Whether you’re a fan of lacing up your sneakers for a walk or like to swim laps at the pool, there’s no denying it’s important to get a regular dose of cardio. Not only does it help to burn fat and assist with weight management, but it also has other science-backed benefits, like improved mental clarity and preventing muscle loss.
Sometimes when you’re in a rush, fitting in the suggested 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week gets shoved to the backburner. That’s where popular pieces of cardio equipment come in — specifically two of the biggest calorie-burners: the treadmill (on an incline) and the stairclimber.
We checked in with experts to find out which one burns the most calories, and the response was actually pretty surprising.
It’s important to specify what a StairMaster is versus another popular machine, the StairMill. While a StairMaster is comparable to an elliptical in nature (your feet don’t actually come off of the pedals during the workout), a StairMill is an actual set of rotating stairs which the user must climb, similar to steps you might climb at home or when ascending from the subway.
“With the StairMaster, you’ll see less impact since you’re not actually lifting your foot and putting it back down like you would be for walking or running,” says Heather Milton, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist and an exercise physiologist and clinical specialist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. “With this machine you can get a good moderate-intensity workout.”
According to the Compendium of Physical Activity, climbing stairs has a MET (which stands for “metabolic equivalent task,” and is one way exercise physiologists estimate how many calories are burned during physical activity) value of 4.0 at a slow pace and 8.8 at a brisk one. To calculate the number of calories burned, you multiply METS by weight (in kilograms) and time (in hours). Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also shows incorporating the lower-body-focused cardio workout into your routine can help increase your endurance, giving you a 17% bump in VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in during exercise).
Using the treadmill while walking on an incline can be a great total-body workout. The catch: Make sure you’re not holding onto the railing when you’re hiking up the belt. By doing so, the calorie output you see in front of you on-screen is less accurate, since the assisted stabilization decreases the required effort.
When compared to the StairMaster, you’ll see a similar calorie burn: The compendium lists an 8.0 MET value when walking 3.5 mph at a 6% incline.
Ultimately, it depends on what level and intensity you’re using the machines. Both the stairclimber and the treadmill have different settings, and Milton says it’s likely you’ll be able to crank up the intensity a tad more on the treadmill. “With a treadmill you can gauge speed better and truly understand what workload you’re at,” she says. “If you’re going uphill on a treadmill, then you can actually start at a lower pace and really work on your form.”
Milton says the two activities boast similar results: On average, a 150-pound person burns roughly 204 calories walking on a treadmill uphill at 3.5 mph versus 272 calories walking upstairs for 30 minutes. “[Mechanics-wise] they’re both working on triple extension through hip knee and ankle,” she says. “Both machines really incorporate the large muscle groups. And since those muscles utilize a lot of calories, you’ll see a large burn with both.”