Originally designed to diagnose heart and lung disease, the treadmill was first invented in 1952, before being commercially developed from 1968 onwards. Essentially the main purpose of the treadmill is to allow you to walk or run at various speeds and incline levels while still staying in the same place.
This is part of what has made them so excellent for performing health related medical testing on people such as in the test facilities for army, police and Olympic athletes. The person using the treadmill can be closely monitored while still running at the same speed as if they were running around an athletics track.
Who uses treadmills?
- Medical facilities (hospitals, rehabilitation centres, medical and physiotherapy clinics, institutes of higher education)
- Sports clubs
- Biomechanics Institute
- Orthopaedic shoe shops
- Olympic training centres
- Test facilities and training rooms of police and army
- Home users
How a treadmill works
The basic design idea behind every treadmill is a moving platform with a wide conveyor belt powered by an electric motor or a flywheel. The rate at which the belt moves can be easily increased or decreased depending on your fitness level and what you want to achieve from your session.
Most treadmills have a “cardio mode”, where a target heart rate is defined and the speed and elevation is controlled automatically until your heart rate reaches the target range.
The running deck itself is usually mounted on damping elements to provide a certain level of shock absorption and help take pressure off the knee joints. By a lifting element, the entire frame including treadmill running deck will be raised to create an incline and make it feel more like you are running uphill.
For athletes, larger and more stable treadmills are necessary. Sprinters reach speeds of up to 45 km/h and therefore run on a large deck of up to 300 cm in length and have up to 100 cm width.
You will often see a couple of safety features with treadmills, one being the button that will stop the belt quickly, and one which is a clip that attaches to a cord on the treadmill and the other end to your clothing. If the clip is pulled off your clothing in the event you fall out of reach of the stop button on the display, then the treadmill will again automatically stop.
Oversized treadmills are also used for more professional level cycling, wheelchair users and in some cases with a thick running belt for cross-country skiing and biathlon, where athletes can perform training and testing exercises on a running deck of up to 450 cm x 300 cm.
Advantages of using a treadmill
- Enable the user to set up an exercise regime that can be adhered to irrespective of the weather.
- Cushioned tread can provide slightly lower impact training than running on outdoor surfaces.
- Less impact on joints
- Incline setting can allow for consistent “uphill” training that is not possible when relying on natural features.
- Rate settings force a consistent pace.
- Increases lung capacity
- Some treadmills have programmes such that the user can simulate terrains, e.g. rolling hills, to provide accurate, programmed, exercise periods.
- The user can watch TV whilst using the machine thus preventing TV from being a sedentary activity.
- User progress such as distance, calories burned, and heart rate can be tracked.
- Increased calorie burning compared to other fitness equipment such as the stationary bike
Treadmill display units
With modern treadmills offering so many different options when it comes to built in exercise programs, covering everything from heart rate monitoring programs to hill climbs, the way the display unit is designed is very important when considering which treadmill to buy.
Although most machines now come with a ‘Quick Start’ option, this really just gives you the basic flat running and allows you to alter the speed and incline manually while running.
By using the built in programs such as those specifically designed for fat burning, these have been designed around adjusting all the settings so that you meet that goal. When wearing a heart rate monitor this is even more useful as the computer can automatically adjust the incline and speed to keep you in your target heart range.
One of the best display designs can be seen in the Matrix T3X, due to how easily you can switch between the different modes which are shown with icons as well as text labels to quickly identify which mode is which even when running.
By keeping all the information you need in a row across a single LCD screen at the top of the unit this also provides you with everything you need at a glance.
Another good example of a display for different reasons is on the Maxima Fitness MF 2000 ProFX
The row of buttons for quickly changing the level of incline and speed offer one touch convenience rather than having to focus on pressing the up or down button the correct amount of times like on other models.
Although the key information such as speed, incline and distance isn’t displayed in one neat row like the Matrix T3X treadmill, the even spacing and pyramid structure together with the fact that each piece of information has its own display window still keeps it easy to remember where to look for what you need.
As well as the positioning of buttons for ease of use and how quickly you can find out information at a glance, you also need to consider whether you want speakers built in. If you are looking for a treadmill at home you will often be using it in a spare room or garage, and having built in speakers and a slot for you to connect your MP3 player will mean you don’t have to worry about headphones slipping out or any loose headphone cables.
Keeping track of your progress across workouts
Some treadmill display units even have a slot for a USB which can be used to record your statistics for that workout session and load them either onto your computer or to a website where you can see you progress over time.
A good example of this can be seen in the Matrix T3X Treadmill where when you have come to the end of your running session you can simply plug in your USB within a certain time frame of the treadmill stopping and it will record all your statistics for that workout.
By visiting the LiveStrong website you can then upload all this information and compare it against your previous workouts to see if you are improving and monitor your progress.
Types of treadmill
Folding Treadmills – If you are short on space a folding treadmill may be the best option. Many of the best designs have a simple lever that you unclip and the belt will gently fold down to the ground on its own, without you needing to worry about lowering a heavy belt platform yourself.
Non-Folding Treadmills – If you have the space and don’t want to worry about folding the belt away after a running session on the treadmill, then the non-folding option may be the best choice, and has been found to be more stable when compared with lower priced folding treadmills.
Commercial Treadmills – Often the higher priced products which come with the longer warranty, commercial treadmills are the type of design that you will find in many of the top health and fitness centres. These also often have the highest user weight limit.
Some of the best treadmill companies to look out for
Although there are many companies that make treadmills, particularly when you start looking for lower priced products, there are a few companies who have developed a reputation in the fitness industry for high quality treadmills and fitness equipment.
The majority of these companies have a range of different treadmills at different price levels, and many are designed to commercial high quality.
- Body Sculpture
- Branx Fitness
- Maxima Fitness
- Sole Fitness
- Tunturi Fitness
- York Fitness
Choosing a treadmill that meets your home training needs
As with any piece of fitness equipment, one of the most important points to consider is the cost. This should be weighed up against how frequently you want to be using the treadmill to make sure you get real value out of it.
For walking and shorter running sessions a few times a week then machines under £500 should be good enough quality to provide you with years of use.
If you are looking to buy a treadmill for longer periods of running and to use on a more frequent basis of more than a few times a week, or just looking for more workout options such as storing your workout session details to a USB then you will be looking at a more commercial price range of anything from £600 up to £6000 or more.
Ease of use
Although the main buttons are often clearly labelled, such as the quick start and stop buttons, there are many other modes and options available with modern treadmills. From how easily you can connect and listen to your MP3 or iPod through designs with inbuilt speakers to setting your target heart rate for the heart rate modes.
It’s a good idea to know what modes you are most likely to want to use and try these out at your local gym if possible, or to read product reviews on the treadmills you are most interested in and find out how easy other people who bought the machine found it to use.
The belt length you need is really determined by your height. Taller people will have a longer stride length and may find it difficult to use a treadmill with a shorter belt section, whereas shorter users should be fine with almost any treadmill.
For taller users of over 6ft there are treadmills that come with 140cm+ length belts which would be better suited to your stride length when you get up to a running pace.
Foldable or not?
A final design point that is useful to know if you are going to be moving the treadmill when not in use and storing it away is whether or not it has been designed to be foldable.
Whereas rowing machines can weigh as little as 30kg, treadmills weigh considerably more, with most models ranging between 70kg and 150kg in weight.
This means that you will be able to fold it out of the way, but not move it between rooms the way you may be able to with stationary bikes or lighter exercise equipment.
Once you have made a shortlist based on the price and user reviews / your own experience of a similar treadmill at a local gym, then take the measurements of where you can set up the treadmill and make sure that you have plenty of space to store it both when folded and when in use.
Despite the increase in popularity of other cardio and fitness machines, the treadmill is still arguably the most effective machine for maintaining and improving your fitness levels. The majority of modern treadmills are now designed for home use, with folding models available that take up relatively little floor space when stored away.
Although the function is essentially the same, there are many differences between the types of treadmill available, including how easily you can increase and decrease your speed and incline, as well as some offering the ability to adjust to your heart rate automatically to keep you within your target range. These product articles aim to help you choose the treadmill that is best for your budget and training needs.