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Origins & History of the Treadmill

Updated on June 13, 2009

Let's take a brief trip into treadmill history. That unassuming piece of equipment at your fitness club is hardly a new invention, in fact, it's been around for hundreds of years. Did you know the treadmill was quite popular in the days of the Greeks and Romans? It wasn't initially used for exercise, either. Read on and discover...

The History of the Treadmill

The history of treadmills is an interesting one to get into. If you're one of those folks who feels like you're being punished whenever you get on a treadmill, then guess what? The treadmill's history actually begins in the prisons, where it was a method of punishment in the early eighteen hundreds. Of course, those poor guys had to walk dozens of miles a day on primitive treadwheels, and they didn't get to watch TV or listen to their iPod when doing it, so let's not hear any grumbling!

These "treadwheels" were a type of animal powered motor used often in farming generally being powered by a human. They were put to work raising water, lifting cranes, harvesting grain and, of course, were eventually put to use in British prisons such as the ones in Lewes and Warwick, where prisoners would regularly walk an average of 17,000 feet every day.

The treadmill underwent some pragmatic design changes while being used in prison, but the turning point between the farming treadwheel and the modern treadmill came about when, in 1952, it was Doctors Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton of the University of Washington who invented the treadmill when they went to work developing a machine that could help doctors to diagnose heart and lung disease. The treadwheel itself was an effective solution so they made some serious changes, coming up with the modern treadmill, and in 1968, Doctor Kenneth Cooper began lobbying for the commercial production and proliferation of medical treadmills and exercise bikes for the purposes of aerobic exercise.

After booming across the United States, it wasn't much longer before the trend hit globally and the newfangled exercise device caught on in health clubs across the world for the simple fact that, for those who always considered working out to be a real chore, treadmills made exercise into something convenient, easy, and fun. Finally, no more having to choose between going out in the cold to run and staying inside to watch television!

Of course, beyond the convenience offered by the machine, treadmills have also been commended as a safe, healthy form of exercise thanks to the low impact they offer runners. This makes for an excellent alternative for those who have had leg or back injuries and can't take the extra stress on the joints offered by running.

Treadmills and medical monitoring

There's also the fact that a treadmill can set, track, and monitor all relevant data during a workout. When you simply run outdoors, you may try to beat your best time running the track at the park, but a treadmill will give you an exact calculation of the speed and slope you're running at. And, of course, many current treadmills provide heart rate monitors, and will even tell you how much energy you've expended and how many calories you've burned. In this way, you can get competitive with yourself in a manner not offered by normal running.

Something to Keep in Mind

It should be noted that treadmills do have some shortcomings, depending on your goals. If you only want to stay in shape, go ahead and use a treadmill as you please. If you're a serious runner, though, hoping to compete in marathons and track runs, a treadmill is a great way to keep in peak condition, but you'll definitely want to do a lot of real running outdoors, too, as there are a number of things that a treadmill cannot simulate, such as wind resistance and rough terrain. In essence, running on a treadmill is a tad easier than running on even ground outdoors, so all of these minor differences, while they may seem hardly relevant, can throw you off if you use treadmilling as your primary means of training for the big race.

The Future of the Treadmill

What might turn out to be a landmark in the history of treadmills is the whole concept of the "omnidirectional treadmill". This would be, well, a treadmill that can move in any direction, just as the name implies. The whole idea is pretty much that you would use such a machine as the base of a "holodeck", yep, just like in Star Trek. There are still some problems facing development, primarily issues regarding vibration and excessive noise, but it may not be long before we're using video games to trick couch potatoes into getting a full workout!

The Endless Appeal of the Endless Path

It's fascinating that the treadmill has had such a foothold in fitness culture as one of the few exercise machines to become more than a passing fad. Besides having developed into one of the key components to any fitness club or home gym, it's also inspired any number of machines based on the same principles, some of them, such as the elliptical machine, a useful device in its own right, and those endless swimming pools you see in certain upscale fitness clubs. The "Endless Path" concept has become one of the most useful notions in fitness, as you can continue to push yourself as far as you are comfortable pushing yourself. Certainly, one of the most discouraging things about going out for a run is that you eventually have to go back the way you came! What if you get tired halfway home?!

...And that's really the key appeal of the treadmill and why it's become such a staple of the modern gym. It's very easy to see exercise as something inconvenient, burdensome and, quite simply, a chore. The ease, fun, and convenience of using a treadmill have certainly had something to do with its relevance in the world of fitness.

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    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 8 years ago

      I knew treadmills was a way to make primitive mechanics work; I didn't know about using prisioners.