The Current

Hate the gym? History explains why the treadmill can feel like torture

If you dread the gym, it might not surprise you that the treadmill was originally a device used to punish prison inmates. As the treadmill turns 200, The Current looks at how far we've really moved away from the idea of exercise as punishment.
The treadmill was created 200 years ago as a device to punish prisoners with meaningless work. (José A. Iglesias/El Nuevo Herald via AP)

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In 1817, English engineer William Cubitt invented the treadmill — or the treadwheel, as it was called back then.

Its purpose was to punish prisoners.

Penal reforms back then had aimed to reduce use of the death penalty, and hard labour took its place, with prisoners like Oscar Wilde walking on the cylindrical wheel for five to six hours a day.

"The idea of hard labour was that it should punish the prisoner's heart and soul," Vybarr Cregan-Reid, author of Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"It wasn't that they'd be given labour to do that was fruitful or restorative. It was thought that something pointless should be done." 
Sir William Cubitt (1785–1861) was an eminent English civil engineer and millwright who invented the prison treadwheel. (Wikimedia)

The treadmill didn't become a fixture of fitness until the jogging revolution of the late 20th century.

Cregan-Reid argues that in the switch from running outdoors to running on a machine, we've lost some of the psychological benefits of running. He'd like to bring those benefits back through a new and improved treadmill — adding screens with nature scenes, nature sounds, and even wafts of outdoor scents.

"I like this idea of the perfect treadmill that has bits of grass growing out of it," says Cregan-Reid, somewhat tongue in cheek.

"Hopefully it might encourage runners to see a little bit more of what they're losing when they translate their runs from analog to digital."

But Dan Buettner argues we should abandon running — and in fact exercise — altogether.

Prisoners on a treadmill at Brixton Prison, London, circa 1825. Brixton was one of the first prisons to introduce treadmills in 1821. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Buettner, author of The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest, says the people in areas around the world with the longest life spans stay healthy through moving naturally, rather than hiving off fitness as a separate part of their day.

"[Blue Zone residents] live in environments that nudge them into physical activity every 20 minutes or so," Buettner tells Tremonti.

He cites gardening, walking to a cafe, even doing household chores by hand instead of using convenient appliances, as ways to build natural movement into our days, even in urban areas.

"I think we need to think about physical activity as a reward, as something enjoyable and something we look forward to," says Buettner.

"Not something we regard as self-flogging."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post — including a look of the history of the gym with author Eric Chaline.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.