The Treadmill Is A Torture Device


The constant, monotonous thud underneath your feet, the unbreathable still air all around you, the slow and arduous passage of time, all coupled with the permanent sensation of going nowhere, make up the amazing modern invention we call “the Treadmill”.

If it makes you fell like you’re being punished when running on one, you’re right, you are being punished. The treadmill, which was invented in the 1800’s by the way, was specifically designed such a purpose to be inflicted on English prisoners.

At that time, the British prison system was horrendously bad. Executions and deportations were the punishments of choice for the government to deal with its outlaws. Those prisoners who were sentenced to jail however, faced countless hours in isolation and in squalor conditions. That’s why different social movements led by religious groups, philanthropies and some celebrities of the time, like Charles Dickens, sought to reform this institution.


This is when the treadmill was introduced. It was designed by the eminent English civil engineer, Sir William Cubitt, in 1818 and soon after that spread through many British prisons in the empire. Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes of a large paddle-wheel. As the wheel turned, the men were forced to step up or risk falling off. Meanwhile, the constant rotation of the wheel was used to pump water, crush grain or power mills (from where the name “the treadmill” originated).

This was an obvious improvement from being sent to the gallows or rotting in a filthy cell. It kept the inmates in shape and powered Britain to rebuild its economy after the Napoleonic Wars. On average prisoners spent about 6 hours a day on the treadmill, which is equivalent of walking uphill a distance of about 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). This is roughly halfway up Everest. Now imagine doing that 5 days a week on very little food.

In 1824, a prison guard in the US, by the name of James Hardie, credited the device with taming New York’s more defiant inmates. He wrote that it was the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

In England, the treadmill persisted up until 1898, when it was abandoned for being too cruel. The machine was all but lost to history. But when Dr. Kenneth Cooper demonstrated the health benefits of aerobic exercise in the 1960’s, the treadmill made a triumphant return. The only difference between us today running on a treadmill and those British prisoners is that we have the option on when to get off the machine, while they didn’t.