Treadmill Buying Guide

One of the best ways to exercise more is to make it easier to work out. And if you’re interested in running, a treadmill can make it easy to do so in your own home—with no need to worry about going to a gym or inclement weather of any kind.

Even before 2020, treadmill sales were on the rise, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. And the boom in sales for home exercise equipment continued over the past year, according to NPD. While there are a number of factors that have helped buoy the recent popularity of treadmills, one factor may be the growing popularity of treadmill fitness classes, plus the development of better and smarter machines.

But innovation isn’t cheap: A top-rated treadmill can cost a steep $4,000 or more. Fortunately, if you’re willing to make some trade-offs, you can find some high-end features on less expensive models, too. And CR has recommended treadmills with more basic features at less than half that price.

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, Peloton, 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.  

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’re likely to be just as satisfied with a less expensive model.

Try It Before You Buy It
If you can do so, trying out a treadmill in person is ideal. 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.
•  Connected features. Docks for smartphones, 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.
A person running on a treadmill.

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. Confirm the store’s return policy. Even if it 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.

Treadmill Types

Motorized treadmills are based on the same fundamental design premise: a moving belt, powered by an electric motor. But because treadmills come in a range of prices, with varying features and designs, we have subdivided them 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 and 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 a larger running surface.

Pros: These are the best choice for frequent runners and are 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 sometimes have fewer built-in programs. When every square foot counts, space considerations are non-negotiable.
Treadmills Ratings

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 most important to you.

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