Some treadmills are cheap. Others cost as much as a decent used car. What’s the difference between cheap treadmills and the best treadmills – and how much does it matter? This treadmill buyers’ guide explains motors, belts, and other features to consider when making your purchase.

1) The motor – Regardless of your exercise habits, your treadmill’s motor matters. The motor drives the treadbelt, or track, forward. Differences in motor quality are readily evident: motors of lower quality are relatively loud and wear out more quickly than higher-end equipment.

Treadmill manufacturers use two types of motor ratings: some list horsepower (HP) and others list continuous horsepower (CHP). Since HP refers only to peak horsepower, it isn’t as relevant as CHP. CHP indicates a motor’s capability of sustaining power over an extended period of time. Therefore, all else being equal, a 2.0 CHP motor is stronger than a 2.0 HP motor.

How much motor power do you need? The continuous horsepower of home treadmill motors typically ranges from 1.5 to 4.0. The 1.5 CHP motors are sensible on portable treadmills, but they’re too weak for standard machines that get regular use. On the other hand, few people need 4.0 CHP treadmill motors; unless you’re very heavy or a marathon trainer, you could be satisfied with a less powerful motor.

The amount of horsepower you need depends on your weight and your exercise habits (i.e., how frequently and how intensely you exercise). The following activity-based guidelines are for individuals weighing up to 200 pounds. Add .5 HP to the recommendations below if you weigh more than 200 pounds. Horsepower should also be added if the machine will be used for a family instead of an individual, or if machine use will otherwise be especially frequent.

Treadmill Activity Minimum Recommended Horsepower
Walking 2.0 CHP
Jogging 2.5 CHP
Running 3.0 CHP

Note: All motors with the same power rating are not equal. For instance, a higher-quality flywheel helps to provide smooth exercise sessions and extends a motor’s life. Cheaper flywheels aren’t as effective at regulating track speed and cooling the machine.

Too much information? If you’re in doubt about a motor, check out the warranty. If the motor’s warranty is just for 90 days, it’s most likely a loser. A warranty for 10+ years suggests that the motor is of high quality.

Some brands known for their strong but quiet motors include NordicTrack, Landice, and Smooth.

2) Belt – Treadbelts, or treadmill tracks, vary in length and width.

? A belt’s length is usually 50”-62”. Longer belts are made to accommodate longer strides, so they’re important for tall people and for runners.

? Track widths are typically 18”-22”. A 20” width is standard. An 18” belt is wide enough for walkers, but runners may want a 20” or 22” belt to allow for more movement.

Below are some treadbelt recommendations for people of average height.

Treadmill Activity Minimum Recommended Belt Length
Walking 50”-52”
Jogging 54”
Running 58”

In addition to considering the belt’s length and width, you might take these factors into account:

? Belt thickness - Cheaper treadbelts have just one layer of material. For long wear – and comfortable cushioning – be sure to choose a belt that’s at least two-ply.

? Maintenance - The better treadbelts are sold as waxed or “prelubricated.” These are designed to operate for up to 25,000 miles without special maintenance. Less expensive tracks require occasional lubrication (which can be done by the owner) in order to run smoothly.

? Rollers – Relatively large treadbelt rollers help to extend a treadmill’s life in several ways. For one, a treadbelt will undergo less stress when curving over larger rollers than smaller ones, so it will have a longer life. Also, since large rollers can turn more slowly than small ones to accomplish the same task, they are associated with less wear on the bearings. This can mean the difference between needing to repair a machine and having it last a lifetime without trouble.

Sole treadmills have some of the largest rollers available on home treadmills. At 2.75”, they are commercial quality.

3) Cushioning – Avid walkers and runners can incur a lot of impact stress, which hurts joints, ligaments, and the back. Fortunately, high quality treadmills provide better shock absorption than do outdoor running surfaces such as grass and asphalt. In most cases, that’s due to an elastometer design that absorbs shock with rubber grommets.

Some treadmills have uniform shock absorption throughout the track, but others have variable cushioning. Variable cushioning is considered an enhancement because an exerciser gets more support at lift-off and more cushioning when the foot lands.

Some brands providing superior treadmill cushioning include Sole, Smooth, and Landice. NordicTrack’s Reflex Deck cushioning has also earned high ratings.

4) Workout programs – Virtually every treadmill manufactured today is sold with exercise programs already installed. These add variety to treadmill exercise and can also help users reach specific goals such as cardiovascular fitness, endurance, or a healthier weight. Some treadmills have customizable programs too, so you can design your own virtual route that simulates rolling hills, steep climbs, and/or flat terrain.

A popular type of advanced treadmill program uses iFit technology. Eight-week iFit workout programs, which cost about $30 each, are sold on cards that users load into their treadmill consoles. iFit programs are designed by certified personal trainers to fit specific fitness levels and workout goals. They’re tailored to individual users, who enter personal data into the treadmill before starting the workout series. The machine’s speed and incline automatically adjust, although a user can override the settings if needed. The virtual interaction and motivating audio are just what some people need to get fit. iFit Live, an upgrade that’s dependent upon a wireless internet connection, adds the excitement of virtually running anywhere that’s been charted by Google Maps.

iFit consoles are available from NordicTrack. Consoles are sometimes sold with iFit cards and/or yearly iFit subscriptions.

5) Consoles – Treadmill displays are not terribly important. An especially attractive console should be considered icing on the proverbial cake; components such as the motor and cushioning are more important.

A console has either an LCD or an LED display. LED screens, which emit more light, are a bit easier to read. Consoles also have display windows of different sizes. These show exercise data such as distance traveled, speed, incline, and calories burned. Some have multiple display windows, but others show only one type of data at a time.

Nowadays, there’s much more to consoles than exercise readouts. Treadmills are designed with televisions, iPod docks, and other entertainment. For example, NordicTrack’s Viewpoint 3000 console includes a 7” color television screen, an MP3 player dock, and a high-end surround-sound speaker system. These luxuries can encourage people to exercise, but they might be costly to repair if they aren’t included in the treadmill warranty.

6) Warranty – A treadmill’s warranty is an excellent indicator of the machine’s quality. Treadmill warranties usually have different lengths of coverage for the frame, motor, and labor. Now that audiovisual entertainment is becoming a more significant part of many treadmills, electronics warranties are becoming common too.

How much of a warranty should you expect? A decent warranty covers the frame for at least five years and the motor for at least three years. Other parts and labor expenses should be covered for at least a year. Many excellent warranties offer more than these standards – but there are cheap 90-day warranties too.

7) Incline – Exercising on an incline can make a surprising difference. First, setting the treadmill to a 1% grade makes indoor exercise better approximate outdoor exercise; outdoor runners generally need to work a bit harder because of uneven pavement and wind resistance. Second, setting the treadmill to steeper grades forces users to burn a significantly greater number of calories and to better tone their muscles.

Most home treadmills can be inclined up to 10%. Some treadmills and incline trainers with especially steep incline options and/or decline options include the LifeSpan TR2000, the NordicTrack incline trainers, the BowFlex Treadclimbers, and the Life Fitness Club Series.

8) Portable and foldable treadmills – People who frequently relocate or have small living spaces might prefer to buy portable treadmills. A portable treadmill often requires sacrificing features such as belt length and motor power for the convenience of having a lightweight machine. On the other hand, foldable treadmills can be much like standard treadmills; they can be adjusted to save space when they’re not in use, but the entire unit is not moved with each use.

Stability is an important consideration when buying foldable and portable treadmills. The Sole F85, which has a 3.5 HP motor, is among the sturdiest options.

In sum, factors such as motor power and cushioning matter – but there are good treadmills to fit every budget. To learn about specific treadmill brands and models, see the unbiased reviews at

Author's Bio: 

Michelle LeChat writes for, a consumer-oriented website offering reviews of treadmill brands and treadmill models.