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- By Elizabeth Sheer
Doctors continually cite walking and jogging as important for cardiovascular fitness, so it's no surprise that treadmills are among the most popular pieces of fitness equipment. They are also among the most expensive, with price tags ranging upward of $2,000 for high-end brands such as Sole, Landice, and online-only retailer Smooth Fitness. At the same time, cheap treadmills afford budget-conscious consumers the convenience of exercising in their own homes for less than $600.
Cheap Treadmill Buying Guide
A serious runner might be disappointed in the performance of a cheap treadmill. If you fall into that category, commenters at Runner's World suggest hitting up Craigslist for used gym equipment. The experts at Treadmill Doctor say if you have a history of consistent exercise, you are likely to continue it at home, which could make a more expensive treadmill worth it. They also suggest looking outside the budget price range if more than one person will be using the equipment, if any user weighs more than 250 pounds, or if the treadmill will be used for more than an hour per day. On the other hand, if you are a novice runner, or intend to primarily walk or jog, a cheap treadmill could be all you need.
The intensity of exercise a treadmill can handle has to do with the power of its motor, as measured in continuous-duty horsepower, or CHP. Look for a motor with a CHP of 1.5 for walking and higher for interval training or jogging. The motor should run quietly; experts say noise indicates friction, which will wear down the components eventually. Also make sure a cheap treadmill's belt is long enough to accommodate your stride. Take note of the weight capacity, which needs to be high enough to accommodate anyone using the machine and can indicate how sturdy it is. Most cheap treadmills have a maximum weight of 250 pounds, although some weight limits are significantly higher. Even cheap treadmills come with a variety of attractive bonus features such as fans and iPod docks. Most discount treadmills have several preset workout programs, although an extensive variety of presets is one thing budget shoppers often have to sacrifice.
Some of the top cheap treadmills are produced by multinational manufacturers Icon Health and Fitness, which owns brands such as ProForm, Gold's Gym, Reebok, and Weslo, and Johnson Tech, the parent company of Horizon Fitness and Merit Fitness. The best budget treadmills we found are the Horizon Fitness T101 (starting at $599, Amazon) and the ProForm Performance 400 (starting at $599). The Horizon treadmill wins raves for its sturdy build, long deck, and easily changed speeds and inclines. Users like the added features as well, in particular the built-in fan that cools you off as you work out. The ProForm Performance 400 has a solid bed for walkers or light joggers and plenty of extra features.
The Merit Fitness 725T Plus (starting at $400, Amazon) is also sturdy enough for both walkers and joggers, with preset workouts to vary the routine. The Gold's Gym GG480 (starting at $377) is a solid choice for walkers. It comes with a set of hand weights for exercising the upper body as well. Buyers of the Weslo Cadence G-40 (starting at $350, Amazon) don't have high expectations at this price and recommend this cheap treadmill for those who are unsure of their commitment to exercise. Users warn that the belt tends to move and is fairly loud.
Walking Treadmills, Motorized Treadmills
There are two types of treadmills: manual and motorized. A manual treadmill is powered by your own two feet -- it's up to you to keep it going, and this can be a bit of a struggle, especially when it comes to maintaining a constant speed. It also takes a lot of effort to change the incline on a manual treadmill -- you have to get off the machine, adjust the incline, and then get on and get the thing moving again. On a motorized treadmill, you can select the speed and incline and change both at will. Manual treadmills are tempting to budget-conscious consumers looking for walking treadmills because of their low cost; the Stamina InMotion II starts at just $153. But if it's too hard to exercise, you likely won't do it often enough to make even such a cheap treadmill worth the money.
A motorized treadmill's continuous horsepower rating, or CHP, indicates the amount of power the motor will provide over the long haul. That's as opposed to peak performance horsepower (listed variously as HP, PHP, or THP), which indicates the maximum horsepower the machine can reach. The experts at Running Planet say a CHP of 1.5 is sufficient for a walking treadmill. Interval training, with its mix of inclines and speeds, puts more demands on the motor, so it requires a CHP of at least 2.0. The top-rated treadmills we found exceed those criteria. The Horizon Fitness T101 (starting at $599) and ProForm Performance 400 (starting at $599) boast a continuous rating of 2.25, and a jog should not strain the motors at all.
Running is possible on all the budget treadmills on our list, but the motors on some of them can't really accommodate serious runners. The Weslo Cadence (starting at $350), Merit Fitness 725T Plus (starting at $400), and the Gold's Gym GG480 (starting at $377) have peak performance horsepower of 2.25; however, the CHP latter two is 1.5 and the CHP of the Weslo treadmill is only 1.25, so these models really are walking treadmills. Using the peak performance power over long periods of time will burn the motor and cause friction on the belt.
Treadmill Warranty.The high demand put on treadmills can wear them out quickly if they're not made well. Because treadmills in our price range are built with less costly materials that are unlikely to last many years, experts say long warranties on the motor and parts are must-have features on a discount treadmill. The Horizon Fitness T101, ProForm Performance 400, and Merit 725T all have lifetime warranties on the frame, and the Horizon also has a lifetime warranty on the motor, which is exceptional for this price range. The ProForm comes with a 25-year warranty on the motor, the Gold's Gym GG480 is guaranteed for five years, and the motor on the Merit 725T is covered for two years. As for parts, the Horizon Fitness T101 and ProForm Performance 400 have one-year warranties. The Merit and Gold's Gym models are covered for 90 days. The Weslo Cadence G-40 has only a 90-day warranty for the whole thing, one reason we don't include it among our picks.
Treadmill Incline and Speed.One of the advantages of walking or running on a treadmill is the ability to stick to a set pace, a difficult feat on the ground. All of our picks have a top speed of 10 mph. Casual users are unlikely to want to go higher than that for anything other than a short sprint. The Horizon T101 also has a cool-down feature, which automatically slows the speed for four minutes.Incline settings allow you to do interval training with a mix of hills and speeds. The Weslo Cadence G-40 has a manual incline, with three choices of grade. The other treadmills on our list have incline motors, with the ability to change the grade electronically from 0 percent to 10 percent. Preset workouts with interval training, available on all four of our picks, automatically change the incline during the course of the workout.
Treadmill Belt.Discount treadmills generally have one-ply belts, although the Horizon T101 has a two-ply belt. The dimensions of the belt should match your size and fitness goals. The experts at Running Planet suggest that for walking or interval training, a 54-inch belt is the minimum length to shoot for -- longer if you are tall. If you plan to do a good deal of running on a treadmill, the experts recommend at least 58 inches. The width of the belt should be at least 18 inches to accommodate some side-to-side motion, particularly if you are going to run.For the most part, the cheaper the treadmill, the smaller the belt. The Horizon T101 and the ProForm Performance 400 both have belts that are 20 inches wide and 55 inches long. The Gold's Gym GG480 and Merit Fitness 725T are 18 inches wide. They are 50 and 45 inches long, respectively, which makes them fine for walking, but unless you're fairly short, running on them could be a problem. The same is true for the Weslo Cadence G-40, which has a very narrow belt, at 16 x 50. Some users who posted reviews on the Walmart website stress that the Weslo treadmill is meant only for walking; if you try to run, you are likely to bang your hands or arms on the grips.
The console on a low-cost treadmill should display, at a minimum, standard information about your workout, such as time elapsed, distance, speed, and calories burned. Many cheap treadmills also feature built-in heart-rate monitors in the handgrips, which are useful for staying within a target zone. However, the calorie and heart-rate readouts on budget machines are notoriously inaccurate, particularly because you can't key in your gender, age, and weight. More expensive machines come with wireless chest straps to monitor heart rate. If you're keen to measure how many calories you've burned on a budget treadmill, you can download the iTreadmill app to an iPhone or iPod Touch for $1.99.
Treadmill Workout Programs.Preprogrammed workouts can add to the intensity of your exercise and keep you motivated by automatically changing the speed and incline. The ProForm Performance 400 is compatible with iFit Live, which offers an almost unlimited number of customized treadmill workouts at an additional cost. IFit Live wirelessly downloads workouts to the treadmill's console and saves your results to a profile on iFit.com. In addition to the iFit option, ProForm offers built-in workouts based on performance, distance, time, and weight loss. The Horizon T101 has nine interval training, weight loss, and manual programs that allow you to set targets for time, distance, or calories. The Merit 725T Plus comes with seven. The Gold's Gym GG480 offers four treadmill workouts designed by a personal trainer and four weight-loss workouts. The Weslo Cadence G-40 also serves up four workouts designed by a certified personal trainer.
Folding Treadmill Reviews/Treadmill Storage.Keep in mind that treadmills are big, about the size of a small couch, and take up a lot of room in the house. This accounts for the popularity of folding treadmills that can be shoved under a bed or in a closet when they're not being used. If hauling out a folding treadmill is too much of a chore, however, the tendency will be to let it stay where it is. All of the treadmills on our list fold up to some extent, but not enough to put them under a bed or in a closet. The bigger and heavier the treadmill, the less truly foldable it is. ProForm’s Space Saver feature lets the Performance 400 fold into an upright position when you need to clear space. The Weslo Cadence G-40, with its small footprint, folds up easily, according to reviews on the Walmart website, and can be stored vertically. The Gold's Gym GG480 also folds up and can be stored upright. The Horizon T101 has a hydraulic lift system so you don't have to lift the deck. The Stamina InMotion II manual treadmill weighs only 56 pounds, has wheels, and doesn't need to be plugged in, making it the most portable treadmill we researched.
Extra Features.While experts say the most essential components of a treadmill are the motor, belt, and warranty, many cheap treadmills come with a variety of bells and whistles that add appeal but are not necessary. Some inexpensive treadmills, including the Horizon T101, and ProForm Performance 400, come with a fan to cool you off as you're working out, although the fans are not adjustable, so the blast of air may not hit you where you need it most. The Gold's Gym GG480 comes with a set of one-pound hand weights to add an upper-body workout.An increasing number of treadmills now play music directly or connect to an MP3 player. All our picks have a port or iPod dock with speakers, so the music can keep you moving without headphones or earbuds. Don't expect great quality from these speakers, though.
Buyers of inexpensive treadmills tend to do a lot of research before they make such a big purchase and have reasonable expectations about what they are going to get. Treadmill reviews indicate that consumers don't expect to get the same quality they would with a gym machine.
The key to buying a treadmill is determining how you will use it now and, based on your fitness goals, how you will use it in the future. If you purchase an inexpensive treadmill to walk on, only to find yourself primarily running on it, you can expect it to break down over time because of the increased friction on the belt and the impact on the deck. For the most part, consumers who put a treadmill to its intended use are satisfied with the models on our list, according to treadmill reviews.
Treadmill Motor Performance.As noted in the features section of this buying guide, if the motor's CHP, or continuous horsepower rating, is under 2.0, you may be disappointed if you run on the treadmill and/or use it daily. A small motor will be noisy or feel unsteady if it is put to heavier use than intended. Still, an occasional run or a frequent light jog will not strain its capacity, and users posting treadmill reviews tend to give our picks high marks on the capacity of the motor, even when it's strained. According to reviews on Amazon, even users who are near the 300-pound weight limit find that the Horizon Fitness T101 holds up to lots of walking. Similarly, users posting treadmill reviews at the ProForm site note that the Performance 400 is quiet and stable even at a jog.The Gold's Gym GG480 likewise wins praise in reviews on the Walmart site for its ability to provide a good workout for multiple exercisers, runners, and people close to the 300-pound maximum weight without being wobbly or noisy. However, some complain that it's a bit noisy at higher speeds. The same is true of the Merit Fitness 725T Plus; one user who posted a review at Wayfair finds it suitable for walking and interval running but says it may not be made for heavy running.
Purchasers of the Weslo Cadence G-40 are usually looking for a really inexpensive option because they aren't sure about their commitment to exercise, according to reviews, and they tend to be walkers and light joggers. Users posting reviews of this model at Walmart seem pretty satisfied with their choice, although a few find this model a bit jerky or noisy.
Treadmill Deck Performance.The key elements of a treadmill's deck are the tread belt and the shock-absorbing cushioning. Users don't often mention cushioning in treadmill reviews -- it seems to be just part of what they expect from a treadmill as opposed to exercising outdoors. Consumers posting reviews at Sears do note that the cushioning on the Horizon T101 allows them to get a good, low-impact workout. ProForm is known for its cushioning, and a review at Treadmill Adviser reports that the Performance 400 compresses and responds evenly to each step you take. Consumers answering questions about the Gold's Gym GG480 at Walmart say the cushioning is just right -- not too spongy but enough to keep the machine from shaking at low speeds.Users of the Merit Fitness 725T find the deck sturdy on the whole but not very well cushioned, according to reviews on Amazon, which could be an issue for people with joint problems.
Best Cheap Treadmills
The console displays on budget treadmills are sometimes lit from behind but are usually easy to read, according to reviews. The exception to the general satisfaction among consumers on this front is the console on the Gold's Gym GG480, which users posting reviews at Walmart find difficult to read, particularly in dim light. Budget treadmills provide correct information for basic indicators such as workout setting, elapsed time, incline, speed, and distance traveled. However, other displays may give misleading data because you can't program your gender, age, and weight into the system. Even the best cheap treadmills we found don't have that option built in, although you can set up a profile if you buy iFit Live for the ProForm Performance 400. (One user who reviewed the Weslo Cadence G-40 at Walmart figured out that the calorie counter is calibrated for people who weigh 185 pounds, so the formula for figuring out how many calories you've burned is your weight divided by 185, multiplied by the calorie readout on the machine -- more than most people likely want to calculate.) For all the treadmills that have heart-rate monitors in the handgrips, we saw many complaints that they don't give accurate readouts.