA in Kinesiology, CSCS, Registered Yoga Teacher

Table of Contents

Many questions need to be answered when comparing walking outside vs. on a treadmill. What will get me in shape? What’s better for my health? Which one decreases the risk of injury?

Walking is a great way to get your body moving and your mind focused, but how do you know whether you should stick with the outdoors or a treadmill? 

In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of each so that you can pick one and start smashing your goals today! 

Benefits of Walking Outside

Let’s start by going over the benefits of walking outside:

It’s Free and Accessible

First, walking is the most affordable way to exercise. 

You don’t need any equipment, which means no cost of gym memberships or equipment purchases. Although you can definitely try some equipment like walking sticks, basically all you need to get started is a pair of shoes.  

You Can Burn Extra Calories

According to a study, walking on uneven terrains like rocks or gravel paths gives extra resistance, forcing you to use more muscle groups, thus expending more energy and burning more calories. [1]

However, it’s not all black and white. Don’t forget that how much you burn depends on where you are walking (hills or flat surfaces), your speed, what you are wearing (for example, you will work harder and burn more if you have a heavy backpack on), and how many times you stop to catch your breath. 

You Get Sunlight

The vitamin D in sunlight helps strengthen bones, boost immunity, and reduce depression and other mood disorders. [2] Many people have insufficient levels because of a lack of sun exposure due to spending too much time indoors. 

You Can Benefit From Natural Scenery

Walking outside offers opportunities to enjoy scenic views that aren’t available when exercising indoors. 

A study suggests that a 50-minute walk in nature can reduce anxiety and lift your mood. [3] Whether a simple stroll through your neighborhood or an exciting hike through nature trails, there’s something special about being surrounded by natural beauty while working up a sweat.

It May Improve Your Creativity

A Stanford University study looked at people who were given a creative task to complete in three different settings: indoors, outdoors, and walking outdoors. [4] Participants were asked to solve word puzzles and draw pictures using geometric shapes. The researchers found that those who exercised outside had the most creative answers. 

The researchers said this may be because walking forces you to focus on your surroundings, which can help with creativity. But it could also be that being outside gives you a broader perspective on the world and makes you more open-minded. 

Drawbacks of Walking Outside

Walking is a great way to get in some exercise, but there are some drawbacks to walking outside: 

Increased Risk of Injury

Walking outside exposes you to a higher risk of injury compared with walking on a treadmill at the gym because there are so many different surfaces that can cause bumps and bruises – from potholes to slippery leaves and ice patches in winter months – which may lead to sprains and strains if you don’t take proper care when walking around these obstacles. 

​​Moreover, walking on hard surfaces like concrete increases the impact on the ankle, knee, and hip joints. Over time, this can cause back pain, knee pain, tight muscles, and foot pain.

Less Controlled Environment

There are hazards like cars and traffic, uneven sidewalks, and obstacles in your path. If you’re walking in an urban area, you may have to deal with crowds, noise, and pollution. You may also have to walk in bad weather or extreme heat, or cold. 

Walking outside can also be inconvenient if you live far away from work or other places you want to go because it might not be safe for you to walk there at night.

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Benefits of Walking on a Treadmill

Is walking on a treadmill as good as walking outside? 

There are many benefits to walking on a treadmill. It can be done at any time, and it’s easy to monitor your progress and adjust the speed or incline as needed. You can also choose how long you want to walk on a treadmill and increase the workout time as you build endurance. 

Treadmill walking also offers some special advantages over outdoor walking: 

Built-in Shock Absorption and Extra Cushioning

Walking on a treadmill is less jarring than walking outside.

The treadmill absorbs the impact from your feet hitting the ground, which means that contrary to the common belief, treadmills are not bad for your knees.

Treadmills also have an extra layer of cushioning underfoot that can help prevent injuries such as shin splints or plantar fasciitis. 

Consistent Speed and Incline

A treadmill will keep you at a steady pace while walking, so it’s easier to maintain a consistent speed. And if you want to increase your speed or incline during your workout, you can do so in small increments (usually by 0.1 mph). 

That is much better than trying to change speeds when outside on uneven terrain or hills that cause sudden changes in speed. 

Better Grip and Safety

Walking on a treadmill offers a better grip than walking outside. This is because your feet are locked into place on the treadmill belt, which makes it less likely that you will slip or fall. 

The safety and security of using a treadmill can help motivate you to walk more often because you won’t have to worry about falling or injuring yourself by running on pavement or other surfaces outside. 

No Distractions or Weather Dependency

When exercising indoors, you don’t have to worry about distractions like traffic or people talking around you. These distractions can make it hard for some people to focus on their workout and enjoy their time exercising instead of just doing it out of necessity. 

The same with the weather: weather conditions can’t be used as an excuse to miss your walking workout if you’re using a treadmill.

Drawbacks of Walking on a Treadmill

Treadmills offer many benefits, but they also have some drawbacks that make them less than ideal for certain situations. Here are some of the drawbacks of using a treadmill:

Your Workout is Going to be Less Challenging

All the treadmill benefits mentioned before logically lead to a less challenging workout. You can adjust the speed and the incline; however, you won’t be able to do so as a natural environment does.

Treadmills also don’t offer downhill settings, and downhill motions stimulate the tibialis anterior and soleus muscles, the front and back muscles of the lower leg.

Another reason for the less challenging walking workout on a treadmill is that the treadmill’s belt helps you move forward, causing you to use less effort on a treadmill than walking outside.

The least you can do to challenge your muscles while walking on a treadmill is to increase the incline.They Don’t Provide an Unstable Surface 

Treadmills don’t provide an unstable surface like how walking outdoors does.

Your feet are always on solid ground no matter how much weight you’re carrying, which can lead to imbalances and muscle tightness in your legs and hips. 

Treadmills Are Less Affordable

A good treadmill will set you back at least $500. You can find cheaper ones – for as low as $200 – but they lack features that make them worth the price.

Another option for treadmill access is a gym membership, which doesn’t come for free either.

This drawback has nothing to do with performance or workout quality but is still important to consider when comparing walking outside vs. on a treadmill.

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Walking Outside vs. on a Treadmill: Your Goal Matters

The most important thing to understand when it comes to the “walking outside vs. treadmill” question is that there is no right or wrong way to walk for exercise. What you opt for depends on your goals, personal preference, fitness level, and weather conditions, among other things. 

If you are a beginner, you might want to start by walking on a treadmill because it is safer and more predictable. You could also download a walking app for personalized walking plans. 

If you are building up your cardiovascular fitness, it’s up to you where you do it as long as it’s convenient for you. If the gym is just around the corner from your home and it’s dark outside, opt for a brisk treadmill walk at the gym. 

On the other hand, outdoor walking is a great way to condition your body for outdoor activities like running or jogging. Outdoors is also better if you want to strengthen your stabilizing muscles and prevent injuries in the long run; however, use a treadmill if you are dealing with ongoing injuries (especially of the knees) and need to be extra careful. 

Final Words

So, is it better to walk outside or on a treadmill? 

Walking outside is free and accessible. It improves your mood, reduces stress, and boosts creativity. On the other hand, it can be dangerous if you’re not used to it.

If you are wondering which burns more calories, treadmills or walking outside, opt for walking outside. Uneven terrains provide extra resistance, thus making you involve more muscles and burn more calories as a result.  

Opt for a treadmill if: 

  • Are a beginner; 
  • Want better grip, safety, and comfort; 
  • Don’t want distractions; 
  • Need consistency; 
  • Just like the treadmill better.

“But what if I can’t get to the gym, and it’s too miserable to walk outside?” Try walking in place instead. It’s not exactly the same as walking on a treadmill, but it is also a way to exercise, and it certainly counts! 

Disclaimer This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!

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