Cheapism: Best budget treadmills

Jan. 4, 2012 at 7:42 AM ET

The Horizon Fitness T101 comes with a lifetime warranty on the frame and motor.

By Kara Reinhardt,

A New Year’s resolution to get in shape may be more likely to lighten your wallet than your weight. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University found that health club members paying monthly dues of more than $70 didn’t get to the gym often enough to make a membership worthwhile. A visit winds up costing $17, compared with $10 on a 10-visit pass. A budget treadmill costs more than the gym up front, but you are probably more likely to use a machine that’s right there in your home. Moreover, the cost is ultimately offset by months of unpaid membership fees.

A low-cost treadmill won’t suit multiple users who intend to run on it for more than an hour every day. But if you’re more apt to walk or jog, you can find a solid machine for under $600. The cheapest treadmills require you to manually keep the belt moving, rather than relying on a motor, and using a manual treadmill can be difficult enough to discourage you from exercising. Experts recommend spending at least enough to get a model with a motor.

Manufacturers often advertise a treadmill’s peak performance horsepower, which indicates the motor’s maximum capability. However, pushing the treadmill to its limit for long periods can wear down both the motor and the belt. The more important indicator is continuous horsepower, or CHP. This should be at least 1.5 for walking and 2.0 for interval training. The latter involves alternating between high- and low-intensity exercise by adjusting the treadmill’s speed and incline. On some low-cost treadmills, this must be done manually, so look for a machine with automatic incline adjustment.

Experts recommend at least a 54-inch belt for walking and interval training — longer for running and for tall users with long strides. The belt should also be at least 18 inches wide to allow for side-to-side movement, especially if you’ll be running.

Finally, treadmills take a beating and can burn out quickly if they’re not well-made, so don’t buy one without an adequate warranty on the frame, motor, and parts.

Below are Cheapism’s top picks for affordable treadmills. All have a maximum speed of 10 mph.

  • The Horizon Fitness T101 (starting at $599) boasts a 2.25 CHP motor and a 55 x 20-inch belt. Reviews note its sturdy build, as evidenced by a two-ply belt, 300-pound weight limit, and lifetime warranty on the frame and motor — rare among budget models. (Where to buy)
  • The ProForm Performance 400 (starting at $599) has the same size motor, belt, and weight limit, along with a lifetime warranty on the frame, 25 years on the motor, and one year on parts and labor. Reviewers like that this treadmill is compatible with Nike + iPod and iFit Live, which supplements the 15 present workout programs with a vast array of online options (for an extra cost). (Where to buy)
  • The Merit Fitness 725T Plus (starting at $400) is primarily a walking treadmill, with a 1.25 CHP motor and a 45-inch belt. Experts and users appreciate the smooth automatic incline and general value for the price. (Where to buy)
  • The Gold's Gym GG480 (starting at $377) accommodates runners, multiple users, and people up to 300 pounds without shaking or making too much noise, according to reviews. This machine is best suited to walking, however, with a 1.5 CHP motor and a 50-inch belt. (Where to buy)

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