Many owners reason that since a manual treadmill is small and light, with no motor and fewer moving parts, less can go wrong than with a conventional treadmill. This usually isn't true; the typical manual treadmill's price point ($200 or less) virtually guarantees weak build quality, including poorly machined parts or misplaced holes that make assembly a challenge. We also found many complaints across the board of belt slippage, unacceptable noise levels and troublesome, rudimentary consoles.
Manual treadmills have some other disadvantages compared to motorized treadmills. It can be hard to get the belt moving when you start your workout, which can add stress to your joints. One recommendation is to use a high incline with a manual treadmill to make moving the belt easier, but then that makes maintaining your workout harder -- and unlike a motorized treadmill, you need to get off the machine and manually reset the incline if you want to change it, bringing you back to square one. In addition, some manual treadmills only have one incline level. Still, if budget concerns put even the cheapest motorized treadmills out of your range, it's possible to get a good walking workout with a manual treadmill -- just maybe more of a workout than you intended.
Expert reviewers largely ignore manual treadmills, so we rely primarily on owner reviews. These tend to be plentiful and there's a good amount of feedback at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and similar sites.
In this category, we rate the Exerpeutic 260 Manual Treadmill (Est. $120) as the best choice. As with all manual treadmills, it gets lackluster reviews from owners, but better than other manual treadmills in general. It has a maximum user weight limit of 260 pounds, but owners at that upper limit warn that it won't hold up. Smaller users seem the most pleased.
This Exerpeutic treadmill has two incline settings -- 9 percent or 12 percent. That's pretty steep and most say the 12 percent setting will have you sweating within 5 minutes. Others say they wish it had a flat setting as well, but, since it's the incline that helps move the belt, that's not realistic. As for moving the belt, almost all agree that it's not very easy, but some have more trouble than others. Many note that it slips or jerks quite a bit.
Still, others are pleased and the Exerpeutic 260 earns 3.4 stars out of 5 in more than 180 reviews at Walmart.com; 67 percent would recommend it to a friend. That may not seem very impressive, but it's pretty good for a manual treadmill. It includes a one-year warranty.
If you want to pay even less, you may want to consider the Weslo CardoStride 4.0 (Est. $90). It's the successor to our former Best Reviewed treadmill in this category, but with a different model number and a few changes to the design. Although there's less user feedback than for the Exerpeutic, it is comparable -- 3.4 stars after more than 35 reviews at Walmart.com. Negative reviews reflect some of the issues noted at the start of this section, but other owners -- especially ones with realistic expectations -- seem pleased.
The CardioStride 4.0 has two-position adjustable incline. The LCD display is basic, but tracks speed, distance and calories burned. The tread belt is very short -- just 16 by 41 inches -- but that helps keep the unit's size and weight down for easier storage.
The chief advantage of the CardioStride is its low cost. At under $100, it's tough to find a less expensive treadmill. That makes it an ideal entry-level choice for those on the tightest of budgets or who want to give a treadmill a try before moving on to more capable and sophisticated machines. It has a 250 pound weight capacity and a short, 90-day warranty.
Having made the above recommendations, you also may want to consider checking Craigslist or thrift stores in your area for a used motorized treadmill first, before you pay for a manual model. Many people who end up not using their motorized treadmill will unload one in great condition for less than the price of a manual -- often pennies on the dollar.