Why a Treadmill Feels Like Prison

Daniel Ganninger
October 17, 2014

human tread wheel tread millWe’ve all spent countless hours on that incessant machine, whiling away our time and spending most of it watching the seconds tick past tirelessly slow. But where did the term treadmill come from, and why do we sometimes want to smash it with a rock? Well, there’s a valid reason why a treadmill feels like a medieval torture device.

The first treadmills were used by our four-legged friends of the larger variety, the horse. A horse treadmill was patented in the early 1800’s to do work, albeit not to well.  But soon, our smaller four-legged friend, the dog, was pressed into action. The dog was introduced to a home version of the treadmill and completed such menial tasks as churning butter.  But the term treadmill still had not been coined. It was the humans turn, along with their two legs, to get in on the action.

treadmillSo where in the world did the term “treadmill” come into play? The answer dates back to the early 1800’s when Sir William Cubitt, an English engineer, decided this would be a novel way to rehabilitate prisoners. It was collectively known as a tread wheel and looked like a giant hamster wheel. Prisoners would step on something that closely resembling a paddle wheel and away they would go, rehabing themselves to their heart’s content and sometimes upwards of ten hours a day. This would equate with climbing the equivalent of a small mountain, or around 8,000 vertical feet, as punishment. Someone finally got the bright idea this technique could be used more efficiently, and the prisoners began to use the contraption to grind grain in a mill, hence the term, treadmill. This practice went on until the late 1800’s when  it was finally deemed too cruel a punishment.

It wasn’t until the 1950’s when Dr. Robert Bruce established it as an important piece of medical testing equipment for cardiac patients and used as a cardiac stress test. The Bruce Protocol is still in use today during cardiac stress testing to diagnose certain heart conditions. The mainstream population was still without the wonders of the treadmill, and it wasn’t until the late 1960’s when Dr. Kenneth Cooper (of the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, and in existence to this day) brought the treadmill to the masses with his research on the benefits of aerobic exercise. So now when you’re puffing away those pounds on the endless belt that never stops, just remember, it could be worse.

How much do you dislike the treadmill, or do you like it?  It’s okay, nobody will think you’re weird.

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