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Praise for the humble treadmill

UPDATE: Nov. 18, 2021, 11:41 a.m. EST an earlier version of this story stated that the Peloton Tread had been recalled. A new version of the Tread was relaunched in Aug. 2021, updated with new safety features and is available for purchase.Between never-ending seasonal allergies, an ongoing pandemic, and weather that always seems to be either too hot or too cold, going out for a run or heading the gym isn't the most appealing thing to do every day. Home treadmills are a godsend for this exact reason. They're a sweet, sweet solution for the days when it's too gross,...

UPDATE: Nov. 18, 2021, 11:41 a.m. EST an earlier version of this story stated that the Peloton Tread had been recalled. A new version of the Tread was relaunched in Aug. 2021, updated with new safety features and is available for purchase.

Between never-ending seasonal allergies, an ongoing pandemic, and weather that always seems to be either too hot or too cold, going out for a run or heading the gym isn’t the most appealing thing to do every day. Home treadmills are a godsend for this exact reason. They’re a sweet, sweet solution for the days when it’s too gross, hot, or swampy to run outside, or the days when you don’t feel like brawling over a machine at the gym.

The pandemic brought a whole new meaning to shared exercise equipment and shared workout spaces. In Normal Times, existing in the sweat cloud of strangers was merely gross — but in Coronavirus Times, it could actually be dangerous. With gyms at limited capacities and certain machines blocked off to keep the distance, a quick cardio workout stopped being quick.

What to look for when buying a treadmill

(For nitty-gritty shopping guidance on ideal treadmill motor and incline, scroll all the way down.)

Space will constrain a lot. A treadmill’s listing should offer weight capacity and dimensions — take the latter into consideration for your own body as well as the amount of actual space that it takes up on the floor. Shoppers looking for a small-space treadmill have foldable options to cut down the footprint in storage. Some fold like a “V” and some can fold completely flat to roll under a bed.

Another household-related thing to keep in mind is who’s using it. Is it for solo use, for you and your partner, or a whole family, maybe? Gym Source recommends shopping for the most extreme situation — i.e. buying the treadmill that accommodates the person with the widest build. Belt size and belt length come into play here: Belts should be between 18 to 22 inches wide, and opting for the larger end makes sense for beginners who can’t keep the center line or have gait issues. Belts should hit at least 48 inches long, though anyone over six feet tall should bump that to 54 inches for running.

Home treadmills are often associated with a cacophony of a rattling frame, thumping belt, and the general clamor of a machine that’s about to fall apart. Modern home treadmills have bypassed the clanky machines of the past thanks to sturdier materials and design, but you can also down the noise with a treadmill that can absorb shock. A treadmill isn’t just withstanding the weight of someone standing still — it’s juggling quick, repetitive stomps. The landing force of a person’s weight is much more powerful when motion comes into play. (If you’ll be running with dumbbells, keep that extra poundage in mind.) Small treadmills with a restrictive weight limit and feebler low-end running decks can’t contain the motion as well and are bound to rock or squeak.

Shock absorption is achieved with a few different tactics. Some use marshmallow-y rubber grommets under the surface to buffer footfall without interfering with push-off. Bowflex has engineered its own five-cell Comfort Tech deck cushioning system while NordicTrack and Proform spring you into the next step with cushions that foster energy return. Better cushioning also works to take some of the burden off your knees and joints. (NordicTrack’s force dampeners can even be turned off depending on how hard or soft you prefer your surface.)

Treadmill mats are a popular accessory, utilizing rubber’s bouncy properties to soften the blow underneath a wobbly machine.

Materials matter. High-end treadmills are expensive because they’re built to last. Granted, a steel frame is the standard for most, regardless of price — it’s under the hood where things get questionable. $400 treadmills might trade in metal gears for plastic ones that wear down easily or struggle to power the incline. Faulty wiring or tech that fails to adjust the resistance in each step can lead to a less-than-productive run. These factors are less of an issue if the treadmill will only be used for walking or very sporadic workouts.

What’s a good treadmill motor?

A motor with at least 1.5 continuous-duty horsepower (CHP) will be needed to keep up with relatively regular use, but most nice models will hit between 2.5 to 3.5 CHP. (The user’s weight will also help determine how powerful of a motor is necessary.) Motor energy can be measured in a few different ways, but continuous duty is the spec that matters most for treadmills. Continuous duty horsepower represents how much power is maintained throughout the workout (compared to say, peak horsepower, which represents the very max that the treadmill can hit but probably not maintain).

A powerful motor won’t determine speed as in how fast the belt can move, but the best motor for you will be dependent on how fast you’re trying to go: Walkers will be fine with 2.0 CHP, while 2.5 or 3.0 CHP would be better for jogging and running, respectively. High-intensity, large-bodied people might go with 3.5 CHP just to be safe.

What about a good incline?

Walking uphill sucks universally. Compared to toppling downhill with the force of gravity on your side, an incline forces you to lift your body weight against gravity, recruiting help from calf muscles, hamstrings, and glutes. If you’re looking to do more than get those steps in for the day — like build leg muscle and burn extra calories — look for a treadmill that can rise to a 15% incline rather than the traditional 10% to 12% max. Incline training machines dedicated to an angled workout also exist and can reach a 40% incline.

Live and pre-programmed workouts might be *the* deciding factor

Barring the select few who can deal with bird chirps as their marathon soundtrack, people who *like* running will probably even admit that it’s an activity best done with distraction. Music suffices for many, but indoors especially, having an on-screen workout to focus on often helps to push through the pain. Pre-programmed workouts can be as simple as automatic speeding up or slowing down of the belt in waves to meet targets like calorie-burning or distance training.

But for the NordicTracks of the world, the screens are getting bigger and the control panels are getting smaller. This is where you’ll access on-screen outdoor runs with gorgeous views or streams of live training from instructors who know how to pump people up. (Like a ClassPass session but without the paranoia of visible sweat stains.) Users can choose a workout by skill level and time. Subscriptions like iFit offer categories past traditional jogging: Choose a run that incorporates weights or take a break from high-intensity and be guided through a yoga session instead.

Most models have some sort of platform to hold a phone or a tablet if you want more stimulating entertainment, and none of this matters much if there’s a TV in the room. Access to streaming services on media-based treadmills is still pretty rare (without doing the next best thing to jailbreaking), but some newer Bowflex models do play nicely with Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and more.

Here are the best treadmills for home use in 2021:

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