Harvard Health Letter

What to look for in a home treadmill

Find one with a comfortable deck, a strong motor, and features you’ll really use.

If you believe that regular walking, jogging, or running provides enormous health benefits — as you know we do — there are two good reasons to consider a home treadmill, according to Dr. Aaron Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. First, exercise outdoors can be challenging and even dangerous in bad weather. Second, if the inconvenience and time required to go to a mall or indoor track keeps you from exercising, being able to do it at home makes it much easier. If you have any balance, heart, or lung problems, make sure your doctor clears you for a home treadmill.

Treadmill shopping

Dr. Baggish recommends avoiding nonmotorized treadmills and opting for a motorized model. “You can get a good starter model for about $1,000, but it’s easy to exceed that if you want all the bells and whistles,” Dr. Baggish says. Before you make the investment, do a little homework first.

Look at treadmills in sporting goods stores, big-box stores, and stores that specialize in exercise equipment. Look for these features:

A strong motor. A lot of the treadmill’s price has to do with the quality, durability, and strength of its electric motor. “It’s one of the most important reasons not to buy a cheap treadmill, because it won’t have a great motor and may not last long,” warns Dr. Baggish. Home treadmill motors range from 1 to 5 horsepower (hp). A strength of 3 hp should be enough to allow you to walk or run.

A deck or belt (the part you walk on) that’s long enough for your stride. “It should be at least 48 inches, or longer if you’re taller than six feet,” Dr. Baggish says. If you plan to use the treadmill for running or jogging, you may need a deck in the range of 54 to 60 inches (because the faster you go, the more your stride lengthens). A thicker belt is more durable than a thinner belt.

A sturdy frame. It should have front side rails for safety.

An emergency stop button. This protects you in case you get into trouble.

Gauges that are easy to read. Make sure the letters and numbers are large enough for you to see clearly during use.

Easy-to-use buttons. You’ll need to be able to adjust the speed and grade of the treadmill as you’re moving, so you’ll want simple gadgetry.

Cool features

Today’s treadmills come loaded with high-tech features, like computer software that allows you to customize a walking or running routine with certain speeds, intervals, and inclines (to simulate hills).

Many models have a built-in TV screen that you can hook up to cable TV wirelessly or with a cord. There’s also a USB port so you can plug your tablet or smartphone into the treadmill and watch movies or shows that way. You may not need these features if you set up the treadmill in a room with a TV, or if you don’t care to watch TV while you work out.

Most treadmills are also compatible with heart rate monitors, so you can watch your heart rate while you’re working out. That may be handy if you have an athletic goal or if you need to reach — or stay below — a certain heart rate on your doctor’s orders.

Kick the tires

Try out the treadmill models that interest you. Walk, jog, or run on the machines to see if one is a good fit. “If you can feel your foot approaching the back of the deck, it’s too short,” Baggish says.

Talk to a salesperson about a warranty or service contract for the motor. “Treadmills can stop working over time,” says Dr. Baggish. “You want someone who can come to your home and service the machine.” A 90-day warranty may be standard, with a fee for a service call if the machine breaks after the warranty period. Some stores may offer free service for an extended period.

Check the ratings

If possible, check reviews or ratings for treadmills online. Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org) and many running magazines offer reliable information. But don’t believe everything you read. Ask if your doctor, physical therapist, or fitness trainers have any recommendations for home treadmill options. And before you buy any model, get on it yourself and see how you like it.

Making it pay off

Good intentions for treadmill use can go by the wayside. “The challenge,” says Dr. Baggish, “is for people to use the treadmill routinely, and keep it from becoming a clothes rack.” Best advice: Buy a treadmill only if you’re confident the investment will pay off.

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