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Tread carefully

Everything you need to know before buying a treadmill

When the snow starts to fly, an at-home treadmill can be a dream machine. Moving your walking indoors lets you keep up with your workouts and focus on your technique without worrying about slippery sidewalks or blustery winds.

Treadmills have always been the most popular piece of home cardio equipment, according to Tim Furlong, retail sales manager of Advantage Fitness Sales in Markham, Ontario. “A good treadmill with pre-set programs, heart-rate monitoring and a digital display makes walking more interesting,” says Furlong. Research also shows that pairing a good treadmill with the right walking shoes can decrease the impact to your joints by up to 40 percent.

Sold on the benefits? Here’s a primer on what to look for when you’re ready to buy:

Motor
Look for a motor that is at least two horsepower – it needs to be powerful enough to match your fastest pace and pull your body weight – and operates under 4,000 rpms. A motor that revs higher is working too hard and won’t last long, says Furlong. High-revving motors are also noisy. If you like to watch television as you work out or exercise while your children sleep, a noisy motor could cut your walks short.

Belt and suspension
Choose a machine with a walking surface (known as the belt) that is at least 137 centimetres (54 inches) long. Some inexpensive models have belts that are too short; they can cramp your stride and create a tripping hazard.

Be sure to evaluate the treadmill’s suspension or cushioning system. A good suspension system absorbs the shock of your feet stepping thousands of times per workout and helps keep your joints injury-free. Each manufacturer’s system is different, so ask the salesperson to explain the systems of the models you’re considering. If you’re over 136 kilograms (300 pounds) choose one with stronger suspension. Test ride several models, and buy the one that feels right for you.

Manufacturer and dealer
Invest in a treadmill from a top manufacturer that offers a good warranty, advises Furlong. The industry standard is five to 10 years on the motor, three to five years for the electrical parts, one year for labour and a lifetime warranty on the frame.

Treadmill ratings in Consumer Reports and Smart Money offer a wealth of information for potential buyers. When you’ve made your choice, deal with a reputable fitness-equipment specialty store. “Poor quality machines bought from a department store or a shopping television channel can be hard to fix, and parts can be difficult to find.”

Price
Can you get a good treadmill for $500? “No way,” laughs Furlong. “That will just buy you a lot of headaches!” For a safe and enjoyable workout, you’ll need to spend $1,500 or more for a machine from a quality manufacturer. “If it feels good, has some programs to challenge you and operates smoothly and quietly, you’ll be more likely to use it.”

Safety
Once you’ve made your purchase, learn to walk on it safely. To start, straddle the belt and stand on the side rails. Then, turn it on and step onto the slow-moving belt. Gradually increase the speed until you’re walking at a comfortable warm-up pace. After five to 10 minutes, slowly increase the speed and/or incline until you’re walking at the desired intensity.