What to Look for in a Treadmill: A Personal Trainer's Thoughts

Mar 30, 2005

Popular Products in Sport and Outdoor
The Bottom Line Do your research; make sure the treadmill meets your needs and that you are getting the most for your money.

As a personal trainer I get asked a lot what brand of treadmill to buy and what to look for when one goes treadmill shopping. I am not going to address brands in this review. In my experience I would not buy a treadmill based solely on the name. There are too many other factors that I look at.

The first question I ask a person is what their goal is. I ask this because if your goal is to be able to do your daily one mile walk at a pace that raises your heart rate but running a marathon is not your goal, then the features of the treadmill can be very different. If you are getting ready for a vacation where you will be hiking and biking and are looking to build up your cardio vascular endurance and strengthen your legs, you might want to look at a treadmill that will ensure you get what you need.

The second question I ask is how much money are you willing to pay? I will always recommend spending as much as you can because usually, though not always, you will get more for your money. However there are good machines in the lower prices range considered under $1500. You can pay over $3000 for a machine that may not give you all the features I think you might want. I usually suggest spending somewhere in-between since most people cannot afford $3000+ for a machine and I do believe you can get a good treadmill for less. There are great deals online so shop around.

Please check out warranties. Buying a treadmill from Sears may give you a very different warranty than from Cosco which may give you a very different warranty than from the company that makes the treadmill. Read the fine print before you purchase a treadmill. If you are spending $500 which is the low end you still want a warranty but do not expect the same one that you will get if you spend $3000. The warranty though should be around 3 years. If you love a treadmill and get it at a great price but it only has a 1 year warranty I would not let that stop me from buying it.

Suggestions: What I look at in a treadmill:

~How much room do you have? If your basement area is 70 inches long then you cannot buy a machine that is 73 inches long. Make sure you have enough room in width as well. You want to be able to comfortably get on the treadmill and have room to swing your arms freely.

~Do you want a machine that folds? If so is the size it folds to an issue? Then measure that. Does it have wheels? How heavy is the machine? Many treadmills call themselves portable but actually moving it, especially on carpeting, can be really difficult. If you fold it and move it and find that difficult, chances are this treadmill is not going to be used. We are trying to avoid that. I recommend to people that they not fold up their machines unless they have to keep them in the middle of their living room. Then perhaps only fold it if you are having company and need the space.

~How much weight will be on the machine? Every machine has a maximum weight limit. Many people do not realize that. Some machines will hold a person up to 300 pounds; some up to 400 pounds. I am conservative when it comes to weight limits. If a 300 pound person is using the treadmill I would not go with one that has 300 pounds as a maximum. I would look for one that is designed for someone heavier. This is just my opinion.

~I care what the physical layout of the machine. I suggest to people that they make sure the handles are comfortable for them. If the person is older or has a balance problem I suggest that the machine has handles along the sides of the machine. Some have small handles that will not keep a person from falling over if he or she loses her balance. Your needs will determine the design of the handles. Many machines have a strap that you can put around your wrist or a similar safety measure. It is usually attached to the machine with a magnet. If you fall, the strap will detach from the machine shutting the belt down. If you have medical problems you should look for this feature.

~Although there are heart monitors that you can purchase or for free you can learn how to take your own pulse rate (That will involve taking your hands off the handles.) most machines these days have built in heart rate monitors. Realizing that readouts on machines can be off about 20% I still like monitors and displays. If you use the same machine then the readout becomes relative. If your goal is to burn 500 calories a day and you know the readout may be off 20% then you may want to burn 600 calories just in case. I think the exact number is less relevant than the fact you are monitoring the numbers.

Some treadmills vary the incline to keep your heart rate at a level that you have pre determined. If you want to get your heart rate at 60% of your maximum heart rate you would program that. You determine your maximum heart rate by taking the number 220 and subtracting your age. You now have your maximum heart rate.

~I notice the belt on the treadmill. I notice how long it is and how wide. If a treadmill is not long enough, your feet hit will the front which is not only uncomfortable but can be dangerous. I like a belt that is at least 50 to 55 inches long and I am 5 feet 4 inches. The taller you are the longer the belt should be. A narrow tread makes it really easy to get your feet caught on the sides of the tread. Make sure that as you walk or run on the machine your have plenty of room in front and that even if you wander from side to side a bit your feet will not hit the deck. I like wide belts. A 20 inch belt is too narrow for me. I recommend going with one wider than that. Some might disagree and feel that 20 inches is sufficient. Again this is just my opinion.

~Will you be running, walking or a combination of both? Do you usually walk/run outside on concrete but want a treadmill in case of inclement weather or a day that is too hot? Most treadmills now are cushioned in some way. You will hear terms such as flex or some type of shock absorption system. If you usually run outside then a treadmill that is too flexible will feel strange on your joints and could possibly cause injury. I only walk. I do not run. I like a treadmill with give and cushioning. I find it is gentler on my joints. Your goals will determine how much cushioning you want.

~I tell people to look at the console. Do you want a fan? If that is a must have then you will be limited to a few choices but sometimes narrowing down what you want makes a choice easier. Do you read or listen to music while on the treadmill? If so you want to make sure the console has a place for these items. I really discourage treadmills with water holders on the sides. I find them awkward to get to. Your water bottle should be in front of you, easy to reach and secure enough that it will not fall off even if you are walking or running at a high speed.

If your goal is to just get moving and you fear technology then a simple console with perhaps 4 programs will be enough. These programs should include an interval program in my opinion. All machines have the option of not having to set a program and using the up and down arrows to manually operate it.

Make sure you can easily read the console. Most these days in my experience are easy to see but if you are buying one used check on that. The console must tell you the speed you are going, how far you have gone and how much time you want to walk or run. Other features would include inputting your weight and age. You might like a machine that tells you how much time you have left or one that shows you through a graph or track how far you have gone and what level you are using. I get bored and would pay more for more features. That will be a personal choice.

~Your machine must have the ability to incline. Some decline as well. You will burn more calories when you have your machine set at an incline, even just a 1% incline will make a different. You want one that inclines at least 10 degrees. If you can afford one that goes up to 15% all the better.

All treadmills have a speed range. Look for one that goes up to 10 miles per hour. The average person will not need a treadmill with more speed than that. A power walker will walk at 4.5 to 5 miles per hour. More than 5 miles per hour will have you jogging and at 8 miles an hour you will be running. These are general statements from my experience.

~Make sure your treadmill counts down when you start it. I have been on treadmills that I have set, for example, at 3.8 mph and that is where it starts. I immediately have to lower it manually. It is nice if it counts down from 3, 2, 1 and then slowly goes up to what you have programmed it to go to. Remember all treadmills allow you to change your rate at any time using the arrows. If somehow you find one that does not do not buy it!

~Most people do not pay any attention to the horsepower of the motor. You will see the term continuous duty rating and that is the rating you want. A 1.5 to 2.5 horsepower is what you want. Some have a horsepower of 3. You do not need one that powerful but if you find one you like that has 3 that is fine as well.

These are the basics that are fairly easy to find out even if you are buying a treadmill sight unseen. There are other issues about a treadmill that you may want to think about if you have the chance to try it out.

~Make sure you wear the sneakers that you will be using.
~The ride should be smooth. If it is bumpy there is something wrong with the belt. I would guess you are looking at a used machine.
~If noise is an issue then listen! Noise becomes a factor if you watch television while using your treadmill or you have a baby sleeping close by.

Other less known features to look at:

~Your treadmill moves on what is called a deck. This is what the belt moves over. The best deck is pretreated with a lubricant. This lessens the friction which will result in less maintenance for you. I have seen decks that are reversible and can be turned over. Decks do wear out. If you have been to a gym you will notice worn out decks. If you can afford one that can be turned over you will get twice the life of your machine. (The reason I wish my new couch had loose cushions!) The belt which I have been mentioning can be single ply or two ply like toilet paper. Like toilet paper, two-ply belts are higher quality. If you can afford a two-ply belt then most certainly go with that one.

~The rollers that allow the belt to be adjusted should be at least 2 inches to ensure the maximum life of the belt.

~I always note what the frame of a treadmill is made of in my reviews. Perhaps no one cares or you skim over it. Realize that the frame is important. High alloy steel is the material you want your frame to be made out of. It is heavier and more durable than aluminum.

My final thoughts:

~Please do not start an exercise program without checking with your doctor is you have any medical conditions, are a man over 40 or a woman over 50.

~Please realize that treadmills look like toys to young children. Some machines have locking devices but if your does not then unplug it and put in safety plugs in the outlet. Children can get very hurt on a treadmill; their clothes can get caught on the tread for starters.

Feel free to leave me a question or comment. I have reviewed some treadmills but if you see one or have heard of one you would like me to review feel free to ask and I will do my best. As a personal trainer I have the advantage of access to people, gyms, fitness stores and trainers that others do not so I can usually track down a piece of equipment. I can guarantee that I will not review a machine I have been on for 5 minutes though. I do not just test drive machines. Your patience is appreciated.

I have left some links to treadmills I have reviewed. There are also links to other cardio vascular machines that you may be thinking about as well. I hope this has been helpful. Enjoy your machine.

Nordic Track Futura 2600
Fitness Quest Air RowerProForm TreadmillStar Trac Pro TreadmillStairMaster 4600PT StepperCybex Pro TeadmillCybex 900T treadmillCybex Arc TrainerPrecor EFX546 Elliptical TrainerConcept II rowerPrecor C846 RecumbentNordicTrack Classic Pro skierLifeFitness LifeCycleStar Trac Recumbant Bike

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