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Treadmills

Treadmill buying guide

Last updated: December 2013

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Getting started

A piece of home exercise equipment can be a big purchase, as our tests of treadmills show. Our top-rated nonfolding treadmill costs a cool $4,000. Spending that much can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for less than a third of that price.

For example, our top-rated budget treadmill scored comparably to the $4,000 treadmill in several categories and had some of the same features. If you're a walker, it may be more than sufficient to meet your needs.

Best Buys

Our tests included dozens of models that we evaluated on construction, ease of use, ergonomics, exercise range, and safety. We found many models to recommend, including some CR Best Buys. And since lower-priced treadmills are so popular, we display a section for budget models in our Ratings. We found that Internet connectivity even many wallet-friendly machines now have features that allow you to connect to the Internet while using the exercise machine.

Choose the right machine

Budget and midpriced treadmills are sold at large retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sears, Sports Authority, and Walmart. For more expensive brands, you'll generally need to hit a specialty fitness store. Whether you want to shop online for the best price or in a store, try the machine in person first. You might notice a problem--the deck is too short for you stride, for example--that you can't detect by sight or reviews alone.

Here are other criteria to consider:

Size. Most treadmills are about 6.5 feet by 3 feet. Folding treadmills are about half the length when folded. Don't assume that because you buy a folding treadmill you'll actually fold and stow it. If that feature is important, try folding the machine before buying to see how easy it is to do and whether folding makes it easier to store. You'll also need adequate space--about two feet on each side and the back--to get on and off safely.

Safety features. All tested treadmills have a safety key that clips onto clothing and turns the machine off if you fall. People with children at home or as visitors should make sure that they can't access treadmills, and hide the safety key.

Ergonomics. If running is more your speed than walking, check treadmills' deck length, since you'll need a longer one to accommodate your stride. If you want the space-saving that a folding treadmill provides, make sure the deck isn't too heavy to lift.

High-tech features. Docks for iPods, USB ports, and wireless Internet connectivity are popping up on many treadmills.

Adjustability. Most tested treadmills incline to at least 10 percent; some go as high as 14 or 15 percent.

Assembly. A treadmill can weigh up to 400 pounds, so ask about delivery and check whether assembly is included or available at an additional cost. It might be worth it if you're not particularly good with a toolbox. It generally takes our experienced engineers about 1 to 2 hours to put together a treadmill, depending on the number of steps. Lifting heavy parts, adding applying grease, and working on your knees are part of the process. Some of the steps require two people.

Warranty. Look for one that provides two to three years of coverage on major moving parts and a year on labor. Our surveys suggest that an extended warranty probably isn't worth it.

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, and some fold, we have divided the types of treadmills available according to price, and whether they can be folded.

Budget folding 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, not running, just about any of these should be adequate.

Cons:

But 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.

Folding treadmills

These generally include the same features as the budget folding 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.

Nonfolding treadmills

These typically don't fold. But they often have the same features as midrange machines, plus 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:

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 stick with your exercise routine.

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 monitor the intensity of your exercise and avoid 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 handrails 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 far enough forward so that it doesn't get in the way of your feet when you're exercising. A concave shape and position relatively flush with the front of the belt also helps.

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 manufacturers load the treadmill console with gadgets such as speakers, 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.

Brands


You can compare treadmills by brand. If you don’t see a model in our Ratings (available to subscribers), these profiles can help you learn about a manufacturer and what it offers (listed below in alphabetical order).

Bowflex

Bowflex is manufactured by Nautilus, which also makes fitness equipment under the following brand names: Schwinn Fitness, StairMaster, and Universal. Available from various online retailers and at Sears. Prices range from $1,000 to $3,500.

Epic

Epic is part of the Icon Fitness group. Its product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Treadmills range in price from $1,200 to $1,500.

Horizon Fitness

Horizon Fitness is based in Cottage Grove, Wis. Its product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Available in sporting-goods stores and online, its treadmills range in price from $800 to $2,500.

Landice

Based in Randolph, N.J., Landice makes mid- to high-end treadmills and ellipticals for the home and the commercial market. Available in specialty fitness stores. Treadmills range in price from $2,500 to $5,500.

Life Fitness

Life Fitness home treadmills are available at specialty fitness retailers and through its online store. Treadmills range in price from $2,000 to $7,000.

LifeSpan

LifeSpan Fitness products are manufactured by Health and Fitness, which is based in Park City, Utah. Its product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Treadmills range in price from $900 to $3,500.

New Balance

Manufactured by Fitness Quest, New Balance also offers ellipticals and exercise bikes at budget prices. Products are available in sporting-goods stores and on the New Balance Web site. Treadmill prices range from less than $1,000 to $1,800.

NordicTrack

Part of the Icon Fitness group, which is one of the largest manufacturers of fitness equipment in the world. NordicTrack offers a variety of other exercise products, including ellipticals, exercise bikes, and steppers. Treadmills range in price from $900 to $3,000.

PaceMaster

PaceMaster products are manufactured by Aerobics Inc, which is based in New Jersey. Its product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes, available in specialty fitness stores. Treadmills range in price from $1,800 to $2,900.

Precor

Precor is part of the Finland-based Amer Sports Corporation. Its treadmills can be purchased nationwide at specialty fitness stores. Prices range from $2,500 to $7,000.

ProForm

Made by Icon Fitness, Proform offers exercise equipment at lower price points than most other manufacturers. Its product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Treadmill prices range from less than $1,000 to $2,000.

Smooth Fitness

Based in King Of Prussia, Pa., Smooth Fitness also makes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Its products are available through specialty fitness stores. Treadmills range in price from $1,000 to $5,300.

Spirit

Owned by Taiwan-based Dyaco International, Spirit has been in existence for more than 25 years. Its treadmills are sold nationwide in specialty fitness stores. Prices are in the $2,000-and-below range.

SportsArt

Based in Woodinville, Wash., SportsArt has been making fitness equipment for more than 30 years. Products also include cycles, ellipticals, rowers, and steppers. Products are sold in specialty fitness stores. Treadmills range in price from $2,000 to $4,300.

True

Based in St. Louis, True’s product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Treadmills range in price from $2,200 to $6,000.

Vision Fitness

Vision Fitness was started in 1993 and is based in Wisconsin. Products are available at specialty fitness stores and online. Treadmills range in price from $2,100 to $6,000.

How to buy exercise equipment

Good exercise equipment can be expensive but you should also take other factors into account before buying. One important consideration is the amount of space you want to devote to the piece of equipment you're considering. A treadmill or elliptical machine can easily take up as much space as a couch. Still, more Americans regularly work out on a treadmill than on any other type of exercise machine and ellipticals are growing in popularity.

Before you shop

It's best not to buy such a large, big-ticket item on a whim. So before you even go to the store, take stock of how much you want to spend and how much space you want to use. And perhaps most important, decide how and how often you'll use the equipment.

Consider your space

Nonfolding treadmills are hard to move and take up as much floor space as a couch or dining room table. If your workout room does double duty, a folding treadmill can save you about six-square-feet.

Consider the cost

We've found in recent treadmill tests that you have to spend well over $2,000 to get a machine designed for serious runners, though lower-priced models are okay for walkers.

In the Ratings, the quality score for less-expensive models reflects the severity and frequency of those problems. Most of the trouble we experienced would be covered under warranty, but it can take weeks and multiple phone calls to get a machine fixed--enough time to discourage even passionate exercisers. By contrast, the machines we bought for $2,000 and more through specialty fitness equipment stores had very few defects.

Consider your workout intensity

If you usually walk rather than run, any of the tested models will suffice. Decide based on your budget and the features you want. If you run, sturdy construction is paramount. Choose from the models that scored at least very good in quality in the treadmill Ratings. The more expensive ellipticals in our Ratings tend to feel more solid, operate more smoothly, and have more features than the under-$1,000 models. You might also get superior ergonomics, a wide range of features, and a more generous warranty.

Ready to shop

You'll find budget and mid-priced 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, and more expensive brands such as Landice, Life Fitness, Nautilus, Precor, and True are sold in specialty sporting-goods stores. No matter where you shop, here are some tips to follow.

Try it out first

Every model is a little different, so don't buy a treadmill or elliptical before taking it for a test run. That's especially important with elliptical exercisers because the machine determines how you will move and each machine has a slightly different pedaling profile and feel. It's also helpful to get a sense of the control panel layout, display and program setup to see if you find it intuitive or not.

Decide which features you'll use

Some features, such as programmable exercise programs, can make a workout more varied and less boring, which can help you meet your exercise goals. But don't pay for frills you don't care about.

Make sure you can change your mind

Because each machine has its own feel, try it out before you buy and make sure the store will let you return it if you dislike using it. See our Ratings and recommendations for some suggestions.

Read the fine print

Most of the "amazing results!" shown in infomercials for exercise devices are footnoted as "not typical" or result from an overall "system" that includes a diet plan and, in many cases, additional aerobic exercise.

Calculate the total cost

Unless the price includes shipping, expect to pay an additional $20 to $50 plus any sales tax.

Beware of trials

A "30-day money-back guarantee" sounds good, but returning the product might not be easy. Some of the machines are heavy or bulky, and you might have to pay for return shipping, which could cost $90 or more for the larger products.

Before signing up for a trial, verify with the company the proper return address and how soon you can expect a refund if you send the device back. A scan of online complaints about home fitness equipment revealed that reported problems with returns, including lack of a valid return address or exorbitant shipping charges, were common.

   

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