Treadmill History A Long Walk From Grind To Gratifying

Whether you dread the treadmill or can’t wait for your next workout, you might be surprised to hear they weren’t originally designed for enjoyment. Anyone who stepped on one of the treadmill’s historical predecessors knew immediately that they weren’t in for fun, fitness, or a sense of accomplishment.

At the beginning of the 1900s, the intentions behind treadmills brightened considerably. But a century later, our quest to redeem the “dreadmill” continues.

A good workout will never be effortless. However, thanks to user-informed innovation your time on the treadmill is massively, MASSIVELY better than it used to be.


Not So User-Friendly Forerunners

Roman crane in Bonn

The idea of taking a long walk to nowhere goes back to Roman times when treadmills were first used as labour devices. Servants on human hamster wheels powered cranes that erected massive structures. The practice went on for hundreds of years, producing castles and cathedrals. Many of these buildings still stand today, offering little testimony to the effort that created them.

Later, treadmills were used as punishment. In the 19th century, British and American prisons kept inmates in line by making them walk on a modified paddlewheel for up to six hours a day. Sometimes the convicts’ exertions moved gears that ground grain or pumped water. Hence the “mill” part of the word “treadmill.”


The Treadwheel’s Intimidating Power

Treadmill at Brixton Prison in London (cropped)

All too often, the inmates’ labour produced nothing more than a smug sense of triumph for vengeful “reformers.” Prisons even invited the public to observe and jeer the convicts to deepen their shame. The alleged aim was to convince convicts to take their future walks on the straight and narrow path. But the actual “stick” driving them toward it was something more mundane than exhaustion or derision.

In 1824, a New York prison guard praised the “treadwheel” and its power to break rebellious spirits this way: "The monotonous steadiness, and not the severity, constitutes its terror." Even after better-intentioned treadmills came along, that dreadful perception would endure.


Healthy New Purpose. Same Old Drawback.


Eleven short years after the treadwheel was banned as cruel and unusual punishment, its mechanics returned in therapeutic form. The first treadmills were powered exclusively by their users (another idea that’s made a comeback), and debuted at the exact historical moment heart disease overtook infectious diseases as society’s leading cause of death.

By the early 1960s, cardiac events caused four out of 10 U.S. deaths. Motorized treadmills were already established medical testing apparatus at that time, but as studies showed that running greatly reduced a person’s risk of cardiac death, the machines started showing up in gyms and later home gyms. 


Unlike 19th century convicts, home users were free to start and stop as they wished. However, like those convicts, they found exercising in place could leave them with nothing to do but be painfully conscious of how hard they were working. Stopping was easy. Starting up again, not so much.


Moving Forward With Motivation in Mind

Manufacturers didn’t want their machines gathering dust. So they observed how home users made workouts easier on themselves and incorporated those ideas as new offerings. For instance, recognizing how video, audio, and other content served as a distraction. Today, access to the Internet and streaming services are taking users’ minds off of their efforts.

Meanwhile, apps like Explore the World virtually recreate the experience of moving through changing scenery. Programmable incline and decline levels allowed runners to simulate hill climbs and up their cardio.

Last but certainly not least, there have been huge advancements in tracking and instant feedback. This quickly evolved from heart rate monitoring and simple graphic representations of interval training programs to a whole new standard of interactive fitness programs.


Fast and Flexible Fitness Technology

Today, intuitive, personalized, and all-in-one fitness platforms can create full workout programs designed to advance every specific user’s progress. For instance, JRNY (currently available for a 1-year free trial on select treadmills and other machines) continually adapts workouts to keep you on the express route to your fitness goals.

That’s a sea change from the days when convicts walked their wheel as a reminder that they’d been bad, deserved to suffer, and existed only as a warning to others. Of course, not everybody has access to mega-accommodating fitness apps, but that technology merely serves your real motivator – your goals.


“Dreadmill” Drudgery No More.

A workout that feels like work may be one side of the treadmill story. The laborious, even sadistic, legacy of its forerunners may deepen an impression that’s provably incorrect. Since 1911, when the mechanics of the treadmill were first put to good use, it’s become an increasingly better health option.

Just giving us an indoor workout alternative for bad-weather days is monumental. It allows us to maintain regular exercise – the recommended 150 minutes per week. And it’s superior to outdoor running in how it treats our bodies. Nevertheless, forward-thinking designers keep finding new ways to lessen the impact on our valuable joints.


The Healthy Hits Keep Coming.

Treadmills are calorie-burning wonders, incinerating extra weight and belly fat. Helping us keep our bodies in shape strengthens our immunity from infectious diseases. We’re also better able to manage our insulin levels and keep Type 2 Diabetes at bay.

They’ve also sharpened the tracking of our heart rate, calorie burn rate, and other vital data to keep us informed, on track, and safe. That convenience has helped doctors diagnose potentially life-threatening conditions and given patients a trustworthy way to address those problems.

Treadmills are ready to do their part. Approaching them with an optimistic, goal-oriented attitude is yours. They may be stationary, but they can take you far.


See What’s New and Right for You at Flaman Fitness.

For machines that stay in one place, treadmills have come a long way. Our showroom features splendid examples of their evolution – from leading manufacturers like Assault, Bodycraft, Bowflex, Nautilus, Schwinn, Spirit Fitness, Star Trac, and Xebex.

Call or visit your nearest Flaman Fitness location. Our treadmill experts will be glad to help you find the machine specifically designed to fit your needs, budget and available space.

Carl Bloch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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