Between the countless pieces of equipment in the cardio section of your gym and the sweat-inducing studio fitness classes now available, there are plenty of options for you to scorethe 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity that the CDC recommends adults get weekly. And while any heart-pumping cardio workout can improve your mood and strengthen your heart, some hold certain advantages over others. Want to work out at home but you’re tight on space? Grab a jump rope. Do you enjoy the outdoors and want to exercise with your dog occasionally? Enter the #hotgirlwalk — with a little added oomph.
Of all the cardio workout options, though,rowing and running are two of the OGs. While both will help you hit your cardio quota for the week, running and rowing differ in terms of impact, muscle groups worked, and injury considerations. Here, experts weigh in on the benefits of running vs. rowing, plus how to decide which cardio option is best for you.
Benefits of Running
Running is a go-to cardio exercise for many people, and for good reason. “Running is a great cardiovascular workout with a great calorie burn,” explains April Gatlin, an ACE-certified personal trainer and coach at STRIDE Fitness. “With consistency, this type of exercise can lower the resting heart rate and cholesterol while increasingthe capacity of the lungs.” Even better: You don’t have to run for hours on end to enjoy some of the workout’sbenefits. A study from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that running just five to 10 minutes per day and at speeds of less than six miles per hour (read: a 12-minute mile or slower) was associated with significantly reduced risks of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease.
If that isn't convincing enough, here are even more reasons why you might want running to be your cardio of choice.
Works Lower-Body Muscles and Core
Whether you’re tackling hill repeats or a low-intensity, steady-state jog, running works your lower body — which happens to house your biggest muscle groups, such as your glutes, your quads, and your hamstrings. And you might not realize it, but your core is also engaged during a run, notes Gatlin. That’s because your core helps stabilize your body while running, as Shape previously reported. Remember that when you’re running, you’re stepping from one foot to the other consecutively, which requires a lot of balance. Translation: Your core gets more of a workout than you might expect.
A major benefit of running? It’s a convenient cardio option that doesn’t require access to bulky, expensive equipment. Lace your shoes, step out the door, and you’re well on your way to raising your heart rate. Since running doesn’t require equipment, it can also be a more cost-effective cardio option (although you’ll still have to change out your running shoes a few times a year as the miles rack up; experts recommend a new pair every 300 to 600 miles). The convenience of the cardio optioncan also mean it’s easier to maintain your running habit, regardless of work travel, vacations, or other obstacles that might otherwise stop you from getting in your workout.
Even if you don't live in an area where you can run outdoors safely, nearly all big-box gyms have treadmills available, as do even the most low-budget hotel gyms. With so much availability and accessibility, running can easily fit into your cardio routine.
Running is a high-impact workout, meaning your feet leave and come back into contact with the ground. While that movement does put stress on your joints, the high-impact nature of running also means that your bones get stronger due to the repeated impact. With each step you take on a run, you stress your bones and cartilage, causing them to spring back stronger, as Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta, previously told Shape. Over time, that increases your bone density, making your bones less susceptible to fractures. Research backs this up too: A study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal found that runners were half as likely to suffer from knee osteoarthritis (also known as “wear and tear” arthritis) compared with walkers.
Benefits of Rowing
While rowing used to be considered a cardio training tool used mostly by athletes, today it’s a staple in many gyms, fitness studios, and households thanks to rowing machines. In fact, the number of people rowing indoors has grown by almost 20 percent since 2014. Here’s why rowing is considered an effective form of cardio.
Protects Joints and Is Low-Impact
“The top benefit of rowing is the ability to train your cardiovascular system without putting loads of stress on our joints,” says Josh Honore, NASM certified personal trainer and coach at Row House. Rowing is a seated activity and non-weight bearing, so it doesn’t put as much stress on the joints, he adds. “Its low-impact nature makes [rowing] fantastic for anyone dealing with joint concerns or recovering from an injury.” Of course, always clear a new form of exercise with your doctor before starting, especially if you’re rehabbing an injury.
Offers a Full-Body Workout
Rowing may be low-impact, but don’t let that fool you — you’re still getting an effective workout. “Rowing hits nearly every muscle of the body,” notes Honore. Case in point: A study by the English Institute of Sport found that rowing uses 86 percent of your muscles.
"Beyond the cardiovascular conditioning, the resistance of the damper and the power output demanded by the rower helps condition nearly every muscle of the body," adds Honore. Quick reminder: The damper is the lever on the side of the rower wheel that controls airflow and allows you to change resistance. So, if your goal is to engage as many muscle groups as possible during your cardio sesh, rowing (especially with added resistance from the damper) is better than running.
Let’s break rowing down for a second: Rowing is about 60 percent legs, 30 percent core, and 10 percent arms, as Joseph Ilustrisimo, an ACSM-certified personal trainer, previously told Shape.”There’s also a large amount of core activation — your core should be engaged the whole time, so you should learn how to dynamically engage those abs and you should feel a burn throughout” [your core], he adds. Plus, “rowing can help strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain, which can help undo the effects of excessive sitting,” says Honore.
Reminder: The posterior chain consists of any muscle group on the back side of your body (think hamstrings, glutes, lower back, shoulders, and core). With a weak posterior chain, you’re more likely to slouch, since your back muscles lack the strength to pull your shoulder blades back and help you sit up straight. A strong posterior chain, on the other hand, can counteract the ill effects of “tech neck,” making rowing one of the best exercises to improve posture.
How to Choose Between Running vs. Rowing
First, the good news: Since running and rowing are both effective, trainer-approved ways to raise your heart rate, there's no inherently wrong choice. Instead, think about whether rowing vs. running will work best for your individual needs and lifestyle.
"First, consider which modality you can use with the most safety and comfort," advises Honore. "Aches and pains can be made worse depending on your selection." For example, someone with chronic foot or knee pain should avoid running, while someone with low back pain should avoid rowing. Always talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine to make sure you're cleared for cardio.
You can also consider whether access is an issue. If you belong to a big-box gym with a dedicated cardio section, you likely have access to both treadmills and rowers (although quality rowers are still far less common in gyms than treadmills, notes Honore). On the other hand, if you prefer to work out at home and don't have room for a cardio machine, running outdoors may be your preferred cardio.
Finally, choose whichever cardio option you enjoy more. If you love the feeling of pounding the pavement at sunrise, it's totally fine to dedicate yourself to running for cardio. If you find yourself looking forward to a full-body session on the rower, go ahead and write that into your routine. "As consistency is key, an exercise you like is one you'll likely stick with," says Honore.
Still on the metaphorical fence? Here are a few key differences between running vs. rowing to help you choose your cardio.
Rowing vs. Running: Injury Recovery
No surprise here, but rowing's low-impact focus makes it a joint-friendly cardio option for anyone recovering from an injury. "A great guideline to decide whether running or rowing is the best fit is to always look at any previous injuries that cause orthopedic issues which can cause pain or impingement," notes Gatlin. "For example, if someone has had a hip replacement a great option would be rowing." Rowing may also be attractive to anyone with knee pain since rowing is a way to build strength and endurance without straining the sore joint further (just get the go-ahead from your doctor first).
Rowing vs. Running: Calorie Burn
The jury's still out on whether rowing or running burns more calories.On one hand, rowing is a full-body workout that recruits more muscle groups than running. Plus, "the damper and resistance of the rower apply more strain on the cardiovascular system, which can result in a more dramatic metabolic response in a shorter period of time," says Honore. "Additionally, the low impact aspect of rowing means you can train longer with less potential for discomfort." However, running is a weight-bearing exercise, which could burn more calories than rowing, adds Gatlin.
The American Council on Exercise’s Physical Activity Calorie Counter calculates that moderate-intensity rowing and running burn about the same amount of calories in an hour. With that in mind, feel free to disregard calories when deciding between running vs. rowing — after all, it’s more important to find movement that you enjoy rather than obsessing over calorie burn.
Rowing vs. Running: Balance and Stability
Balance is often an undervalued factor when planning your workouts, but developing strong balance and core stability is crucial to preventing injuries (especially as you age). Since rowing is done while seated, it doesn’t require balance; plus, it’s a bilateral movement, meaning both sides of your body work in sync. But when you run, your limbs move in opposite directions, and you’re basically hopping from one foot to the other. The result? You need a serious sense of balance to stay upright and avoid falling. So if developing a better sense of balance and stability is a goal in your workout, prioritize running over rowing.
Rowing vs. Running: For Beginners
Just starting your fitness journey? Rowing might have a slight edge over running. "For many beginners, I would recommend rowing" for cardio, says Honore. "Lower impact and adaptable resistance make rowing slightly easier to enjoy right away vs. running."
And since many beginners might have orthopedic issues or could be more prone to injuries when just starting out, rowing offers a safer, pain-free way to exercise. "If a beginner has orthopedic issues and walking is not an option, I would suggest rowing as the best option," explains Gatlin. "It's less impactful on the joints as well as non-weight bearing, but also incorporates more muscle groups than running." TL;DR: Fitness beginners might enjoy rowing more than running.
So, Which Is Better — Rowing vs. Running?
If you're recovering from injury or experience joint pain, rowing will offer a safer cardio option than running, and it also gives a full-body workout by hitting most of your major muscle groups. But if convenience and the ability to exercise outdoors are important to you, lace up those running shoes. Whichever way you choose to move, make sure it's oneyou enjoy, advises Gatlin. "Assuming there are no orthopedic issues, another deciding factor of which is a better option [between rowing vs. running] is to look which one they enjoy more. You tend to do more of the activities that you enjoy!"