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What to Look for in a Treadmill or Elliptical This Year

The fitness equipment industry continues to evolve as more transactions are being made online. Many purchases are still made in person at a store, but when you consider that only a few years ago there were over 1,100 fitness specialty store locations and today there are less than 400, it's easy to see that the dynamics of the treadmill and elliptical purchasing experience is changing rapidly.

Within market divisions, we have seen a shift in the way dollars are spent. This mirrors much of what has been reported in the broader economy. The very high end of the market has done well and actually expanded. On the more economical side, more and more purchases that were once at the $2500 level are now in the $1000 to $1500 range. Likewise, many purchases that were being made at $1500 are now being made at $1000. Places like Amazon.com, Sears, and Dick's Sporting Goods commonly sell machines that are in the $1500 price point or higher today, but just a few years ago, it was uncommon for these retailers to sell anything above $1000.

What does all of this mean for you? You'll find better quality in the mass market. Runners on treadmills and heavy users of ellipticals are now able to rely on a machine as low as $1000 without significant problems. The one caveat is that most treadmills in this price range have '? decks, and those can break with a runner since they pound the deck. That's why we've developed a deck reinforcement kit. We recommend runners use this kit or simply buy a machine with a 1' deck. The ellipticals in this range typically use bushings instead of bearings on the major load points, so you will have less life engineered into the machine, but the savings are significant.

For about $1500, you can get a durable machine. This year, Sole punched back at the big boys and really improved the quality of their less expensive machines. As we pointed out last year, Precor and Lifefitness have become aggressive on price and really made a splash at lower price points.

With all of the turbulence, some matters that were not terribly important before are incredibly important today. In the past, manufacturers and distributors had leeway in operations since there were only a few companies and missteps could be easily corrected the following year. Competition is now so cutthroat, in all price ranges, that a small misstep could mean your company won't be around next year to service your treadmill or elliptical. Never fear! We are here to help you make sense of this mess.

The point is that you should pay as much attention to your distributor and manufacturer as you do the model. In our overview of companies, we give our opinions and thoughts about the stability of various companies. Check the local BBB (Better Business Bureau) to see how the retailer treats their customers. Since product support is very important with fitness equipment, pay careful attention to our outlook for the brands and consider our comments in regard to their long-term prospects. After all, they can't provide you with assistance if they're no longer in business.

Many people email us each year asking about specific components, most notably motors and rollers in relation to treadmills. Front-drive and rear-drive is also a concern for ellipticals. Purchasing based on components is very tricky because this area of the industry has been muddied over the last 10 to 15 years. The motor situation is almost laughable. Since there is no accepted standard for rating treadmill motors, it's easy for a company to put virtually any rating they want on their motor. With some fear and trembling, we launched a new motor standard two years ago. At first, we had some big players who wanted to help out, but this fell apart when they realized we were going to tell the truth. When we rate the motor, we do so based on the size of the windings in the armature in relation to permanent magnets. It's the only good way to determine the actual horsepower of a treadmill motor, and that's why our power ratings may vary significantly from a manufacturer's stated ratings. In other words, don't buy a treadmill based on the factory HP rating.

Another issue is roller size. Factories claim a bigger roller is better. In theory, the larger the roller, the slower it will turn causing less wear on the bearings and less stress on the walking belt since the belt can operate at a lower tension. The truth is many larger rollers have just as many problems as smaller rollers, and some larger rollers have more problems than smaller rollers because companies skimp on the quality of the parts used to make the rollers. The overall quality is much more important than the size of the roller, so pay attention in the reviews to the quality ratings.

In conclusion, the market has improved again this year, especially for the consumer because you can get more quality for your money. Some of the mass-market brands still have a ways to go in regards to their customer service, but the quality of their products has improved so much that, in most cases, poor service is a moot point. We suggest selecting carefully and choosing a company that is likely to be around for a long time, so you can get the parts you need in 10 years. If you are buying from a specialty retailer in order to receive a higher level of service, double-check with an organization like the BBB to ensure they will take care of you because if you are buying a high priced treadmill or elliptical, you deserve the best service.