Finding the perfect match when it comes to your exercise equipment is a tricky balancing act. Assuming you’ve already decided which type of cardio equipment you want (for more on deciding between a treadmill, elliptical, or recumbent bike check out last month’s Get Fit blog), how do you sort out the bells and whistles without paying for features you’ll never use? Here are a few of the features that are commonly offered; some may help in deciding whether they’re something you need to include in your next piece of fitness equipment.
Heart Rate Monitor Whether you’re new to exercising or training for your next triathalon, you’ll find a heart rate monitor to be useful in meeting your training goals. Hand sensors tend to be a limited in their reliability, but for the minimal investment of a heart rate chest strap, you can receive an objective play by play of the level of intensity of your workout. This will allow you to tailor your workouts to meet your goals on a given day.
Training Space versus Storage Capacity If you’re investing in a treadmill, this is worth giving some thought to. Do you really need the larger mat size offered by some models or would you rather your treadmill fit quietly into the corner of your bedroom? A larger mat size (typically greater than 17 x 49 inches) will more comfortably accommodate a very tall jogger or someone who plans to use their treadmill for running (especially if you’re a tall runner). If you’re 5′ 8″ or shorter or plan on using your treadmill primarily for walking, you’ll probably find that a smaller mat will meet your needs just fine. A treadmill with a smaller mat size is often easier to store and will take up less floor space even when unfolded, which might be a perk if you lack a dedicated space for a home gym. If you’re not sure, try giving this a trial run in your local sporting goods store to see how the different mat sizes measure up to your needs.
Motor Size Smaller people looking for a walking workout really don’t need to pay for a larger motor size. A larger motor (typically over 1.5-2.0 continuous duty horse power) is going to be most useful for someone who plans on using their treadmill for running (i.e. more than a slow jog or walking), especially if that person is a “heavier” runner (i.e. over 180 pounds). Think about your needs. If you’re a larger person or if you plan on using your treadmill primarily for running, it’s worth investing in a larger motor size. If you really plan on using your treadmill for walking and you weigh less than 180 pounds, a motor capacity of 1.0-1.5 HP is likely to be sufficient for your needs. If you’re on the fence and can afford it, this one is probably worth paying a little extra for the larger motor. You want your treadmill to last for a long time and you never know when you or your (larger) significant other might decide to take up running and give your treadmill a try.
Cushioning Again, this applies to treadmills only. A very shock absorbing treadmill will have a board thickness under the belt of at least one inch and a 2 ply belt. This is worth shopping for if you’re looking for your treadmill to reduce the impact of your running workouts. If you’re a walker or are using your treadmill only occasionally when weather or scheduling conflicts keep you from your usual asphalt based run, there’s no reason to pay extra for this feature.
Incline Settings If you’re not looking to pick up the intensity by running, inclines are an unbeatable way to increase the demand of your workouts on treadmills and elliptical trainers. An incline capacity of 10% is sufficient to challenge most users, although if you really think you’re likely to max out this feature, a 15% capacity will challenge even experienced hikers.
Calories Burned/Display Module No doubt about it. A high tech display module can be incredibly motivating. By entering your weight, you can receive an estimate of the calories burned during your workout, your average pace and intensity, and the progress you’ve made. While you may tend to downplay this feature when you’re test driving your equipment, most exercisers find this to be incredibly motivating when they’re working out on their own. An upper end display module will be easy to read and will allow you to view multiple variables at a time (such as speed, distance, and calories burned).
Programming Options A good piece of equipment will allow you to use pre-programmed settings to alter the intensity of your workout. Look for (at a minimum), interval and aerobic settings. For the beginning to intermediate exerciser, these tend to be the most useful programs. For experienced, athletic individuals, customizable settings may also be a plus. The “fat burning” workouts offered by most models are popular, but really offer limited benefit for most exercisers.
Sound System Many models of cardio equipment offer docking stations for MP-3′s, speakers, and headphone jacks, which can be a big plus. Elliptical trainers and recumbent bikes tend to be very quiet due to the lower amounts of electricity required by these systems, but treadmills vary significantly in the level of noise they produce. If you’re comfortable working out with an MP3 and headphones or will have access to a stereo or media system nearby, this may not be worth shopping for; however, if you’re going to be using your equipment in a more isolated area of your home, the benefit of music for your workouts is immeasurable. If you choose not to look for this option, make sure that your equipment will be quiet enough to allow you to use a stereo or television nearby.
Fans/Cooling Systems Although these in-unit cooling systems don’t get a lot of attention in-store, users love them. Unless you want to haul in a standing fan to sit in front of your equipment (and take up more floor space), this is worth looking for.
Warranty A good manufacturer will stand behind the frame and motor of the equipment you purchase. A minimum of a one year warranty is pretty standard but you should be looking for longer warranties on the parts that take a beating, such as the motor on your treadmill.
Weigh in! What features have you found to be the most useful on your cardio equipment? How did these stack up to the things you noticed when you were shopping?