Is it really a treadmill I want?
You get a good cardiovascular workout, but other machines will also work on your upper body strength. If you're not training to run a marathon, you might consider a rowing machine or a cross-trainer, for example.
How much space do I have?
Should it dominate your bedroom if you're only going to hop on and off a couple of times a week? A smaller model that folds up neatly may be all you need. Consider how much space you need around the treadmill so you can use it safely.
Am I really that keen or a bit reluctant?
If you suspect you'll need encouragement to keep you going, look for one with an interesting display - with programs, etc
How fit am I and how fit do I want to be?
Consider whether you must have accurate feedback to monitor progress on complicated programmes, or just need a rough idea of how you're doing on a fairly basic up-and down-hill simulation, for example.
I want to run more seriously. What do I need?
You will need an accurate speed display and a comprehensive range of programmes, which may mean getting to grips with a complicated console.
You're more likely to want heart-rate controlled programmes (possibly with a chest strap so you do not have to hold the handles) and be able to create your own user profile. You'll also want a large, comfortable belt that doesn't slow down with foot contact.
As a keen runner, you may be willing to put up with more noise and a bigger machine, though that depends on where and with whom you live.
What does the guarantee cover?
When you're forking out for a treadmill, you want to know that if something goes wrong, the guarantee will cover it. We checked what's covered and found major differences. For example, the best come with a lifetime frame, motor and electronics warranty and a two-year warranty for parts and labour - so check the small print.
I try to buy green. Are there options?
Treadmills don't use lots of electricity, but the most efficient we have uses 15 watts when idle and 324 in use, the least efficient uses 65 watts when idle and 653 in use.
Most treadmills have sensible packaging, but some large ones come with as much as 18kg of packaging materials.
Note that most treadmills should be taken to a recycling facility at the end of their lives.
What features should I look for in an exercise bike?
Exercise bikes are a perennial favourite, and a good choice for older, frail or unfit people.
Although the exercise is generally targeted towards the lower body, it still works the cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) and is good for improving endurance and burning fat.
The cheap bikes are adequately built but less solid than more expensive versions, so can get wobbly when you're cycling like a thing possessed.
They're generally light enough to move out of the way easily, but their lack of interesting features means you might never get them out again.
Look out for:
- A frame that feels sturdy when you're cycling
- A comfortable, adjustable seat
- Enough space between the body and handlebar to make mounting and dismounting easy
- A seat positioned just behind the pedal axle to ensure a good range of motion
- Wide pedals with straps to keep your feet in place
- Sturdy wheels for moving it around
- A heart-rate monitor
What features should I look for in an elliptical trainer?
The elliptical (or cross) trainer is the second best-selling exercise machine.
Like running without hitting the floor or cycling standing up, ellipticals combine the motions of the treadmill, stepper, cycle and ski machine.
They provide a low impact, weight-bearing aerobic workout for the upper and lower body, and are especially good if you want to improve fitness and lose weight without the impact of running.
We found the cheaper machines have a jerky up-and-down motion, though - more like riding a bike with square wheels than a gentle loping run.
Look out for:
- A frame that feels sturdy when you're exercising
- Static arms to make it easier to climb on and off
- Enough space between the body and static arms
- Adjustable swinging arms that provide a wide range of movement without pulling you too far forwards or back
- Long, adjustable foot platforms
- A smooth elliptical motion with good stride length
- A heart-rate monitor
What other small exercise gadgets are on the market?
Shops are full of low cost exercise gadgets making wild claims.
We have stocked and sold various gadgets. They sold well - but & importantly - whether they're a good way to help you get fit. Generally, the answer was no.
A bit like a spacehopper or a big beach ball, these can help you develop muscles in the trunk to give you the strength and stability for good posture.
Ideally, you should get guidance on how to use one from a trained expert such as a physiotherapist or qualified gym instructor. Just following an instruction book won't ensure you use the right muscles.
You might also need to do some floor exercises before you're strong enough to use the ball safely. Using the wrong muscles in your neck, trunk or abdomen can reinforce poor movement and posture, and increase the risk of injury. Prices start at about £10.
These are supposed to help develop the abdominal muscles while supporting the neck and head. But they're easy to misuse by pushing with your arms rather that your abdomen.
They can also encourage you to exercise with rounded shoulders, putting stress on the back and neck.
Learning how to perform a few decent sit-ups or crunches would be just as, if not more, effective.
Even if you get the knack of an ab-trainer, it is important not to overdevelop the abdominal muscles and neglect the stabilising muscles of the trunk. Prices start at about £10.
These are great, cheap (from about £8) motivational devices that measure the number of steps you take.
With some, you program the length of your stride for added accuracy, and some estimate the calories used based on your weight.
The optimum number of steps per day is 10,000. Build up slowly if you're not used to it: try 2,000 extra steps each week till you reach your target.