Buying Exercise Equipment? - Features Explained

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Buying a Treadmill, Exercise Bike, Cross Trainer or Rowing Machine?


So what's the best way to get your own body in shape?  Recent sales figures suggest many of us are tired of wiping another person's sweat off the equipment at the gym, and are looking for quality exercise equipment to use at home.

Some cross trainers and exercise bikes are as good as those you use in the gym, but you should fight the urge to buy a cheap one.

We found these wobbly, boring and uncomfortable - a combination that will have you reaching for the stop button long before you reach your target weight.

You're far more likely to stick with a machine that makes exercise interesting so we'd recommend paying enough to get a solid machine with at least a few different exercise programmes and a heart-rate monitor.


More expensive machines tend to be more solid and offer features like water bottle holders and reading racks but, frankly, if it's a toss up between a reading rack or an exercise programme, we'd advise you to ditch the books.

Programmes make your workout more interesting and effective by varying the resistance level, which governs how hard you have to work.

They can make it feel like you're strolling through a valley, tackling a small hill, or even taking on the Three Peaks Challenge.

Calorie Counters

To help you track your progress, most machines display basic feedback about speed, distance, time and - supposedly - your calorie expenditure.

The calorie counts can only ever be estimates (the machines don't know enough about your metabolism to be accurate) but we were surprised that even those on some expensive exercise bikes or cross trainers don't take account of the resistance level.  So they give the same readout whether you're really pushing yourself or just taking it easy.

To check whether a calorie reader does factor in resistance, try using the machine for a minute at both high and low resistance and see whether the calorie readout differs.

Heart-rate monitors

It's definitely worth buying a machine with a heart-rate monitor.  Even the monitors on cheaper machines tend to be accurate, and they bring an extra dimension to exercising.  Some machines, for example, have programmes that vary the resistance to keep your heart at a specific rate.

Handgrip monitors can be a bit of a pain if you want to let go of the handles.  The radio controlled chest-strap versions, found on more expensive machines, are more handy.  An alternative is to buy a chest strap unit that displays your rate on a watch (from £35), or on the machine's display (from £30).

Several of the machines' manuals mention the so-called 'fat burning' and 'cardiovascular workout' heart-rate zones.  But we think these can be misleading.

The maximum heart-rate calculation on which they're based takes only your age into account, even though the maximum heart rate of a sedentary 40-year-old won't always be the same as that of a super-fit and active one.

To improve your fitness level, it's more important to train for 35 to 40 minutes several times a week, than tire yourself out quickly by trying to achieve a particular heart rate.  As you get fitter, your heart rate during exercise should gradually come down, and should recover to its normal level more quickly.



Treadmill-specific features



Avoid falling at the first hurdle.  Find a friend to help you set up at home.  Even some of the simpler ones need two people to assemble them safely, but the instructions don't always mention this.


You should check the belt length is right for you before you buy even if you are of average height.  It shouldn't be too narrow or too short.  The belt should have a good grip but not be so rough that it sandpapers your running shoes.  A good machine won't slow down too much as your foot hits the belt.

Calorie counters

If these are dependent on the speed you're running at, they're more useful than if they're independent of speed.  Some calorie counters don't take account of whether you're scaling Everest or doing the equivalent of a gentle stroll through the park.

Even so, they give you only a rough estimate of how many calories you're burning.  They are slightly more accurate if you can input your age, weight and sex.

To check, compare the readings for a few minutes when you're pushing yourself and again when you're not.  They should vary.

Console buttons

These are usually plus and minus buttons for speed and incline.  Pressing and holding them down makes the value change faster.  They need to be large so that you don't miss hit them while you are running, and respond to your touch well.

Deck release mechanisms

It won't help your fitness regime to have your treadmill falling on your foot.  The majority of treadmill tracks lower safely.  On some models if they are not supported they will drop suddenly to the floor with a loud thud!  The worst models need support all the way to the floor.


Check if there are descriptions of the various programmes on the display.  On some models all your workout information is displayed simultaneously, but on most there is too much to see at once, so you may see some information constantly, and have the option of scroll or alternate to check other functions.

Drinks holders

These are useful but they should be deep enough to prevent the bottle falling out as the frame shakes.


Some models have fans but we didn't find them particularly effective for cooling down our test runners.


Feedback modes give you information on your current workout.  They vary between machines, but often include speed, pulse rate, incline, calorie counter, the current programme you've selected, heart rate measurement and total exercise time and distance.

Foot Platforms

The platforms on either side of the belt should be wide enough to stand on, and not sloping, so that you can get your balance right before stepping onto the belt.


These should be textured to prevent sweaty hands from slipping.


These often have control buttons on, sometimes with speed on one side, incline on the other.

We found some handrails were awkwardly positioned.  So if you prefer to vary your workout by changing the intensity manually, you should check that you can easily reach the handrail buttons.  Otherwise you'll probably end up using preset programmes.


Commercial Treadmill's & Horse Power

Ignore HP figures quoted (especially on eBay) - Look at the top running speed & the treadmill size. A 16-18kph treadmill weighing 80-100kgs is probably 3-3.5HP peak performance (2hp constant). Its not 5hp or as some sellers claim 6hp.

Commercial treadmills are much heavier & larger than home use machine. Therefore more solid and easy to run on. Treadmill's weighing 80, 90 or even 100kgs are NOT commercial grade machines so ignore sellers (esp eBay) that claim otherwise.


Heart rate monitors

These are usually hand sensors on the handle bars (usually left and right), but some machines include wireless chest straps.  You wear these on bare skin or over a thin layer of wet clothing.

Position speed control

This varies the belt speed based on your position on the running deck.  The belt slows down as you move towards the back.

Responsive Programmes

Keen runners will want to have options for setting their own user profiles, in addition to the preset programmes.

Safety Keys

The machine shouldn't start without the red safety key in place on the console, and it should stop immediately if the key is removed.  So in an emergency, you can deactivate the treadmill quickly.

Speed display

This is usually given in KPH

Speed and incline

Check that there's the option to gradually increase or decrease speed and incline.  Look for clear buttons, often with 'up' and 'down' arrows.


Most Models sold range from 52Kg - 119Kg.  If you choose one of the heavy ones, you will need to consider where you're going to put it, or even if it'll be able to make it up five flights of stairs, if that applies to you.

Also ask before you buy whether a heavy machine needs to be on a supported upper floor, or whether it should be on the ground floor or basement.

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