Evolution of the treadmill

Fitness Equipment

The treadmill is one of the most popular pieces of cardiovascular equipment for the gym or home. Today’s treadmill has come a long way from its original purpose, which was not related to fitness or health.

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Even if you’ve never used one, you’re probably familiar with the treadmill. It’s one of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment. However, it was not initially designed for this purpose.

In the 1800s, the treadmill was used in prisons as punishment for prisoners and to harness the power it generated to mill crops. The design of the prison treadmill was similar to that of modern-day stair-stepper exercise equipment. It was later modified to look more like the modern treadmill.

What is a treadmill?

The modern treadmill is exercise equipment designed to mimic the motion of the ground below a person who’s running or walking. The treadmill has a conveyor belt driven by a motor or flywheel. Most modern treadmills are motorized, but there are also manual treadmills that don’t require electricity. There are also hybrid treadmills that let you change the treadmill into a different type of exercise equipment, such as a stair-climber or elliptical.

Some medical applications require specialized treadmills to measure the patient’s stress level, cardiovascular performance, and other health indicators. Other treadmill variations include a mini treadmill that has a compact design and a curved treadmill designed to absorb impact on the body.

You can adjust a treadmill’s speed, and take advantage of features including an infotainment screen that tracks fitness metrics such as distance, calories and time. Some screens can also be used for entertainment by connecting to a TV cable, USB device or other media device.

Ancient origins

The purpose of the original treadmill was connected to manual labor. The Romans used something similar to a treadmill known as the treadwheel, an alternative to the winch. People would walk on the treadwheel, which let it lift heavy objects. This may have been one of the methods ancient Egyptians used to build the pyramids.

In ancient times, people also had horses run on treadmills to generate power when other energy sources such as water and wind were not available. The horse treadmill even made its way to domestic use in the United States in the early 1800s.

Prison use

In the early 1800s, the treadmill was put to use in prisons in New York City as a way to reform the prisoners by giving them a taste of labor. The treadmill also helped keep the prisoners occupied. 

The prison treadmill looked more like a stair-climber machine. The prisoners were forced to step on the  spokes of the wheel for several hours each day. Initially designed as a tool for punishing prisoners, the prison treadmill was subsequently modified to be used for pumping water and grinding corn.

The prison treadmill was officially abolished in 1902 in the United States.

Commercial success

The first motorized treadmill was made in the 1950s to diagnose patients’ respiratory and heart conditions. It was not extremely successful, as most patients found it strenuous to use. However, the use of the treadmill in medical applications paved the way for other applications. By the late 1960s, the treadmill was being used as cardiovascular fitness equipment, both at home and in fitness centers.

By the 1970s, home fitness equipment was becoming popular and fitness centers were more common. The treadmill was one of the most common pieces of equipment in any gym. 

Improvement in comfort and use made significant strides in the 1980s and 1990s. The treadmill had become the choice of cardio equipment, from everyday fitness enthusiasts to elite athletes.

Treadmill innovations

During the 1970s, there were several improvements in treadmill technology. One of the leading brands of the time was True fitness, which pioneered innovations including variable speed, removable safety keys, heart rate control and Soft Select, which let users customize the running belt’s firmness. 

Over the next couple of decades, digital technologies were added to the treadmill, including heart rate sensors and LCD screens. Its energy efficiency was also improved, making it useable in homes.

Modern treadmill

The treadmill’s underlying technology hasn’t changed dramatically, but innovations continue to roll out in the latest models. High-end treadmills often have a large touchscreen display, Bluetooth connectivity, user profiles, mobile charging, virtual race simulation, custom training programs and integration with wearable fitness devices. 

Users also can change the treadmill’s slope and take advantage of new safety features, including technology that can detect if the user has lost their footing, automatically slowing or switching off the treadmill. Some modern treadmills are also used for oxygen therapy, using an oxygen mask to get the maximum benefit from their treadmill workout.

Best treadmills

NordicTrack Commercial X32i

NordicTrack Commercial X22i

This top-of-the-line gym-quality treadmill offers great durability and comfort. It’s loaded with features including an advanced cushioning system to minimize stress on your joints.

Sold by Nordic Track

NordicTrack EXP 10i

NordicTrack EXP 10i

This more-affordable treadmill features a 10-inch touch screen that can be used for features including tracking workouts, choosing training programs and accessing a live interactive workout studio.

Sold by Nordic Track


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Ali Azhar writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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