Treadmill Buying Guide

Exercise can feel like a chore. And inclement weather, or having to travel to the gym, can derail your best intentions. But there's a way to make working out more convenient without leaving home—starting with a treadmill.

According to Statista, a market research firm, more than 25 million Americans exercise at home as of 2013. To appeal to this sizeable group of consumers, treadmill manufacturers are producing better and smarter machines. But innovation isn't cheap: A top-rated treadmill can cost a steep $4,000 and up. Fortunately, if you're willing to make some tradeoffs, you can find some high-end features on less expensive models.

How We Test Treadmills

At CR, we know just how important exercise is to a healthy life. To help you get the best home exercise equipment, we test and rate treadmills from a variety of brands, including AFG, Bodyguard, Horizon Fitness, Landice, LifeFitness, Precor, Sole, Xterra, and more.

Our tests focus on ease of use, construction quality, ergonomics, exercise range, and user safety. Though the term sounds odd, exercise range is an important one—it indicates whether a machine is suitable for a variety of fitness levels. To measure exercise range, we factor in the range of treadmill speeds, incline range, stability, cushioning, and more.

Our user safety tests evaluate the accessibility of the emergency stop button, the workings of the safety key, the security of folding models, and more.

We also perform a durability test using a custom test fixture built by CR test engineers. We have two of these rigs—dubbed Johnnie Walker Red and Johnnie Walker Black—each consisting of a giant metal drum covered in rubber "feet" that run along each treadmill and simulate half a year of use.

All of these test results are compiled into our full treadmill ratings and recommendations.  

How We Test Treadmills

Choosing the Right Treadmill

First, think about your fitness objectives. Whether it’s enhanced athletic performance, general health and fitness, or rehabilitation, knowing how you will use your treadmill can help you identify which model to buy.

Next, consider your budget. Investing in a more expensive machine gets you sturdier construction, a longer parts warranty, a larger running surface, higher top speeds, and steeper inclines. But if your goals don’t require the latest and greatest, you’ll likely be just as satisfied with a less expensive model.

Try It Before You Buy It
It’s essential to try out a treadmill in person. Here's our try-before-you-buy checklist:
•  Does the cushioning and shock absorption of the running deck feel comfortable?
•  When you walk or run, do your feet hit the motor housing?
•  Can you easily straddle the deck when standing on the side rails?
•  Is the display monitor easy to read?
•  Are the controls easy to reach and operate?

Four Factors to Keep in Mind
•  Size. Most treadmills have a similar footprint, on average 77 inches long by 35 inches wide. A folding treadmill will be half its length when stored. You'll need adequate empty space around the treadmill for access and safety.
•  Ergonomics. If you’re a runner, you will need a deck length that accommodates your stride. Consider how comfortable you are on the machine while walking or running. Choose a model that appeals to you ergonomically and aesthetically.
•  High-tech features. Docks for iPods, USB ports, and wireless Internet connectivity are standard features on many treadmills.
•  Adjustability. Most treadmills have top speeds between 10 and 12 mph; some will go faster. They typically incline between a 10 and 15 percent grade, but some offer an increased gradient.

Drawing of a man running on a treadmill. Picture is from overhead.
Illustration: Chris Philpot

Other Purchase Considerations

Once you've narrowed down your choices, here are some other things to consider before making the purchase.

Weight and assembly. Treadmills are heavy, so ask about delivery. Check whether assembly, tricky even for experienced DIYers, is included or available at an additional cost.

Warranties. When it comes to the warranty, look for three to seven years of coverage on parts, and at least one year on labor. Most treadmills have a lifetime warranty on the frame, and you should get that for the motor as well.

Returns. And what about returns? Confirm the store’s return policy. Even if they will take back the treadmill, you might have to pay for the store to retrieve it, as well as for restocking fees. If you purchase online, find out how return shipping is handled.

Interactive Video Buying Guide

For more, watch our interactive video below. You can skip to different chapters on styles, fitness, key features, and other must-know topics. 

Treadmill Types

Motorized treadmills are based on the same fundamental design premise: A moving belt, powered by an electric motor. But because they come in a range of prices, with varying features and designs, we have subdivided treadmills here according to price, and whether or not they can be folded.

A budget folding treadmill.

Budget Folding Treadmills

These models can have a shorter running belt, which may be sufficient for walkers. They include a display for speed, distance, time, and calories burned, as well as a shelf with water-bottle holders. These models typically do not include a chest strap heart-rate monitor or heart-rate control programs.

Pros: If walking is your primary exercise, lower-priced models should suffice.

Cons: Budget models are built from lighter materials, tend to feel less stable, and their decks might be too short for a runner's stride.

A folding treadmill

Folding Treadmills

Generally, these models will provide more features than budget folding models, along with more exercise programs, including heart-rate controlled setups. Some come with a chest strap heart-rate monitor.

Pros: Sturdier construction makes these treadmills better suited for occasional running.

Cons: The deck on many models may still be too short for runners with a longer stride.

A non-folding treadmill

Non-Folding Treadmills

These treadmills offer a sturdier deck and frame, a longer running belt, and larger running surfaces.

Pros: The best choice for frequent runners, and constructed of heavier, more robust materials. Integrated heart-rate control programs, higher max speeds, and steeper max inclines are typical. They are rated for heavier people and come with the longest warranties.

Cons: It may seem odd, but these pricey models tend to have fewer built-in programs. When every square foot counts, space considerations are non-negotiable.

Treadmill Features

Treadmill makers look for ways to make exercise less monotonous and more interesting. Your task: Decide which features you need, and avoid paying for options you don't care about.

For example, consider your training style. Do you need to be distracted from your workout, or do you enjoy planning your fitness regimen and creating physical challenges? If it's the former, entertainment features and automated programs might take priority. Otherwise, features such as max speed, incline settings, heart-rate monitoring, and interval programs should take precedence.

Remember, a treadmill is merely a tool to make strides toward your cardio-fitness and health goals. Keep those objectives in mind to help identify features that are important to you.  

Treadmill Brands

Horizon Fitness is based in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. 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.
Based in Randolph, New Jersey, Landice makes mid- to high-end treadmills and ellipticals for the home and commercial market. Available in specialty fitness stores, Landice treadmills range in price from $2,500 to $5,500.
Life Fitness home treadmills are available at specialty fitness retailers and through its online store. Models range in price from $2,000 to $7,000.
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.
NordicTrack is part of the Icon Fitness group, which is one of the largest manufacturers of fitness equipment in the world. The brand offers a variety of other exercise products, including ellipticals, exercise bikes, and steppers. Treadmills range in price from $900 to $3,000.
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.
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.
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.
Based in St. Louis, True’s product line also includes ellipticals and exercise bikes. Treadmills range in price from $2,200 to $6,000.
Other brands of note: Smooth Fitness, Sole Treadmill, Vision Fitness, Weslo, and Yowza.
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