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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, many Americans had a hard time getting enough exercise: Almost 80 percent of American adults were not meeting the U.S. government’s physical activity guidelines, according to a November 2018 update from the Department of Health and Human Services.
And the ongoing spread of the coronavirus around the U.S. has made it more difficult for many to exercise, with many gyms either not open or not exactly safe to attend. One-third of Americans say they are spending less time being physically active or exercising than they were a year ago, according to a nationally representative October survey of 2,670 U.S. adults by Consumer Reports.
That means millions of people are missing out on the benefits that exercise provides for heart health, cognition, sleep, mental health, cancer risk, blood pressure, and more. If you’re looking for an easy way to move more at home no matter the season, you may want to a consider one of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment: a treadmill.
Treadmills can be used for a wide variety of workouts, says Roberto Mandje, a former professional runner who competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics and is now the senior manager of training and education at New York Road Runners (NYRR).
Here’s how to get started with a treadmill routine, whether it’s at the gym or in your home.
How to Start a Treadmill Routine
Plan for the long term. Before you first step on a treadmill, consider your fitness goals, says Peter Anzalone, former senior test project leader for fitness equipment at CR.
If you are trying to train for a marathon, you may want to follow a specific training plan, like those offered by the NYRR, and be sure to integrate outdoor runs as well.
If your goal is just to move more, training programs built into your treadmill can help keep you interested, with simple programs such as hill training or workouts focused on different objectives, like improving heart health.
Set a goal for how long you want to run each time you work out, and try to make your workouts more challenging over time by increasing the duration, speed, or incline.
Be safe. If you’re not familiar with treadmill running, start slow, says Chris Gagliardi, a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as a medical exercise specialist and health coach. Start at a walking pace, around 2 or 3 mph, until you’re used to the feel of the belt moving underneath your feet. Then increase the speed up to a comfortable jogging or running pace, about 4 to 8 mph, depending on your level of experience.
The same goes for the incline: Increase it slowly and see how it feels when the machine gets progressively steeper—don’t instantly put it on the maximum incline.
Some machines also let you enter your age to calculate appropriate maximum and target heart rates.
Finally, remember to use the safety key, which clips onto your clothing and is designed to stop the machine if you fall. (Read more about staying safe on a treadmill.)
Find your comfort pace. Heart rate is the most accurate way to monitor exercise intensity, Anzalone says. Some treadmills pair with chest straps that measure your heart rate, which are more reliable than the handlebar grips. Some machines come with their own chest strap monitors, and many can link up to your personal monitor. And many treadmills let you calibrate the intensity of your workout by using a target heart rate.
You can also pay attention to your breathing to find a pace and intensity that matches your goals, Gagliardi says. If you can talk comfortably, you’re going at a low to moderate pace. At that speed you can do a long, slow workout or use it as a recovery pace that lets you catch your breath and slows your heart rate between faster intervals.
If it’s difficult to talk, you’re at a moderate to vigorous exercise level. If you absolutely can’t talk, that’s your maximum intensity pace for a sprint interval.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity each week.
How to Keep It Interesting
Try an interval training program. Check out the machine’s built-in workout programs, Gagliardi suggests. There are often a variety of interval runs, which alternate between full-on intense pace and recovery pace and are considered an efficient and quick way to get fit. In general, these programs should take you out of your comfort zone, but there should be enough recovery time in between sprints for you to get your breathing under control again.
Gagliardi also recommends trying some of the interval programs suggested by ACE coaches. These workout plans—freely available online—start with a warmup, then have runners alternate between running faster or at an incline for about a minute at a time, with recovery breaks in between.
Do progression, tempo, and hill training. Mandje recommends using treadmills for these runner-specific workouts because they can help you keep up with the pace you set without accidentally slowing down, as you might when running outside.
For progression runs, which help runners build speed and endurance, he recommends starting at a moderate pace and then increasing speed by 0.5 to 1 mph every 5 to 10 minutes, so you’ll finish a run going significantly faster than you started.
For tempo runs, which help improve speed and teach runners to maintain a set pace, he recommends warming up at a slow pace, running at close to the pace you might try for in a race for a set distance—try 3 to 5 miles—and then cooling down at a recovery pace.
It’s not always easy for outdoor runners to practice going uphill, which can make a run more intense and build heart and lung health, so Mandje recommends using treadmill inclines for hill-running practice.
Build in strength training. For safety’s sake, don’t jump on and off a machine that’s still moving. But you can incorporate strength training into a treadmill workout if you pause your run, let it come to a full stop, then get off to use a resistance band, lift weights, or do body-weight exercises like push-ups or squats before jumping back on.
Repeat this circuit several times to work toward aerobic fitness and strength training goals on the same day. The CDC recommends doing strength training at least twice a week.
The physical activity guidelines also emphasize the importance of flexibility, so try integrating stretching into some of your workouts, too.
Consider doing a sled workout. Certain gyms and workout plans recommend using specially designed treadmills (or regular treadmills with the power turned off) for a “sled” workout. These workouts involve holding on to handrails and manually pushing the belt with your feet, to mimic the effects of pushing a weighted sled across the floor.
Trying this in 30-second bursts (with recovery time in between) can be an effective way to build up power—which can improve your ability to sprint or pick up something heavy, Gagliardi says. Building up your power can also help you catch yourself if you’re falling, Anzalone says, and strengthen your legs, Mandje says.
But there’s a key caveat: Don’t try this at a gym without asking first. If you’re at home, check the manual of the treadmill you are using first, Gagliardi says, to make sure that it’s equipped to handle sled workouts and that moving the belt with the power off won’t damage the machine’s motor. Anzalone cautions that you could void your warranty if your machine isn’t designed for these activities.
If you start running regularly on a treadmill now or at the start of the New Year, you’ll set yourself up to work out more consistently throughout the year, Mandje says. Getting into a consistent workout routine is the surest way to make sure you’re meeting the CDC’s minimum recommended physical activity guidelines or your own fitness goals, according to Gagliardi.
But if you aren’t already working out regularly, build up slowly, incorporating a little more time each week. Even walking on a treadmill regularly while you read a magazine or watch Netflix can be enough to start transforming your health.
Thinking of buying a treadmill? These are three of the machines that impressed CR’s testers, including one budget folding option.