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How to Shop for a Treadmill

Where to Start

Buying a treadmill involves a major personal commitment. You should examine your choices carefully and talk to your friends. Visit a health club to find out what you like, then do some market research. Beware of flashy sales tactics. Many of the units out there are designed for the showroom, not for serious exercising. It’s also important to have professional technical support, which includes delivery, installation, and in-home service and repair both during and after the warranty period. Without professional support, buying a treadmill is inadvisable.

Buying a treadmill involves a major personal commitment. You should examine your choices carefully and talk to your friends.

Technical Requirements

Horsepower
Continuous-duty is the horsepower rating for steady, continual, 24 hour motor usage. The treadmill motor should have at least 2.0 continuous-duty horsepower. See below for detailed information on types of motors.

Motor Electronics
Horsepower alone doesn’t guarantee a smooth running treadmill. Good electronics will allow a motor with fewer horsepower to run better than a much larger motor with poor electronics. A good motor uses a microprocessor to maintain a steady clip, which is nothing more than simple circuitry that senses belt load and communicates with the motor to make necessary adjustments to assure smooth operation. Quality machines sense resistance in your steps and send dozens of electronic pulses per second to eliminate hesitation and keep the belt turning at a constant speed. You can’t assess the electronics by looking at them, but when you compare treadmills pay attention to the smoothness and constancy of the belt as you walk. You can tell the difference both by feel and by watching to see if the speed readout fluctuates. A simple test you can do is to set the treadmill at a low speed, grasp a railing, and give the belt a little resistance with your foot as though trying to slow the belt. A weak motor will kick up a fuss, indicating that it won’t be a smooth operator nor last very long under use. On a low quality treadmill, you may hear the motor whine and grind as you stride. A motor with a continuous, smooth, quiet sound when exercising will probably be able to keep the belt from slipping at each step. So whether walking or running, the belt and motor should provide a smooth and continuous motion without jerks or sudden spurts.

treadmillMotor Torque
Torque is force applied to a lever so as to make an object rotate. Wrenches apply torque. One motor may do modest work very quickly, whereas another may do prodigious work, but slowly…. Yet both could be rated at the same power if they do the same amount of work per unit time. Thus, a hot rod sports car, an eighteen wheeler, and a bulldozer may all be rated at 300 h.p., but their horses differ greatly. The lightweight, high revving hot rod engine wouldn’t last long trying to haul a heavy truck up a steep grade. The minute it “lugs down” from the high revs, the 300 horses disappear. We don’t harness a racehorse to plow a field, nor do we expect a plow horse to win races. In general, a motor that spins quickly to high revs fares poorly at low revs under a heavy load. It’s the same with electric motors. One designed for a high-speed drill, or fan, would not be ideal to run your treadmill, especially with you walking on it. The heavy-duty motor in your treadmill should deliver high torque at low speed, like the bulldozer engine. You can test this by walking on it and seeing how well it performs at less than 1.0 m.p.h. A high h.p. rating can be a deceptive hoax if the treadmill manufacturer has not gone to the expense of using the right kind of motor for the job. What you want is both high continuous-duty horsepower and high torque at low revs. Less power is required at higher speeds, therefore more power is needed at start-up and walking speeds. User weight shouldn’t matter on a treadmill that uses a motor capable of high torque at low speeds. A good treadmill will dead-start well over 1,000 pounds. Some treadmills will actually use higher torque at higher speeds to raise the horsepower (over 6 m.p.h. where the user actually starts helping the belt along with foot motion), but good engineering puts torque where it is needed most, around 0.5 to 4 m.p.h. More power means a smoother walk or run without hesitations and motor resistance. In fact, there is a much smaller amp draw on the motor when initializing torque, as compared to a higher consumption of wattage when a motor is working harder to maintain faster speeds – or its maximum use of horsepower potential. This results in a longer lasting and cooler running motor.

Motor Controller
The treadmill motor will be controlled by an electrical power board, which regulates the positive and negative electrical currents to the motor. Most use either a PWM board (Pulse Width Modulated) or an SCR board (Solid State Control Rectifier). Due to the technical language used in explaining what each does, we suggest asking a salesperson responsible for your treadmill of interest about this feature. Simply put, a PWM board will provide much more DC voltage than an SCR board by rectifying an alternating current (AC) into pure direct current (DC) voltage. SCR chops a 60-cycle alternating current 60 times per second, while a PWM will chop it about 16,000 times. (AC voltage is a constant change of positive/negative current 60 times per second, which is a cycle.) PWM boards result in a much quieter motor due to less electrical hum, and less service because they do not require chokes and filters. Higher pure DC voltage in PWM boards means a stronger current and about half the amp draw, resulting in higher tolerance to heavier users and lower electrical costs. PWM makes for less heat and therefore leads to: extended motor performance and longer brush life; easier torque boost adjustment; the use of heavier flywheels; and enough power to dead-start a heavier user weight. PWM boards are the standard in quality motor controllers.

Speed
Most treadmills run from 0 to 10 M.P.H., though some designed specifically for walking may have more limited speeds. The right treadmill for you will match your own pace, whether fast or slow. Starting speed is a more important issue, and we recommend a safe starting speed of 1 M.P.H. or less. It’s not that you will be walking that slow, but starting speeds of more than a mile per hour are often too fast for most motors and may result as a jerk when the belt is started.

Fit
Make sure from walking on a treadmill that there is more than enough room on the belt for your longest stride. Narrow or short tread belts are symptomatic of a high-friction bed. We recommend a belt no less than 16 inches wide. Make sure that you can reach and read the monitor without walking onto the motor housing. Be careful of stepping off the end, as well. Quality belts shouldn’t require frequent maintenance, whereas low quality belts need to be regularly lubricated, otherwise they stick to the deck. Make sure that belts which require adjustment for tracking and tension can easily be adjusted by you.

Deck
It has been argued by many that a quality deck is the single most important component of a quality treadmill. Treadmills fail due to heat, and better decks operate at low temperatures. Quality treadmills have pretreated decks requiring very little maintenance other than wiping off dust. Other than that, quality decks should need no substantial maintenance. Listen for a deck that makes little noise against the belt when exercising. Avoid decks comprised simply of plastic over wood or particleboard painted black. A good deck will be made from layers of different specialty material for durability and longevity. If in doubt, ask about what lubrication to use, then follow the manufacturer’s directions during the warranty period.

Resilience
Resilience is the absorption by the treadmill of the force from the impact of your feet, which helps to relieve the stress on your knees and ankles. Generally, the lower the impact, the better. Different treadmills employ different means of resilience, whether flexible or cushioned deck construction, or shock absorption suspension systems. Most will have a built-in give, allowing it to yield to the impact of your stride. Whatever the feature, a treadmill shouldn’t be too cushioned or bouncy. The majority of treadmills have better resilience than asphalt. A good pair of shoes and an anti-static mat will provide enough shock absorption.

Rollers
Roller size is better if about 2 or more inches in diameter. The reason for this is that the belt is able to run with less tension due to contact with a larger surface area, which results in a longer life to both the belt and the roller bearings. Larger rollers turn more slowly at all speeds, which also prolongs bearing life. Larger rollers mean the use of larger bearings, which can handle a larger load capacity. There is less stress on the belt when forced around larger rollers, and less flex stress results in cooler temperatures on the polyester fibers of the belt, in turn, leading to less wear than small rollers with more belt flex, higher temperatures, and tighter belt tension. At cooler temperatures the belt coatings last longer and thus prevents excess friction. There is also more overall strength to the treadmill with larger rollers simply because they require larger axles. Steel rollers are preferable to aluminum because aluminum rollers can oxidize and may form a grinding material that acts as sandpaper on the belt. Solid rollers are much better than hollow rollers.

Incline
Several incline mechanisms are used in different treadmills, such as electric motors, worm screws, pneumatic or gas shocks, and manual cranks. Quality incline should be quiet and shouldn’t allow the treadmill to wobble at high elevations. Electric incline with a worm screw is ideal, though because it uses a separate motor the price is then effected by another couple hundred dollars. If you do prefer electric incline then make sure the motor doesn’t strain with one or two people on the treadmill, which would indicate a weak motor. You will generally find manual cranks on lower-end treadmills to keep production costs down. Though any of these means of incline are just fine, make sure the control is located on the monitor console where you can adjust it while exercising. Most quality treadmills will incline to 10%, and though you want maximum incline to help attain to your target heart rate, too much incline may easily lead to injury. Most users don’t go above 10%.

Control Panel
Your treadmill should have a computerized control panel, no matter how simple it is, and often the simpler the better. The most common are LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) and LED (Light Emitting Diode). You will often find LCD displays on less expensive equipment to keep prices down. LED displays are used in mid to high-end treadmills are much more easy to read because they are lighted, though more expensive to produce. Other kinds of displays found on expensive equipment include Digital and Gas Plasma, which we feel are seldom better than LED. Most high-end treadmills will be fully programmable for speed, electric incline, distance, time, heart rate, and emergency shut off, but you can save money by purchasing a treadmill that offers only the basics. The control panel, more than anything should be simple to use and readouts that are large and easy to read. Many consoles offer a set of pre-programmed exercise levels and allow for you to program your own routine of exercise, which is desirable when attaining to your target heart rate. Where high-end treadmills are considered, you should choose a console, which provides error messages when problems or malfunctions occur to help diagnose the symptoms of failing or damaged internal parts. Price has a lot to do with monitor options, so you may save money by choosing only those control panel features which are of personal interest to you.

Heart Rate Control
The best heart rate monitors utilize a chest strap that electronically signals the monitor with an accurate heart rate providing E.C.G. precision. We advise against ear and finger clip pulse monitors because they are not as accurate as heart rate chest monitors are. These are typically available as inexpensive add-ons, and do not need to be part of the treadmill itself.

Frame
Frames constructed of high alloy steel are generally more stable and durable than aluminum, although aluminum frames are considerably lighter. Aluminum, however, won’t rust, so make sure that a steel frame is well coated to prevent rust corrosion. If a treadmill looks and feels flimsy, then it is. It should have wheels at the heaviest end to make it easier to relocate or reposition. Frame construction often determines the user weight restriction. Welded frames, while heavier, are not necessarily preferable to bolted frames. Avoid all-plastic frames.

Hand Rails
Handrail location is up to the user. Whether one or two side rails or a handlebar on the front of the monitor console, they should be sturdy and out of the way of swinging arms. They are mostly used for balance, so make sure your treadmill has reachable and sturdy bars with comfortable grips. It is not necessary to hold the handrails, and you will get a more natural feel if you walk upright at your normal speed, just as if you were outside. You can carry a couple of small weights to give yourself an upper body workout while you walk.

Safety
Because motorized treadmills are a moving, machine certain safety precautions must be included as standard features, including an emergency shut-off that is easily accessible, the ability to limit incline and speed, a gradual start and stop, and accessible hand rails for both runners and walkers. A safe starting speed is 1 M.P.H. or less. It’s also good for a treadmill to have its own circuit breaker to prevent the motor and electronics from burning up in case of power problems. The use of extension cords should be avoided, and the power supply must be grounded. An anti-static mat will help keep your machine in position, as well as eliminate static buildup in the tread belt. A mat will help protect your floor from dirt, sweat, scratches and dents.

Warranty and Service
Quality treadmills should have a lifetime warranty on the frame, but look for one that has a two or more year warranty on parts, especially the belt and rollers. Make sure the model you are interested in won’t become obsolete in the near future and its parts discontinued. Ask if the parts will be readily available for a long time to come. Labour is usually one or more years, but find out if there is a service charge for in-home warranty service. Some stores may offer extended warranty plans on labour, but watch for manufacturer warranty plans that require you to pay extra to extend a short warranty period. If you purchase a treadmill from a source that is later unable to service it, then the warranty should cover another authorized dealer to make necessary repairs.

Price
In a department store, the value of a treadmill is not the retail price. Virtually all department stores price their fitness equipment about 25 to 40% higher than their planned selling price. Plan to spend from around $1,600 or more for a quality-motorized treadmill. Many lower priced treadmills do not offer 2.0hp continuous duty motors or PWM controllers, and can be used for only about one hour per day. If you had planned on spending a less; then make a visit to a local fitness store where a variety of treadmills are displayed and technically supported and see for yourself the price range offered. Then visit a local department store and compare. Remember, you get what you pay for, and as with any quality machine, treadmills have price points – and the starting point for quality is in and around the $1,600 range. Generally you will find that below this price range, treadmills do not meet most of the recommended guidelines we’ve suggested. You may have noticed that high-end treadmills average around $4,000 and up, but the competitiveness of the market has produced some excellent treadmills for under $2,500.

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