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HITTING YOUR STRIDE; Treadmills are among the most simple, versatile machines for home workouts. Here's a guide to get you up and running.; FOCUS ON FITNESS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Debbie Katz works at a health club surrounded by more than 100 cardiovascular machines. She could hop on a stair climber or elliptical trainer, pedal a recumbent bike or throw a few jabs in a kick-boxing class.

But getting a workout in is not that easy.

"I just don't have time to do as much as I want to do," says Katz, a membership coordinator at LifeBridge in Pikesville. At the end of the workday, she wants to be in her Owings Mills home with her two teen-age children, not in the gym.

Several weeks ago, she decided to bring her workouts home. She bought a treadmill.

More people are buying treadmills for their homes than ever before, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More than three million treadmills were sold in 1998, making them the most popular home exercise equipment. Treadmills accounted for $1.5 billion of the $5.5 billion spent on home exercise equipment spent last year.

Why are home treadmills so popular?

It's the "simplest form of exercise equipment you can find," explains Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "Anyone can use a treadmill. And if you have one at home you can use it if you're a walker or a runner, if it's raining or snowing outside, or if you don't like your gym's hours, or if you'd rather just exercise while you're watching 'Oprah.' "

Bobby Kelly, a personal trainer who owns a gym in Rockville and is the creator of two treadmill workout videos, likes the versatility of treadmills.

"Bikes are great," he says, "but people get uncomfortable on the seats. Elliptical trainers are nice, but they are very expensive. Most of the infomercial types of equipment are very cheap and fall apart and quickly become clothes hangers."

"A treadmill is an all-around piece of equipment you are not going to get tired of," says personal trainer and runner Nancy Asch. "You can start using a treadmill as a novice and end up a marathon runner."

Treadmills are effective, too. The treadmill ranked first among exercise machines in burning calories -- up to 865 per hour -- according to a 1996 study at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

All treadmills aren't equal, however. There are many models available, with prices ranging from $300 to $5,500 and features ranging from basic speed and incline controls to heart monitors to detailed computer graphics that simulate a trek up the Washington Monument.

What to buy is a matter of personal taste, but trainers recommend paying at least $1,000 to ensure that the treadmill has a durable motor and will last several years.

George Borkowicz, manager of Fitness Resource in Cockeysville, recommends not choosing a treadmill based on bells and whistles but on the quality of the individual components, such as the motor.

"People should buy a treadmill like they buy a car," he says. "You can't put a V-8 motor in a Yugo and call it a Corvette."

And owning the best treadmill in the world won't make you fit, adds John Wayne Carson, a sales consultant at York Barbell Total Fitness in Cockeysville. "A treadmill is only as good as the person using it," he says.

Debbie Katz isn't taking any chances. She put her treadmill in her bedroom. "That way I can roll out of bed and just use it. It's a great way to start the day."

She hopes to exercise on the machine at least five times a week, she says.

"I will never, ever put a piece of clothing on it."

Defeating boredom

For many, exercising on a treadmill can be about as exciting as having your teeth cleaned. There is no view, no one urging you on, no distraction at all.

Boring. Boring. Boring.

It doesn't have to be, says Bobby Kelly, creator of two treadmill workout videos. "The reason why people get bored on treadmills is they don't work hard enough to make it interesting," says Kelly, owner of the Rockville gym Results Only. "If you're pushing yourself, you are certainly not going to be bored."

Kelly suggests the following ways to make treadmill workouts more challenging and interesting:

* Walk. Walking at a brisk pace can be more effective and better for your body than jogging at a slow pace. Work those strides. Move your arms. Get the most out of each step.

* Interval training. Warm up for four to seven minutes. Walk or run at a moderate pace for 30 seconds, then sprint for 30 seconds. Continue alternating between the two, adding in hills if you want.

* Climb a hill. Warm up. Set the treadmill on a moderate incline and walk or run for about five minutes. Cancel the incline and walk at a moderate pace. Repeat.

Bobby Kelly's treadmill videos, "Treadmill Conditioning" and "The Baby Boomer Treadmill Workout," cost $19.95 each and are available by calling 800-484-3367.

Warranty/service contract

Most treadmills that cost $1,000 and up are protected by a three- to five-year warranty for parts and motors plus a one-year warranty for labor. Less expensive treadmills have warranties lasting 60 to 90 days.

Usually, when you buy a more expensive treadmill from a fitness dealer, the store will deliver it, set it up in your home and show you how it works. Some fitness dealers also offer 30-day trials. Make sure your treadmill is returnable if it turns out not to be right for you.

Computer feedback and controls

At a minimum, controls should tell the user his or her speed, distance, incline and elapsed time. More elaborate programming is available. Look for consoles that are easy to read and to operate.

Belt speed

Look for a slow start speed of 0.1 to 0.5 miles per hour. Top speed depends on your intended use. Some go as fast as 12 miles per hour.

Cushioning

The treadmill bed should absorb shock but not recoil when used. It's important that the bed not move from side to side from the impact of your feet. Try a variety of treadmills for one that feels right.

Motors

Most treadmills have two motors -- one drives the belt, the other raises and lowers the running bed. Most sources recommend a continuous-duty motor with at least 1.5 horsepower for driving the belt.

Belt width and length

This is the width and length of the actual walking/running surface. Widths range from 17 to 22 inches, lengths range from 45 to 60 inches.

Price

Home treadmills range in price from about $300 to $5,500 for one that features a computer-animated video display allowing the user to "climb" the Washington Monument. Most knowledgeable trainers recommend spending at least $1,000 on a home treadmill, although some publications have tested and recommended treadmills that cost as little as $500.

Your weight and how you intend to use the treadmill make a difference. A person who weighs 120 pounds and needs a treadmill for walking only can get away with a less durable and less expensive model than a 200-pound person who wants to run. Versatile programming and heart monitoring options also add to the cost.

About used treadmills

If buying a used $2,500 treadmill for $1,000 seems like a great deal, first find out about the warranty and service contract. Used equipment usually does not have as extensive a warranty as new equipment -- some stores offer 60 to 90 days. Fixing a used treadmill could end up costing you more than you initially paid.

Try it

Before you buy any treadmill, try it out. Go to the store dressed in your workout clothes and do your entire workout on the treadmill. This is the best way to figure out if you are buying the right machine.

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