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If you want to be able to run in all weather or make TV time double as workout time, a treadmill is a handy bit of equipment. But they're not cheap, and although they're bought with the best of intentions, many end up in the garage, never to be used again.
If you want to get your money's worth and achieve your fitness goals, it's important you buy a treadmill you're actually going to use. Ask yourself a few key questions before you buy.
How do you plan to use your treadmill? Will it be for the occasional walk, for jogging, or for serious cardio training? Will you be the only one using it, or will the whole family get involved? Will you want to stick to one simple routine, or do you want the treadmill to have a range of programs as your fitness progresses?
How much space do you have? Some treadmills are bulky and take up a considerable amount of space, while others are more compact.
Should you consider renting first? If it's something you just want to try out, consider renting a treadmill first. You might find the sheer size of the treadmill cumbersome, or that the commitment just isn't there.
Do you have a single goal in mind? Hire purchase or renting might be more practical if you have a single goal, like losing those last few kilos before summer. It wouldn't make sense to have a treadmill all year round in this case.
Is a gym membership a better investment? Machines in gyms tend to be durable and gyms provide more variety than a single piece of equipment, which can keep you from getting bored with your routine. There are a variety of memberships available to suit many budgets, but just be wary of their contracts!
Is your local gym selling treadmills? Some gyms lease their machines, or sell them to the public after a few years, so you might be able to get a used one. But try before you buy.
Where will you be setting up the treadmill? They take up a lot of space. Will yours stay in one place? Or do you want to be able to store it after use? You'll need to consider its size and weight to make sure you can move it comfortably.
Are features important to you? For instance, do you like to listen to music while you run? Do you want one with a heart rate monitor? A fan to keep you cool?
Should have clear instructions and be easy to read and use. You don't want information to be awkward to access while walking or running.
Some models list factors like distance, speed and time as programs. Other listed programs are just time-based. You might find a range of programs useful if you want the treadmill to plan a session for you. If you have your own fitness plan, these programs might not be much use to you.
Heart rate control programs
Automatically adjusts the intensity of your workout to keep you in the recommended heart rate zone, so you can be sure you're getting a worthwhile cardio workout for your fitness level.
Some treadmills have recovery programs that test your physical condition by assessing how quickly your pulse returns to normal after you've been exercising.
Try the machine in the shop. Walk and jog on it to ensure the machine feels stable, smooth and sturdy when you're walking and jogging.
The belt needs to be long and wide enough for the heaviest, tallest and fittest user. If you're buying for someone else, take them shopping with you and have them do a test run, too.
A well-cushioned deck is designed to absorb the force of your step, and is said to protect your joints and ligaments from damage –important for people using the treadmill a lot. More importantly, using the correct running technique helps to reduce injury to joints and ligaments.
Manufacturers generally have their own unique type of suspension/cushioning system.
The panels either side of the belt should be wide enough for you to stand on, so you can get your balance before stepping on the treadmill.
The belt shouldn't slow down too much when your foot hits it. Treadmill belts generally come pre-lubricated. Follow the manufacturer's instructions about when to apply more lubricant and what type of lubricant to buy.
For fast jogging or running, you'll want a machine that reaches at least 16km/h. If you'll only ever be walking or slow jogging, 10km/h should be enough. If you're a serious runner, try the machine's top speed before you buy to make sure it feels fast enough for you.
Treadmills are designed to tolerate different loads. A machine with a higher maximum user weight will generally cost a bit more. Exceeding the maximum user weight could seriously damage the treadmill or cause injury to the user. A more powerful motor will generally take more punishment and last longer.
For runners, (as opposed to joggers) or reasonably heavy users, a motor of at least 2.0 HP continuous (not peak) duty is highly recommended.
Have a good listen while it's running in the shop and determine if the noise is going to be an issue to you, and/or your family, and a reason for you to stop using the treadmill.
The incline function adds intensity to your workout by adding in a 'hill', helping to add a bit of interest to your walk or run. A motorised or power incline lets you vary the incline easily while exercising. If you opt for a treadmill that you need to incline manually, you'll have to stop your workout and get off the treadmill to adjust it. However, these machines are generally cheaper.
Some machines have hill programs, which use incline levels to mimic a series of hills and valleys of varying lengths and gradients. These can be a great way to reach your peak performance level, and it's more fun than running at the same level all the time. For challenging hill work, look for an incline level of at least 12%.
Heart rate (pulse) sensors
To allow you to monitor your heart rate while exercising, pulse sensors should be in a position where you can reach them easily and they don't impede your movement while you're working out.
This is an important safety feature, and we'd strongly recommend you use the key each time you step on the treadmill. Simply attach the safety key clip to your clothes and if you slip suddenly or need to stop in a hurry, pulling the key off the treadmill will stop it instantly. Keep it out of reach when you're finished so that small children can't accidentally start the machine.
Mandatory warning notice
Under the mandatory standard, treadmills must display a clearly visible warning notice with the aim to alert parents to keep children away from the treadmill, even when it's not in use. The warning statement must read:
WARNING: Keep young children away from this machine at all times. Contact with the moving surface may result in severe friction burns.
We recruited Dr Lee Wallace, a triathlete and sport and exercise science lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney to conduct an expert assessment of the treadmills. He also answered a couple of important questions in what to look for:
Question: How important is the running belt (the width, the amount of cushioning and what it's made of)?
Answer: "Different types of belts suit different types of people. Some people like a realistic feel and like it (the belt) a little firmer. Others like a real soft feel – something with a little bit of bounce, to help propel them forward a little bit. Some people run in a snaking action which makes them prone to stepping off the treadmill so a wide belt is important if you're not particularly good at running in a straight line."
Question: Is a treadmill with better cushioning better for your knees or body?
Answer: "This is an area that causes a lot of debate but it really depends on your running technique and the footware you're using. It's not as simple as cushioning is better or not but rather comes down to correct running form which is more beneficial to your knees and body."
You may save money by buying online – but before you do, you'd be wise to do a test run of the model(s) you're considering in a shop. A treadmill is a very subjective purchase and it needs to feel right.
The price of some treadmills includes delivery and installation, so check if this is the case. Others are sold in the box and require installation, which can cost up to $200. Factor this into your budget. You can opt to assemble the treadmill yourself if you're mechanically minded and physically able to. In our treadmills review we found some can be difficult to assemble, requiring time and effort.
The length of the warranty is the best indicator of quality and durability. Treadmills require regular maintenance and they do break down. Ensure you buy a treadmill with in-home warranty and service backup. You won't be able to fit a malfunctioning treadmill in the back of most cars without taking it apart completely, which isn't something most people want to do.
Sub $1000 treadmills are:
- Usually lighter, smaller and easier to fold away
- Suitable for small houses or flats
- Suitable if you're unable to shift heavy weights
$1000 - $2000 treadmills generally:
- Are stronger, quieter and have better quality motors
- Have a longer and wider belt
- Have a higher maximum speed
- Have a higher user weight limitation
- Come with more programs, and better quality components throughout
- Come with a longer warranty period
Top end treadmills, upwards of $3000 can have:
- TV screen
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Fan to keep you cool while running
- Speaker dock
- Wireless chest-strap heart-rate monitor
- Self-lubricating belt
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.