The holidays may be long over, but many of us still carry memories of the seasons on our waistlines. As it is the start of a new year, now is a great time to begin an exercise regimen. Not only are there are plenty of other folks looking to get fit, but there are fitness deals, workout apparel sales, and more incentives that can encourage you to get moving.
An effective start to an exercise routine should involve cardio: walking, jogging, or running. However, given the harsh conditions of winter (snow, ice, dark skies, and chilly temperatures) or, for some areas, the fiery conditions of summer (hello Phoenix, with your 110 degree days), walking or running outdoors can be a problem. This is why the treadmill is the most popular piece of exercise equipment sold year after year.
Types of Treadmills
There are two broad categories of treadmills: folding and stationary. Given that the average treadmill has a footprint not much smaller than the living room couch, it's not surprising that the folding version is more popular. However, according to Consumer Reports, a stationary treadmill can be more durable and better for those who really pound the treadmill with a strong, running stride.
It's also important to know that most treadmills are not lightweight pieces of equipment that are easily moved around the house on a whim. Don't overlook shipping or delivery costs as a factor of total price when shopping for a treadmill, either.
There are many cheaper and lighter treadmills on the market. Be aware though that cheap treadmills may be poorly made and may not stand up to even moderate usage in keeping one's heart rate in a target cardio zone. A device like the InMotion T900 Manual Treadmill ($118 with free shipping, a low by $10) has no motor, just flywheels that advance the belt by way of a user's stride. This treadmill also doesn't have a speedometer or other readouts, though it does boast a manual adjust for incline. It's perfect for walking uphill, but not built for running.
Whether you're looking for a manual or motor-accelerated treadmill, it should have a belt that runs smoothly, operates safely, is adjustable (in incline and pace), and can monitor your workout. With prices ranging from $750 to $8,000 for motorized treadmills, a generous warranty is also important.
Basic Treadmill Components
The motor is a crucial part of any treadmill. However, it's difficult to compare from unit to unit. There is no industry standard for expressing the power of the motor, so users will have to trust their sensory impressions. According to the Treadmill Doctor, the motor should start smoothly, without sounding strained. It shouldn't hesitate when stepping on, and it should run quietly. A secondary motor appears on better models and drives the incline feature, which tips up the front or back of the treadmill as much as 10 to 12 degrees. Steer clear of those models that require hand-cranking to achieve an incline.
The belt on which you'll walk or run should be wide and long enough for your stance, stride, and gait. People have an average stride width of 16 to 18 inches while running or walking, and a stride length of 45 to 50 inches. Better treadmills will offer a tread zone in excess of this: up to 22 inches by 60 inches. For taller folks, consider a treadmill with a belt that has a length of 60 inches. The belt should also be at least 2-ply with a polyurethane top layer and a nylon/polyester second layer.
The frame on which the unit is built can be made from steel or aluminum. Steel frames have welded joints and are heavier and therefore more innately stable, but they may rust over time. An aluminum frame treadmill has riveted joints and may not be as durable, but is lighter and therefore more portable. However, provided the setup is sturdy, either material is sufficient.
Wide, grippy foot rails on either side of the belt are important, too. They ensure that the user can step off safely. Another essential safety feature is the tethered safety key: only when inserted will the treadmill work. This is a useful factor when children might be tempted to play on it. By wearing the tether clipped to workout clothing while exercising, should you stumble, the key will be retracted and the treadmill will stop immediately.
Good handrails on either side of the device are also helpful in allowing one to keep balanced. These handrails should be strong enough to support a user's weight in case of a trip or a fall.
Treadmills today come with increasingly sophisticated electronics: some features are necessary, some are just fun to have. One the list of musts are screens that show pace, distance, duration, incline, and heart rate. The last can be determined in a couple of ways; by wearing a chest monitor, or by incorporating a heart monitor in the handholds on the front of the treadmill. The former reports constantly in real time, while the latter only reads one's heart rate while in contact with the handles.
More expensive treadmills will have more bells and whistles. Some have built in speakers that pump out high NRG tunes while you run. Others even have cable hook ups and TVs. And the higher end treadmills even have Internet connectivity, which lets users browse the web on a built-in color monitor while working out. Some, like the Nordic Track Elite 9700 Pro Treadmill ($2,299 with free shipping), even allow users to select a route via Google Maps, and then adjust the incline of the treadmill as the terrain changes. How cool would it be to prepare for, say, the New York Marathon by running its route?
How to Shop for a Treadmill
The best way to shop for a treadmill is in person. Remember to don those running shoes and workout clothes, because a test run is the best way to determine if the machine is right for you. Make sure the treadmill fits your stride, that it cushions your feet as they land, that the displays are clear and intuitive, and that the incline feature works smoothly and easily.
It's vital to also inquire about a treadmill's warranty. Most machines will carry at least a lifetime warranty on the frame, three years on parts, and a year on labor.
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to take that walk or run without dodging icy sidewalks or long lines at the gym? With a treadmill of your own, you can exercise to your heart's desire while never leaving the house.