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Before You Buy, Take the Treadmill Test

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ST. LOUIS - Consumer Reports estimates that more than 10 million Americans hop onto a treadmill every few days, making it one of the most widely used pieces of exercise equipment. The machines burn calories quicker than any other type of equipment, are less likely to sit unused and are available at any time in any type of weather, the magazine reported.

But choosing the right treadmill can be tricky. So we've enlisted John Conti, national retail sales manager for True Fitness Technology Inc., and Jeff Bakken, district sales manager for Fitness Experience, to help us make sense of all those buttons and arrows and controls.

True manufactures cutting-edge cardiovascular, strength and flexibility equipment at its large facility in O'Fallon, Mo. The company makes 18 residential treadmills that are distributed to fitness stores all over the world.

Bakken said that quality is the most important thing to look for, because "treadmills take so much abuse You need a well-built frame, a good motor, good electronics."

One of the hallmarks of a good treadmill is its quietness, an important factor for a piece of exercise equipment in the home. When Conti gave a demonstration on a True model, all you could hear were his steps landing on the treadmill.

Another important feature is shock absorption. True treadmills are designed to absorb up to 40 percent of the impact when your feet land on the treadmill deck, which is a concern for those wishing to avoid stress on the knees or back. Some treadmills are adjustable according to weight, so a 200-pound man gets a different cushion than his 100-pound wife.

Bakken says some treadmills offer an option so you can vary the shock absorption. That way a competitive runner wanting to duplicate the conditions he or she will run on can train on low shock absorption. Someone with knee problems would want more shock absorption.

Other features appeal to people with specific needs:

Speed: Most treadmills go from zero to 10 mph, but if you are super-speedy, you may want a higher-end model that goes faster.

Incline: Most go from no incline to 12 or 15 percent.

Rails: Some offer longer side rails or attachments; these are important for people who have trouble with balance. For the best workout, however, Bakken says you shouldn't hang on to the rails.

Programming features: Some treadmills come with preprogrammed courses that offer "hills" of varying length and steepness. Others allow you to program your own courses.

Belt width: The better treadmills offer bands that are 20 inches wide. The higher-end models go up to 22 inches.

Convenience: Some treadmills fold up for easy storage.

The latest trend in treadmills is heart-rate control, said Bakken.

"And we're the leader in heart-rate control, second to none," Conti said.

A True treadmill user wears a wireless transmitter that is strapped around the chest. The heart rate is sent to a receiver on the treadmill panel. "All of a sudden you see your heart rate pop up on the board, and it's very accurate," Conti said.

"Not knowing your heart rate is like having a car without a speedometer," he added. "You have no idea the effort you're putting out. The No. 1 reason people stop training is they overtrain. They fatigue themselves to the point where they're so tired they have to quit."

To avoid overtraining, a user sets a desired heartbeat rate on the panel, and the panel adjusts the speed and incline of the treadmill motor to see that the rate is maintained. The energy necessary to reach a certain heart rate varies every day according to a number of factors such as nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress and caffeine.

"You put in the machine where you want your heart rate to be, and the treadmill adjusts the workload," Conti explained. "Every day it's different. You might have had a bad night, drinking pitchers with the boys; the treadmill will keep the heartbeat the same, but the workload will change dramatically.

"It might take it easy on you because you're not at 100 percent. It's like having a personal trainer in your home when you work out."

The June issue of Consumer Reports looked at 15 treadmill models, priced from $325 to $4,300, and rated the True 400 HRC as the top model overall. At $2,295, the 400 HRC (heart rate control) is on the lower end of True's residential treadmills, with the new futuristic-looking ZTX model priced at $5,695.

Consumer Reports praised the True 400 HRC for "a very stable ride, excellent controls and displays, a very large tread belt area, a powerful motor, and a deck that rises to a challenging 12-percent grade."

Runner's World, which rates treadmills every three years, also has given True its highest rating in its last two buyers guides. Runner's World opted for the True 540 HRC, priced at $3,895, because of its stability, comfort, quiet ride, responsive controls and readable display.

For people who don't want to spend that much, Consumer Reports rated the Vision Fitness T9200 a "best buy" at $1,350. And the Horizon Fitness Tsc2, for $900, was described as a "very good value in a basic manual-control model."

Conti, who practices what he preaches and looks it, said a workout of 30 to 45 minutes at a desired heart rate, three times a week, will increase metabolism, stamina, endurance and energy, while helping to control weight and stress.

"For the person who's looking to get back into shape, the best piece of equipment is a treadmill," he said.


(St. Louis Post-Dispatch correspondent Amy Bertrand contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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