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Think Before Buying a Treadmill

There was a time when the only place you'd find a treadmill was in a physiology lab or a sports medicine clinic. Not anymore.

Treadmills have become one of the hottest-selling exercise machines in the country, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Thousands have run out to stores so they could bring home a treadmill and do their walking in the comfort of the living room or den.

Unfortunately, starting an exercise program is not as simple as plunking down $500 or more (perhaps much more) for a treadmill. A machine -- no matter how many electronic dials, imaginary inclines and flashing pulse meters it boasts -- will not solve your exercise problems. For proof of that, consider the millions of rowing machines buried in closets, the stationary bicycles gathering dust in basements, the cross-country ski machines converted into plant stands.

Not that machines aren't useful for exercise. For walkers and runners, the treadmill can be an excellent substitute for a track or a country road when the weather turns nasty or the days grow short. You can also use a treadmill to give variety to your exercise routine. Rather than swimming or in-line skating, take a spin on the treadmill.

The key is to stick to a regular exercise program, treadmill or no treadmill. So before you buy a treadmill or any piece of equipment, stop to figure out what kind of exercise you enjoy. That's the exercise you'll keep doing.

If you're the sort who might benefit from a treadmill, a home model has some advantages. You can watch TV or read while you walk without worrying about getting hit by a car.

But treadmills also have their problems. Many of the less-expensive models can't reach jogging speeds. A strong motor is necessary to reach higher jogging speeds and to start the belt at a slow speed for people who cannot walk at faster speeds. And the belts, pulleys and electronic monitors on the cheaper models may not stand up to consistent use. Safety features you should look for include stability, a wide jogging belt to help you balance, and a turn-off button that is easy to reach.

The more reliable models that reach jogging or running speeds cost between $2,000 and $8,000. Of course, spending thousands of dollars may constitute a form of motivation all by itself. If you put enough money in it, you just may use it.

But before you make the investment, remember that walking or jogging on a treadmill isn't much different than walking or jogging through the park. If you enjoy that, you'll probably be able to make good use of your treadmill.