A treadmill is the best way to get nowhere fast, and get fit doing it! If you want to be able to run in all weather (or safely after dark), avoid paying gym fees, make TV time double as workout time or just enjoy all the perks of not leaving the house to exercise, it’s a handy bit of equipment. But they're not cheap, and many a treadmill - purchased with the best of intentions - ends up in the garage, never to be used again due to boredom. So if you want to get your money's worth and achieve your fitness goals, it's vital to buy one you're actually going to use.
Before you buy
We found around 40 brands for sale in Australia; some of the big players include Avanti, Weslo, Repco Sport, Precor and Proform. To increase the odds of buying a treadmill that will give you the best run for your money, ask yourself a few key questions before you buy.
- First and foremost, think about how you plan to use your treadmill. Will it be for the occasional walk, predominantly for jogging, or for serious running training? Will you be the only one using it, or do you think the whole family will get involved? Try to anticipate how your needs may change as you get fitter, too.
- If it’s something you just want to try out, think about renting before you buy. You might find the sheer size of the treadmill cumbersome, or that the commitment just isn’t there. Re-selling something on eBay or Gumtree can be a hassle and a loss-making exercise a lot of the time. And you can see people have made the running jump without consideration from the number of used treadmills on either of those sites (around 50% used).
- Hire purchase or renting might be more practical if you have a single goal in mind for a treadmill. If you want to lose those last few kilos before summer, then it doesn’t make sense to have the treadmill all year round.
- If renting or buying are out of your budget, you might consider going to a gym to use their machines. They tend to invest heavily in durable machines and have different levels of membership to suit many budgets – just be wary of their contracts!
- 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 – though their fancy functions such as heart rate monitors might have gone bust by then. Remember to try before you buy.
- If you're over 60 and wanting to take some gentle regular exercise, your routine won't vary much. But an athletic young person in training for a half marathon or a novice starting a fitness regime for the first time are likely to see changes in their fitness levels, so they'll need to be able to step it up. This means choosing a treadmill with a decent range of program options.
- Treadmills take up a lot more space than you might realise. Can it stay in one place? If you'll be storing it after use, what size and weight can you comfortably move?
- What features are important to you? For instance, do you like to listen to music while you run? Will a TV and a cup-holder be essential if you're planning to exercise in your lounge room?
What to look for
A wide range of programs and features offered by more expensive treadmills could be tricky to get your head around at first, but they'll be fairly easy to operate once you get used to them.
These should have clear instructions and be easy to read and use, so the information you want isn't 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. Run through the programs to see what you think you'll need, and check there's enough variety to keep you motivated.
Heart rate control programs
Automatically adjusting the intensity of your workout these 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 that's not you, take them shopping with you and have them do a test run, too.
A well-cushioned deck will absorb the force of your step, protecting your joints and ligaments from damage which is important for runners and people who use the treadmill a lot.
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. CHOICE experts warned that some treadmills are quite a lot slower than their stated maximum speed. 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. Check the "continuous-duty"rating, which is always less than the machine's "peak duty" rating. Peak duty is the maximum power potential, which can't be sustained.
For runners, (as opposed to joggers), reasonably heavy users, or more than one user, 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. You could try making a quick call on your mobile phone to gauge how noisy the treadmill is. Noise is one of the main reasons people stop using treadmills, especially if they'd planned to use it in front of the TV or while listening to music.
Swing arm cushioning system
This uses a swing arm under the front of the treadmill, which disperses impact through itself, the deck and the frame, creating a smooth walk or run with reduced impact. Many other manufacturers have their own unique type of suspension system.
The incline function adds intensity to your workout by adding in what's basically a hill, helping to add a bit of interest to your walk or run. Look for a motorised or power incline lets you vary the incline easily while exercising.
With a manual incline, you'll have to stop your workout and get off the treadmill to adjust it, but machines with manual incline are a lot cheaper. For challenging hill work, look for an incline level of at least 12%. 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.
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. Having the sensors on a front handlebar is the easiest position for most people.
We'd strongly recommend you buy a machine with this feature. If you attach the safety key clip to your clothes and you slip suddenly or need to stop in a hurry, pulling the key out stops the treadmill instantly. Take the key away when you finish so that small children can't accidentally start the machine.
Test before you buy online
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.
Delivery and installation
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 if you're not mechanically minded or physically able to do it yourself.
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, even if they're capable of it.
Treadmills at lower price points usually have the advantage of being lighter, smaller and easier to fold away, so they're more suitable for small houses or flats and to people who are unable to shift heavy weights.
The more expensive machines may have a stronger, quieter, better-quality motor; a longer and wider belt; a higher maximum speed; a higher user-weight limitation; more programs; a longer warranty; and better-quality components throughout.
Top-end treadmills retail for upwards of $3000 and may also have LCD TV (some with inputs for DVD/Foxtel), MP3 speaker dock, a wireless chest-strap heart-rate monitor, a self-lubricating belt, and a fan to keep you cool while you're working up a sweat (some even change airflow to match the speed of your exercise).
In 2010, CHOICE compared four treadmills between $500 and $3000. We found:
- For $500 you'll get a basic machine with manual incline, suitable for walkers and light joggers of average height and weight.
- For $1300 you can expect a machine with a better-quality deck, more durable motor and a heart-rate monitor.
- For $2300 you'll get more programs, a motorised and steeper incline capability, higher speed, wider belt, greater weight limit, more powerful motor, cool-down program and customisable programs - offering real value for money with a good range of features and is suitable for all but elite runners, athletes or people over 120kg.
- For $3000, you'll get offered more incline, a motion control feature and a stronger and more durable motor, with some of those cool features listed in the top-end models section above.