I’ve heard negative things said about treadmills along the lines of them causing knee & back pain.
To verify if this is true or not I researched sports science & medical studies, and in this article I share what orthopedic, podiatry, and physical rehabilitation doctors have to say about this.
So are treadmills bad for you?
Treadmills are not the cause of pain or injury to our knees, feet, or other joints.
The most prevalent reasons for these problems are:
1) overuse of the treadmill by the user
2) a user’s preexisting condition that is made worse by the repetitive nature of treadmill exercise, &/or
3) a person altering their normal stride unnaturally while using the treadmill.
In the sections ahead we’ll look at how the treadmill gets blamed for the pain & injury people experience while using it.
Then I’ll show how medical science has proven that that blame is unjustified.
I’ll also discuss how the treadmill is used to relieve chronic pain, and provide advice from doctors & physical therapists on how to avoid having a bad treadmill day.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant medical and sports science resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
Treadmills aren’t bad, overusing them is
People in pain tend to complain more than those walking on sunshine.
I know I do.
And bad news has always traveled faster than good news, nowadays perhaps more so than ever before.
And it’s a fact many people have had to deal with pain in one or more of their body parts after using a treadmill on a regular basis for their cardio exercise.
Result: A lot of people are asking Google
“Are treadmills bad?”
“Are treadmills bad for your knees/back/ankles/feet”,
“Are treadmills bad for my dog?” & “Do treadmills cause cancer?”
(I kid you not.)
Well, the treadmill isn’t the cause of the pain.
Runners’ overuse of treadmills = injuries
A panel of foot doctors on Podiatry Today noted an increase of foot injuries to runners that had added treadmill running to their routine during the cold winter months.
They noted that the runners were logging more miles in total, thanks to being able to run indoors during cold or bad weather. Said one physician,
“While their daily routine continues despite the purchase of a treadmill, the addition of treadmill exercise can add a significant number of repetitive biomechanical injuries.”
This is an example of overuse and a repetitive motion combining to cause the injury.
The treadmill didn’t cause it, the runners’ overdoing it did.
Same exercise routine = repetitive motion pain
A doctor of physical therapy outside of D.C. was interviewed by Washingtonian Magazine for his opinion on the brewing treadmill Yay or Nay debate.
He put it this way:
“The treadmill is not bad for your body. The body is bad for the treadmill.”
That sounds like a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to me, but luckily the magazine got him to clarify & expound further.
The PT physician said that many people are predisposed to experiencing a pain issue, due to the same overuse scenario we looked at earlier.
He went on to say that whenever someone does the same type of exercise for 30-60 minutes day in & day out without any variation, repetitive motion injuries are common.
And if a treadmill is anything, it’s repetitive.
Bottom line: Doing too much of the same motion over & over again is not good for the body.
Stress to the joints & bones from repetitive overuse can often lead to pain, regardless of the type of exercise.
Walk this way
Lots of medical & sports science studies have been conducted that compare walking & running outdoors vs. on a treadmill.
One area that gets a lot of attention from researchers are the biomechanical* differences of our bodies while on a treadmill vs. being on regular ground.
*Biomechanics – the study of how living things move
We walk differently when on a treadmill
Research studies like this one have noticed distinct differences in the way people walk on a treadmill compared to regular walking.
The clinical tests found that people alter the way their knee, hip, & ankle joints are used while walking on the treadmill.
Researchers attributed some of these unconscious changes the participants made to their gait to what their eyes see while moving on a treadmill.
This neurological study demonstrates that as we move, we instinctively adjust our stride from signals our eyes send to our brains.
It’s second nature to us since we start doing it as soon as we learn to motor around on two legs.
Unnatural stride + repetition = trouble
For some people, the environment on the treadmill is unnatural enough to cause them to make greater changes to their normal stride than others.
Doing this thousands of times per workout can spell trouble, as this clinical trial found.
They observed that some people on a treadmill change their stride to such a point that it significantly alters the “smoothness & rhythmicity” of their normal gait.
Spine doctors here point out that combining this unnatural movement with the repetitive nature of treadmill exercise could antagonize preexisting conditions in your low back.
They advise treadmill users to be aware of their tendency to change the way they normally walk or run, in order to avoid the onset of pain.
Are treadmills bad for arthritic knees?
No, nyet, nein, non, não, nit…quite the opposite.
The US Health Dept. points to what they call “strong evidence” supporting regular light aerobic activity like walking as a way to improve arthritic conditions.
They consider treadmill walking “an excellent workout” for arthritis sufferers.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons also recommends exercise, saying that being inactive due to arthritic pain will only worsen the condition.
They go on further to explain that low-impact exercise like treadmill walking will increase the blood flow to the arthritic joints, and that this will send more nutrients to the area to help it heal.
Additionally, the low-impact exercise will strengthen the surrounding muscles & bones, which can reduce pain and better protect the injured joints.
Are treadmills bad for your back?
By now we know that if someone develops a sore back from running or walking on a treadmill, the most likely reasons are that they changed their normal posture or stride too much, & overused the treadmill in this altered state.
Another common culprit is wearing bad shoes, either that are too old or are the wrong choice for providing the right type of support while running or walking.
Meanwhile, scientific evidence endorses treadmill walking as a means to help relieve back pain.
Research shows walking is good for backs
There are a lot of medical studies proving the benefit of walking as a treatment for low back pain.
This study of nearly 6,000 people with low back pain found that the more walking someone did, the less back pain they had.
In another study, this one conducted at UCLA determined that walking is a good exercise recommendation for patients with low back issues, as a way to help reduce symptoms & pain.
And here, a systematic review of over 20 clinical studies involving over 30,000 participants was published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.
It showed that exercises such as walking helped to prevent low back pain.
Treadmills don’t cause shin splints
Treadmills have been blamed for causing shin splints, but again the accusation is without merit or substance.
Mayo Clinic reports that most shin splint injuries – medically known as medial tibial stress syndrome – are due to overuse (sound familiar?).
They say it frequently happens to people who’ve “recently intensified or changed their exercise routine”.
Runner’s World – a globally distributed magazine for over 50 years – lists bad shoes and poor running form as the top reasons for developing shin splints.
And for avid runners that don’t want to stop training despite their shin splints, Runner’s World actually recommends running on a treadmill as a safe alternative.
Tips for a good time on a treadmill
Here’s a brief list of suggestions for pain-free treadmill exercise, courtesy of the various experts referenced in this article:
- Pay attention to your posture
- Make sure you’re moving naturally
- Don’t use the treadmill’s handrails
- Vary your cardio routine; choose something besides a treadmill
- If walking with arthritic knees, try a 3% incline
- Shorten your workout times
- Adequately stretch beforehand
Bad treadmills FAQ
Here are answers to a couple of common questions from our bad treadmill mail bag.
Are treadmills bad for dogs?
Treadmills are helpful if your dog is overweight and you can’t give it the amount of outdoor exercise needed to lose those pounds.
Also, some dogs just have a lot of energy in them even after a bunch of exercise, and some people’s schedules don’t provide them the time to deal with that.
But as this vet explains on PetMD, a person parking their dog on a treadmill just so that they can go veg in front of a TV instead of getting some exercise with said pooch…well, that’s just wrong.
Do treadmills cause cancer?
Only if you insist on drinking its lubricating oil all of the time 😁.
This cancer meme picked up steam around the internet thanks to the state government of California.
In 1986 they passed a law called Proposition 65, which was originally aimed at protecting drinking water.
Unfortunately, it morphed – as things often do in the Golden State – to where warning labels are now slapped on treadmills sold in California warning consumers that
This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Nothing to see here folks. Move along, nothing to see…
I hope this article setting the record straight on the much-maligned treadmill and its accompanying medical research is useful to you.
I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.