Smart Shopping: Treadmills

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Getting Started l Types l Features

Treadmills are stepping up in the world. Features such as electronic programming, which varies the intensity of a workout, can help make exercise less of a chore -- and even more fun. Indeed, more Americans regularly work out on a treadmill than on any other type of exercise machine.

GETTING STARTED



Generally, the more you spend on a treadmill, the sturdier the construction, the more powerful the motor, and the longer the warranty. You can pay $3,000 or more for a nonfolding treadmill that we rated excellent, or half that for a folding model. But even a much smaller investment can buy a decent machine that provides a good workout.

When you're paying that kind of money for a treadmill, it's reasonable to expect a machine that works properly. The disappointing news from our latest tests is that manufacturing quality is still spotty. Some models developed problems during our tests that affected their performance. One treadmill didn't run at all when we got it. Even when repairs are covered under warranty, it's a hassle.

Where to buy You'll find budget and midpriced treadmills in Sears, The Sports Authority, Wal-Mart, and other discount and sporting-goods chains. Moderately priced brands such as Horizon Fitness, Schwinn, Trimline, and Vision Fitness, as well as pricier brands such as Landice, Life Fitness, Nautilus, Precor, and True, are sold in specialty sporting-goods stores. Every model is a little different, so you should try it out in the store. (The main disadvantage of buying a treadmill online is that you can't try before you buy.) Before leaving for the store, consult this treadmill guide.

TYPES

Basically, there is only one type of treadmill: A moving belt, powered by an electric motor, on which you can walk or run. But because they come in a wide price range, we have divided the types of treadmills available according to price.

Budget-priced treadmills
These typically include a 10 mph top speed, a 10-percent maximum incline, a display for speed, distance, time, and calories, a shelf with water-bottle holders, and a deck that you can fold up when the treadmill isn't being used.

Pros: If walking is your exercise, just about any of these should be adequate.
Cons: The budget models tend to feel less stable than the more expensive models, and their decks might be too short for a runner's long stride.

Midrange-priced treadmills
These generally include the same features as the budget models, along with more advanced electronic exercise programs. Some have a chest-strap heart-rate monitor.

Pros: Sturdier construction makes these treadmills better suited for occasional running.
Cons: The deck on many models might be too short for a runner's long stride.

Expensive treadmills
These typically have the same features as midrange machines, but also a sturdier deck and frame and a powerful motor for long, fast running.

Pros: These are the best choice for serious runners. They generally come with the longest warranties.
Cons: Most lack a folding deck.

FEATURES

The effort to make exercise interesting and as pain-free as possible has led to an array of features. Decide which treadmill features you'll use, and don't pay for options you don't care about.

Folding deck
Some treadmills have a hinged deck that you can raise and lock in place vertically for storage. A nonfolding treadmill takes up as much floor space as a small couch; a folded model, about half that when folded. Nonfolding treadmills tend to feel more stable. But where space is tight, every square foot counts.

Electronic programming
This useful feature, found on most of the treadmills we tested, automatically varies the intensity of the workout, the way running up and down hills does outdoors. You can also make adjustments manually. Exercise programs can be an antidote to boredom and may encourage you to work out more often.

Heart-rate monitor
You'll generally find a chest-strap heart-rate monitor on treadmills that cost $1,500 and up. Less expensive treadmills may have a handgrip monitor. A heart-rate monitor helps you to exercise up to your potential while avoiding dangerous overexertion. A chest-strap monitor is the most convenient. It allows you to continually monitor your heart rate without having to hold the handgrip sensors.

Controls
Look for well-labeled, intuitive controls: up/down buttons, quick one-touch speed and incline buttons, and large, easy-to-read displays that show multiple functions (time, speed, heart rate, incline) at once. Poorly designed controls and displays are a constant annoyance.

Foot rails
Look for wide and flat foot rails alongside the moving belt. Ample foot rails make getting on and off the treadmill easier.

Handles or handrails
Most treadmills have them in front and on the sides. Padding is a plus. While they're useful for those who need added security, they shouldn't get in the way of your arms while you exercise.

Motor housing
It should be set forward far enough and relatively flush with the front of the belt or concave. It shouldn't get in the way of your feet when using the treadmill.

Tethered safety key
On most models, you need to insert a key on the console to start the treadmill. The key comes on a long cord, with a clip at the other end that attaches to your clothing. The cord will pull the key out and stop the treadmill if you slip and fall. It also keeps unsupervised children from starting the machine.

Console gadgets
A growing number of treadmills load the console with gadgets such as a CD player, a fan, and even an LCD TV. You might be able to buy these items separately for less. And if they need repair, having them serviced can be a problem.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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