The treadmill, also known as a dreadmill, rat wheel, or running machine, is the most widely used fitness equipment in the world. In 2016, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) conducted a survey in which over 50 million Americans admitted to having either enjoyed or endured using one at some point in the preceding year. The fact that treadmills make up nearly 40% of gym equipment sales in the US, as reported by the Washington Post, is therefore not surprising.
This is a remarkable turnaround for a machine that was once used in 19th-century Britain as a form of punishment to keep prisoners in check. It may seem strange that the most popular form of physical fitness these days is a boring, cramped workout, but not too long ago, this kind of exercise was meant to deter criminals from committing new crimes.
However, these days it's impossible to enter a gym without seeing rows of machines. However, according to a Daily Mail article, people didn't start using treadmills exclusively for exercise until the Roaring Twenties and Gatsby-era girls in fetching early activewear. The first consumer running machine didn't come out until the 1960s.
Why is the torture machine becoming a voluntary rather than a mandatory one? The treadmill's greatest draw for some people is its convenience—you can get your cardio in a short stroll from the water cooler and a hot shower. Some have harsh weather that prevents them from engaging in outdoor exercise (think Midwest winters and oppressive summers in dry Arizona). The only way to get some aerobic miles in is to crawl onto the rubber belt.
Over the last ten years, there have been advancements in the motorized treadmill, leading to the development of self-powered, curved, smart connected, underwater, and anti-gravity models. Some even have virtual reality compatibility built in.
However, where did the term "treadmill" come from and how did this cardiovascular king become all-powerful? Prepare yourself for a tour through the colorful history of treadmill by setting the speed to 6 and the belt inclination to 1.5 percent.
The Origin and History of Treadmill
The history of treadmill begins with the Romans and a human hamster wheel that was used by laborers to raise big weights that were built into cranes. You could lift twice as much weight with half as much muscle by substituting men inside a larger wheel for a winch. You didn't need an abacus to figure that out. It meant that more money stayed in the Roman coffers and that construction proceeded more quickly.
According to the blog of the fitness equipment company Life Fitness, this trend of combining the power of humans and animals became popular much later in Industrial Revolution Britain. There, ambitious engineers created inventions like animal-powered water pumps, butter churns, and of course, mills.
The phrase "walking machine" was thus created.
Treadmills, Punishment for Prisoners
There's no mincing words, British prisons in the 1800s were extraordinarily bad places—solitary confinement was routine, food was scarce, and discipline severe. Because things were so grim activists fought for new forms of rehabilitation. In 1818, English engineer William Cubitt devised a human-powered treadmill for grinding corn. This, according to the British Library, caught the attention of the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline who latched onto the machine as a form of “preventive punishment." They reasoned nobody exposed to it would risk re-offending. Thereafter, treadmills were installed in jails across the land.
Convicts sentenced to hard labor climbed onto a 24-paddle stepped wheel, powering the device with continuous exertion much like the stair climber in your local gym. Some prisoners endured up to 10-hour workouts daily, climbing the equivalent of 17,000 feet—over half the height of Mount Everest, according to a BBC report.
Birth of the Cardio King
If Apple Watches had been provided as standard equipment in Victorian prisons, maybe the wardens would have noticed the rising heart rates. Rather, according to the LifeFitness blog, the first recorded medical application of the treadmill did not occur until 1952.
The Bruce Protocol is a diagnostic test created by Dr. Robert Bruce of the University of Washington. It involves having a subject run on a treadmill until they are completely exhausted. This test, which is still in use today, established the treadmill as a means of achieving cardiovascular advantages.
Machines had motors by then. The PaceMaster 600 is the first treadmill designed for home use. It resembles a Zimmer frame and is connected to a moving yoga mat. William Staub, an American engineer, created it in the late 1960s. According to Staub's 2012 obituary in the New York Times, despite his insistence that the treadmill improved your physical condition and that bad weather was no longer an excuse to not run, by the mid-1980s, only 2,000 of the $399 machines were sold annually.
The number rose to 35,000 by the 1990s, and large brands with more modern equipment were now common. Among them was Life Fitness, with their 9500HR, which, according to the LifeFitness blog, was 30% kinder to joints than running on concrete.
Rival equipment companies born in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the American firms Icon Fitness and NordicTrack, as well as the Italian company Technogym, moved into treadmills. The running machine had reached its tipping point.