How To Optimize Weight and Fat Loss On a Treadmill

Do you want to lose weight by working out on a treadmill but aren’t sure how to go about it? It doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s all you need to know. 

To lose weight on a treadmill, use a speed and incline that you can maintain for the duration of your workout and you can recover from before the next workout. Walking or slow jogging at a slight incline is going to be the most effective for most people because it’s sustainable. 

There are some details you should be aware of which you can find if you keep reading. 

Important Takeaways

Don’t have a lot of time? Here are the most important points made in this article you should really know:

  • Duration, speed, incline and body weight impact greatly how many calories you burn on a treadmill
  • Lower speed and inclines but longer durations burn more calories in the end and require less recovery which means you can do more workouts. 
  • If time is limited, increase the intensity to hit your calorie goals. Increase incline before increasing speed and back off if you can’t recover in time for the next workout.
  • Start easy and increase the difficulty a little bit every workout until you hit the right amount of calories burnt. 
  • Make sure you pace yourself so you can recover before your next workout.
  • Hitting a calorie goal instead of a duration goal and adjusting your workout intensity according to how you feel can help you work out more consistently. 

How To Use a Treadmill To Lose Weight

1. Burning Calories

If all you care about is losing weight, burning calories is the name of the game. For losing weight, burning more calories than you eat is what matters. If you burn more calories than you take in, you lose body weight. 

Don’t have a treadmill yet and want to buy one for at home? Click here to find how to choose the right treadmill for you.

The treadmill is a good tool to burn calories and so lose weight. Working out on a treadmill is used to burn more calories than you would sitting down and create that energy deficit which, over time, results in weight loss. 

But what is the best way to do this? 

2. Treadmill Calories Burnt Factors

Moving around burns calories and you move by walking or running on a treadmill. But how many calories this exactly burns depends on a few things. If we’re talking about a treadmill here are the factors for how many calories are burnt:

  • Duration: The longer you run or walk, the more calories are burnt.
  • Speed: The faster you walk/run the more calories are burnt.
  • Incline: A higher incline uses more calories. 1%-2% incline is generally considered to burn the same amount of calories as walking or running on the street. (by the way, don’t hold the handles while on an incline, this largely negates the incline). Find some good treadmills with incline in this article.
  • Body weight: People with a higher body weight inherently spend more energy per minute doing the same speed/incline as a lighter person since the bodyweight has to be moved with every stride. Tip: You can wear a weighted vest to increase the difficulty and so burn more energy without increasing the speed or incline. A heavy backpack works too but isn’t as good for your back and can throw off your balance. 
  • Level of training: When you do something your body isn’t used to, it’s very inefficient at doing it. After a few workouts, the body gets more efficient and it burns fewer calories to do the same thing. People that are not used to walking at all, will burn a significant amount of calories just walking for any amount of time. However, over time, you’ll have to push harder to get the same effect. After the beginning stages this effect does start to taper off though. 

Especially the first three are the main levers you can pull to impact how many calories you burn. The duration is often dictated by how much time you have available. Most people can free up about 15-60 minutes a day for a workout. The shorter your workout, the more intense it should be so you can burn a decent amount of calories. The intensity can be adjusted with the speed and incline. How fast and steep you have to go really depends on your personal fitness level. 

If you have more time available, going at a lower intensity for longer is better since this is easier to recover from and even at a lower intensity, you can still burn more calories by going for longer. 

Completely new to using a treadmill? Click here for a complete beginners guide on how to start and use a treadmill for the first time.

3. The Best Way To Burn Calories On a Treadmill

You would think that the best way to burn calories on a treadmill is for the longest duration on the highest speed and highest incline. While that would burn the most calories per minute, it’s not sustainable for most.

Running at the highest speed you can does burn a lot of calories per minute but you can’t do that for more than 30 seconds and in that amount of time you don’t actually burn a lot of calories. You would burn much more by just walking for an hour. For most people, going for longer but at a lower intensity burns more calories in the end while also being easier.

Look at this example for a 165 lbs. person: 

  • 15 minutes, 2% slope, 6 Mph = 267 calories burnt
  • 60 minutes, 2% slope, 3 Mph = 338 calories burnt
  • 60 minutes, 5% slope, 3 Mph = 397 calories burnt

And for a 250 lbs. person:

  • 15 minutes, 2% slope, 6 Mph = 404 calories burnt
  • 60 minutes, 2% slope, 3 Mph = 512 calories burnt
  • 60 minutes, 5% slope, 3 Mph = 603 calories burnt

Play around with this calculator to see for yourself.

Yes, running at 6 Mph burns more calories per minute but walking is much easier for people especially if you’re a bigger person. If you’re overweight, it’s a bad idea to immediately start running if you’re not used to it, you’ll be able to do that once and then have to recover for a week if you’re lucky and didn’t badly hurt your knees. Walking for an hour is safer, burns more calories in the end and you can do it more often. Wins all around for walking in my opinion.

And if you’re ready to increase the intensity, start by increasing the incline. A higher incline gives you a decent boost in calories burnt while being less stressful and fatiguing than increasing the speed to match those extra calories. 

Also, I gave the example of 1 hour of walking. For people that are very heavy and completely untrained, this can be way too much. Start with whatever you can (however little this is) and add a little bit every workout. For example, start with 3 minutes at a pace you can handle. Then add a minute every day until you hit 60 minutes. Yes, this takes a long time but slow and steady is the only right way to do this. 

Suggested: How fast can you lose belly fat by using a treadmill?

4. Duration vs. Intensity

So when working out on a treadmill, it’s important to balance the duration and intensity. Lower intensity and longer duration is usually better for weight loss. 

However, in the real world, people have time constraints. And if you can only free up 15-30 minutes a day, you should increase the intensity a little so you can still burn a good amount of calories. However, this will increase the stress on the joints and your fatigue levels making recovery more difficult. And especially if you’re in a calorie deficit (which you should be if you want to lose weight), recovery can be slow. 

Not recovering and keeping working out all the time is a good way to get injuries. Those injuries will then impede further workouts. So if you want to reduce the duration and increase intensity, do so slowly over time and don’t make the change suddenly. While you’re changing, take note of how you feel. Are you getting more and more fatigued, getting nagging tendon or joint pains? Back off a little. Consistency is more important than pushing yourself every workout. 

Of course over time you’ll be able to do more intense workouts but ease into. Slowly increase duration, speed and incline until you notice you can’t recover for the next workout. Back off a little from there. 

By the way, good shoes also help a lot in reducing the impact on your joints. Running with normal shoes or even worse, no shoes, is asking for trouble.

5. Calorie Targets

If you are flexible with your time, a great tip is to go for a calorie goal instead of duration, speed and incline goal. Some days you might feel better than other days. That’s perfectly normal, even the best athletes have good and bad days. So one day you might feel like running while other days you can barely walk. 

To make sure you still have the right calorie deficit every day, just target to burn a certain amount of calories. When you feel good you can run for 15 minutes and hit it while other days you can walk for 45 minutes to hit the same calorie target. This helps you to still work out even when you don’t feel like it. 

This also makes your workouts more varied/less boring and the variety can help you prevent injuries. For example when running beat you up the day before, walking the next day to give your joints some rest is a great idea. 

A fitness tracker is a much better way to track calories than the counter on a treadmill. 

Fitness trackers are way more accurate in estimating how many calories you burnt than the counter on a treadmill since those don’t properly take all your personal factors into account and in my experience the heart rate monitoring on a fitness band is also much more accurate which in turn feeds into the accuracy of the calories burnt. Are bands 100% accurate? No but they’re close enough in most cases. 

Another benefit is that it calculates how much energy you burn outside of the gym. Just doing chores and working also uses energy so it’s good to know how much that is too. 

I would highly recommend getting one if you take your weight loss process seriously. It doesn’t have to be an expensive one, some cheaper ones are perfectly fine too. 

Suggested: Can you get visible abs from running on a treadmill?

6. Recovery

I’ve mentioned recovery a few times above. What does that mean and how can you improve it? 

Working out breaks down your muscles, tendons and can irritate the joints. This is normal and the body recovers from this and makes them a little stronger which is how you become better over time. 

Being recovered from a workout just means your muscles, joints and connective tissues have been repaired from the damage done by a workout. If you’re not fully recovered before you work out again, you make the damage worse and over time your muscles and joints will get achy and painful. Over time this can lead to injuries. 

The higher intensity a workout is, the more recovery you need. Yes, a high intensity workout might burn more calories but you can’t do them as often or for as long because you can’t recover as quickly. This is why walking/running at a lower speed/incline for longer is better since you can do that more often and so burn way more calories over the course of a month.

To help recovery, nutrition and sleep are the most important. Eat healthy foods with enough protein to give your body the macro and micronutrients it needs to recover. Consider using a protein supplement and a multivitamin to help you. 

Sleep is very important since most of the recovery happens when sleeping. Sleep enough hours (7-8) and do things that increase sleep quality like; a cold room, no screens 1-2 hours before sleep, no alcohol or caffeine before sleep. (Alcohol might help you fall asleep but really decreases sleep QUALITY). 

Resistance Training

I would also seriously recommend adding some kind of resistance training to your cardio regimen, especially if you choose to use a calorie deficit. In a calorie deficit your body will use fat as fuel but also some muscle mass, especially if you don’t eat enough protein. 

Adding resistance training helps preserve muscle mass when losing weight. You’re giving a signal to your body: yeah we don’t have enough energy to maintain all this mass but I really need this muscle. Which then leads to more fat burning and less muscle loss. 

Don’t care about muscle? Even if you just want to lose weight, you really should:

  • Bigger muscles are like having a bigger engine in your car. Bigger muscles means you have the potential to burn more calories. Besides, only doing cardio gets boring and adding resistance training just adds some variety to your workouts. 
  • Having more muscle mass burns more calories even while you’re resting. Sure, it’s not a ton but it does mean you can eat a few calories more without gaining weight. 
  • Losing weight can cause loose skin if you lose a lot of it. Having larger muscles reduces the amount of loose skin. And when you get to very low body fat percentages, you just look emaciated without some muscle mass which also isn’t great. 

Treadmill Alternatives For Weight Loss

The treadmill might be the first machine you think about when you want to lose weight. And while It’s effective, it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone. 

There are a few reasons why this is the case:

1. Impact and Recovery

The big reasons why a treadmill is not for everyone is that walking but especially running impacts your joints and spine a lot. Every time your foot hits the belt is an impact your body has to recover from. The heavier you are, the harder these impacts become. Very heavy people should probably start on an elliptical, bicycle or rowing machine since don’t nearly impact your joints as much. Not only muscles have to recover from a workout. 

Joints and tendons have to recover too and this actually takes much longer. However, usually you don’t feel soreness in your joints or tendons until you’re already injured or very close to it. So if you intend on using a treadmill every day, this might be too much over time. Consider at least alternating the treadmill with another machine to prevent overuse and impact injuries. 

As you can read above, managing recovery is important for consistent workouts. However, because an elliptical or rowing machine is lower impact, you could work out harder on those without having as much of a recovery demand for the joints. This means you can push harder and burn more calories every time you work out. 

2. Efficiency

The second reason why a treadmill is not the absolute best choice is because it’s not the most effective at burning calories. There are some other machines in the gym that burn more calories per minute for the same perceived effort. The elliptical trainer and rowing machine are my personal favorites. They don’t beat you up like running does and if feels easier to burn 100 calories on those than on a treadmill. 

Of course there are also benefits to using a treadmill. The biggest is probably the carryover it has to daily activities. Just walking around will be easier because you’re used to the motion. Running also has a lot of carryover to any sport where you have to run. 

That said, the best cardio exercise is the cardio exercise you actually do so if you love running and have no problems recovering, go for it!


Any article about weight loss can not be complete without mentioning diet. Burning calories is only one part of the puzzle, how much and what you eat is the other half. And getting your diet under control is probably even more important than working out in if losing weight is the goal. 

A classic sugared donut from Dunkin Donuts is 240 calories. That is the same amount of calories a 175 lbs. person burns when walking at 3 miles an hour for 45(!) minutes. What’s easier, not eating a donut or walking 45 minutes? 

You total body weight loss/gain is a simple sum of how many calories are taken in and how many you burn during a day. Yes there are a few exceptions but unless you have a rare disease or are taking certain medications, calories in vs calories out works. 

That means you want to use your workouts to create a calorie deficit. The deficit is the difference between the amount of calories you take in and the amount you burn in a day. This energy difference has to come from somewhere which is your body’s stored energy.

For example, you eat 2000 calories and burn 1800 just laying on the couch. You’ll gain weight doing this. However, now add a 400 calorie workout a day. Suddenly you’re eating 2000 calories but burning 2200. That means you’re losing weight. A 250-500 calorie deficit a day is a sustainable deficit for losing weight for most people.

This means you have to be aware of how many calories your body needs to maintain weight and track how much you’re eating. There is no real way around this. 

Calories are the most important thing when losing weight but, getting nutritious foods is almost as important. The amount of calories you eat can impact your total body weight however, WHAT you eat can impact your body composition. You want to lose fat, not muscle mass. 

Getting enough protein in helps preserve muscle when losing weight. Most people want to lose body fat but not muscle mass. Eating at least 0.8 grams of protein per lbs. of body weight while eating fewer calories than you need helps a lot in preserving muscle. However, its’ also a good idea to use some resistance training to further reduce muscle loss.


Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to I've been going to the gym for about 15 years and am now looking to build my own. In the process I've learned many things I'd like to share with you.

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