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Nearly 80 percent of American adults are not meeting the U.S. government’s physical activity guidelines, according to a November 2018 update from the Health and Human Services Department.
That means millions of people are missing out on the benefits that exercise provides for heart health, cognition, sleep, mental health, cancer risk, blood pressure and more.
An easy way to move more in any season is to use one of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment: a treadmill.
Treadmills can be used for a wide variety of workouts, says Roberto Mandje, a former professional runner who competed in the 2004 Olympics and is now the head coach at New York Road Runners. The machines can be used for walking, running long distances — even doing high intensity interval training. You can also integrate strength training into treadmill-based workouts.
Here’s how to get started with a treadmill routine, whether it’s at your gym or in your home.
Plan for the long term: Before you first step on a treadmill, consider your fitness goals, says Peter Anzalone, senior test project leader for fitness equipment at Consumer Reports.
If you are trying to train for a marathon, you may want to follow a specific training plan, such as those offered by the New York Road Runners, and be sure to integrate outdoor runs as well.
If your goal is just to move more, training programs built into your treadmill can help keep you interested, with simple programs such as hill training or workouts focused on different objectives, such as improving heart health.
Set a goal for how long you want to run each time you work out, and try to make your workouts more challenging over time by increasing the duration, speed or incline.
Be safe: If you’re not familiar with treadmill running, start slow, says Chris Gagliardi, a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise as a medical exercise specialist and health coach. Start at a walking pace, about 2 or 3 mph, until you’re used to the feel of the belt moving underneath your feet. Then increase the speed up to a comfortable jogging or running pace, about 4 to 8 mph, depending on your level of experience.
The same goes for the incline: Increase it slowly and see how it feels when the machine gets progressively steeper — don’t instantly put it on the maximum incline.
Some machines also let you enter your age to calculate appropriate maximum and target heart rates.
Finally, remember to use the safety key, which clips onto your clothing and is designed to stop the machine if you fall.
Find your comfort pace: Heart rate is the most accurate way to monitor exercise intensity, Anzalone says. Some treadmills pair with chest straps that measure your heart rate, which are more reliable than the handlebar grips. Some machines come with their own chest strap monitors, and many can link up to your personal monitor. And many treadmills let you calibrate the intensity of your workout by using a target heart rate.
You can also pay attention to your breathing to find a pace and intensity that matches your goals, Gagliardi says. If you can talk comfortably, you’re going at a low to moderate pace. At that speed, you can do a long slow workout or use it as a recovery pace that lets you catch your breath and slows your heart rate between faster intervals.
If it’s hard to talk, you’re at a moderate to vigorous exercise level. If you absolutely can’t talk, that’s your maximum intensity pace for a sprint interval.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity each week.
Try an interval training program: Check out the machine’s built-in workout programs, Gagliardi suggests: There are often a variety of interval runs, which alternate between full-on intense pace and recovery pace and are considered an efficient and quick way to get fit. In general, these programs should take you out of your comfort zone, but there should be enough recovery time in between sprints for you to get your breathing under control again.
Gagliardi also recommends trying some of the interval programs suggested by American Council on Exercise coaches. These workout plans — available free online — start with a warm-up, then have runners alternate between running faster or at an incline for about a minute at a time, with recovery breaks in between.
Do progression, tempo and hill training: Mandje recommends using treadmills for these runner-specific workouts, since they can help you keep up with the pace you set without accidentally slowing down, as you might when running outside.
For progression runs, which help runners build speed and endurance, he recommends starting at a moderate pace and then increasing speed by .5 to 1 mph every 5 to 10 minutes, so you’ll finish a run going significantly faster than you started.
For tempo runs, which help improve speed and teach runners to maintain a set pace, he recommends warming up at a slow pace, running at close to the pace you might try for in a race for a set distance — try three to five miles — and then cooling down at a recovery pace.
It’s not always easy for outdoor runners to practice going uphill, which can make a run more intense and build heart and lung health, so Mandje recommends using treadmill inclines for hill-running practice.
Build in strength training: For safety’s sake, don’t jump on and off a machine that’s still moving. But you can incorporate strength training into a treadmill workout if you pause your run, let it come to a full stop, then get off to use a resistance band, lift weights or do body-weight exercises such as push-ups or squats before jumping back on.
Repeat this circuit several times to work toward both aerobic fitness and strength-training goals on the same day. The CDC recommends doing strength training at least twice a week.
Consider a sled workout: Certain gyms and workout plans recommend using specially designed treadmills (or regular treadmills with the power turned off) for a “sled” workout. These workouts involve holding onto handrails and manually pushing the belt with your feet, to mimic the effects of pushing a weighted sled across the floor.
Trying this in 30-second bursts (with recovery time in between) can be an effective way to build up power — which can improve your ability to sprint or pick up something heavy, Gagliardi says.
But there’s a key caveat. Don’t try this at a gym without asking first. If you’re at home, check the manual of the treadmill you are using first, says Gagliardi, to make sure that moving the belt with the power off won’t damage the machine’s motor. Anzalone cautions that you may void your warranty if your machine isn’t designed for these activities.
Getting into a consistent workout routine is the surest way to make sure you’re meeting the CDC’s minimum recommended physical activity guidelines or your own fitness goals, Gagliardi says.
But if you aren’t already working out regularly, build up slowly, incorporating a little more time each week. Even walking on a treadmill regularly while you read a magazine or watch Netflix can be enough to start transforming your health.
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