The best treadmill for your home gym isn’t the same as the best for your local YMCA or branch of Crunch. We looked at residential treadmills, of which there are plenty of options under $1,000, versus commercial, which can easily run you several grand. Commercial treadmills need to be sturdy enough to handle being used day in and day out. “The home versions tend to have a softer frame,” said Harry Pino, an exercise physiologist at NYU. “You’ll see a lot of plastic.” That’s fine for normal home use. Additionally, some commercial machines have fancier features like a belts than can go up to 15 mph and touchscreen TVs; we’ll address below why those aren’t necessary for the average person.
We searched for treadmills on Amazon and big box retailers like Walmart and Target. I made a trip to a showroom, too, though I found that the offerings there tend to be on the pricier side.
We wanted a treadmill that had a belt length of at least 55 inches, the minimum that’s generally recommended for runners 6 feet tall and under. If you’re over 6 feet, consider a machine with a belt that’s at least 60 inches. It’s not a hard and fast rule—there are no studies that support it—but it’s what our experts said they would go by.
If you’re a walker, you can get away with a shorter belt. But a treadmill is an investment, so we think most people will be better off with something that can work for both purposes. Plus, shorter, cheaper treadmills tend to have bare-bones incline features, so they’re worth skipping for that reason alone.
A good treadmill will incline at a gradient of hill options between totally flat and pretty steep. This allows you to mimic the stress of exercise on hilly terrain, as well as do interval work, beneficial for varying your training to help you reach speed goals and keeping your daily exercise interesting. The least expensive residential treadmills (under $500) have just one or two incline settings. While these might be a fine starting point for light walkers, a machine that that offers variety will make it the most useful in the long run.
Adequate speed is important for a treadmill, and all models that offer a substantial range of inclines go up to at least 10 mph. That’s a six-minute mile; unless you’re a seasoned athlete, that’s a pace you’d have trouble sustaining for more than a minute or two. We tested several that go up to 12 mph, which may be necessary for doing some serious track workouts.
We wanted our treadmill to come with interval programs that vary speed and incline and keep exercise interesting. Luckily, all of them do.
The more horsepower a treadmill motor is, the faster it’ll be at switching speeds and inclines, at least in theory. Adding a few extra seconds to a mile time won’t matter much for most people, though you don’t want to be waiting forever for your machine to go from 0 to 6 mph. Pino recommended at motor of 3 horsepower or more for the average jogger, which is somewhat in the middle of what’s available. We selected treadmills that had horsepower close to that.
The decks of treadmills vary in springiness. If the description includes language like “flexdeck” or “cushioning” (as do virtually all treadmills in the $500-$1,000 price range) the treadmill will be on the bouncier side. One commonly-traded piece of information is that a softer running or walking surface helps prevent injuries. (On a personal note, I have heard countless times from coaches, my dad, and well-meaning strangers that I should be running on grass and dirt as much as possible.) But there’s no research that shows that that’s the case. Hardcore runners tend to prefer a firmer running surface, said Pino, because it’s closer to the surface that they run on outside. And research suggests that a springy treadmill can require slightly less effort to run on than a firm one. Still, there’s no harm in using one, and many people find them to be comfortable.
Ideally, we wanted a treadmill that had large water bottle holders and a media shelf. The advantage of running in place versus outdoors is you get to have snacks, magazines, and your smartphone on hand. Your treadmill should help with that cause.
We didn’t set out to find a treadmill that folds and can flip up vertically when not in use. Even a folded treadmill still commands enough real estate and attention that you’ll want, at least, a significant chunk of a room dedicated to the machine. But folding treadmills dominate the $500-$1,000 price range, and every single treadmill we selected for testing was coincidentally a folding treadmill.
Weight capacity for residential treadmills (and inexpensive commercial treadmills) is typically 300-325 pounds; all the treadmills we tested accommodate at least this much weight. Treadmills with higher weight capacities tend to be more expensive and have much shorter belts, as they are designed more for walking. Treadmills that accommodate weights over 500 pounds are rare. While we have not personally vetted the advice, this appears to be a decent guide to treadmills built for larger people.
Many higher-end treadmills come with the ability to export workout data. While the runners on Wirecutter staff agreed that this feature would be nice, there’s no machine in our price range that promises to effortlessly sync via Bluetooth to your smartphone; some offered other, lesser methods, like typing in your email every time to send yourself a workout. Since this feature is often flawed, we didn’t prioritize treadmills that had it.
Treadmills are adorned with “creature comforts” as one fitness company representative told me, like fans, TVs, and sound systems. Since better versions of all of these things can be purchased separately, we didn’t prioritize treadmills that had them.