CONSUMER REPORTS INSIGHTS

Consumer Reports rates best buys for treadmills and elliptical exercise machines

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Looking to get fit in the comfort of your own home? Then be prepared to be lured by high-tech designs.

Manufacturers of exercise equipment continue to introduce new features, including innovative engineering that allows you to vary your routine. Some have MP3 docks or USB connections that let you transfer your workout records to your computer and track your progress at the company's Web site. There are also more ultra-compact models, which might appeal to those who don't think they have the space for a home gym.

But how do you distinguish flashy machines that fall flat from the truly fantastic? Consumer Reports recently tested 48 machines, at prices ranging from $500 for the most affordable treadmill to $3,700 for the most expensive elliptical. It recommends 14 models, including five CR Best Buys, and it found one that you should stay away from.

The pricier machines generally have sturdier designs and more features, but simpler, less costly machines can offer a good workout, too. You can exercise strenuously on treadmills and ellipticals, but the best machine for you is the one that inspires you to keep at it.

Treadmills are a great option if your workout of choice is running or walking. Most allow you to adjust the speed and incline, but the motion is the one you create with your natural stride.

If running isn't your speed, you might consider elliptical exercisers. Their motion provides a good cardiovascular workout but without the high impact of running. Because of that, an elliptical is a good choice for people with joint problems or who are carrying extra weight.

If you're still not sure which one you want, test both types in the store.

Treadmills

Treadmills have long been the most popular home workout machines, commanding more than 50 percent of the market. Running is the gold standard of cardiovascular exercise, after all. Consumer Reports tested 29 treadmills, analyzing ease of use, ergonomics, exercise range, quality and durability of construction, safety and more. All treadmills have a motor that powers the moving running deck. Spending more on a treadmill usually buys you more horsepower, sturdier construction, better hardware, a longer deck and a longer warranty. The top-rated Precor 9.31, a powerful, well-built model that scored well across the board, is also the most expensive at $3,300. Spend a little less and you can still get a decent machine that will provide a good workout. The Sole F63, a very good and easy-to-operate folding treadmill, is a CR Best Buy at $1,000.

Some treadmills, including the Pace-Master Platinum Pro VR and LifeSpan TR2000, have a negative-incline option to simulate downhill running, which works different muscle groups. Other models offer adjustable cushioning. A good version of this feature, found on the NordicTrack A2550, allows you to alternate the feel of your workout from running on concrete to running on a padded track.

The folding Best Fitness BFT1 earned a rating of "Don't Buy: Performance Problem" because its incline feature malfunctioned on two of the three treadmills tested. The incline controls on one stopped working completely shortly after testing began.

Ellipticals

Elliptical exercisers have been gaining ground in the marketplace in recent years. Testers pedaled on 19 machines, evaluating exercise range, ergonomics, construction, safety and more. Like treadmills, the pricier ellipticals generally have sturdier designs and more features. The top-rated Diamondback 1260Ef, for example, was easy to use, but it costs $2,600. But the NordicTrack AudioStrider 990, a CR Best Buy, also performed well and costs just $900.

All ellipticals have pedals that run on an elliptical path. Most let you adjust the resistance to determine the intensity of your workout using an electronic resistance control. But some machines have mechanical controls that tend to be cumbersome and work poorly. There are ellipticals with innovative design features that allow you to adjust the incline and stride length. Some machines, such as the Diamondback 1260Ef, allow you to adjust the incline enough to do a step-climbing-style workout.

Copyright 2009. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to ConsumerReportsHealth.org. More-detailed information -- including CR's ratings of prescription drugs, conditions, treatments, doctors, hospitals and healthy-living products -- is available to subscribers to that site.


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