When Exercise Was Actually Torture

Exercise is good for you. That’s not a surprise to read, I hope. The benefits of cardiovascular workouts are robust (take the Mayo Clinic’s word for it, not mine) and the downsides are minimal — in many cases, it’s limited to the experience of the workout itself. For many, the idea of getting on the exercise bike, going for a run outside, or even doing a few jumping jacks is akin to torture. But it’s not. It’s just exercise.

Unless you’re using a treadmill. In that case, good news: it really is torture. Or, at least, it was originally.

The word “treadmill” first entered the English language in 1822, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and reinforced by a Google Ngram Viewer search result (embedded at that link). Most exercise equipment — think “bike” or “weights” or “jump rope” — describes either how to use the equipment or what makes the item useful for a workout. The word “treadmill” has the “tread” part — signaling that it’s used for walking — but it also has a “mill” part, which suggests that it’s used for grinding something down. And while exercise can definitely be a grind, that saying wasn’t one back in the early 1800s. The early treadmills were a lot like sawmills or windmills or millstones, and less like your Nordic Track or Peloton. Here’s a picture of an early one, via the PBS show, Nova:

As you can see, there are eight to ten people there, collectively operating what looks like a bad marriage between a Stairmaster and a wheel. And no, people didn’t sign up to use this to burn some calories or to otherwise get a workout; in fact, they didn’t sign up to use it at all. The first treadmills weren’t found at your local gym — they were found in prisons. The people on them were inmates, and this was part of their sentence. Mental Floss explains:

In 1818, an English civil engineer named Sir William Cubitt devised a machine called the “tread-wheel” to reform stubborn and idle convicts.

Prisoners would step on the 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel, climbing it like a modern StairMaster. As the spokes turned, the gears were used to pump water or crush grain. (Hence the eventual name treadmill.) In grueling eight-hour shifts, prisoners would climb the equivalent of 7,200 feet.

The initial introduction of the device was to make prison life less attractive to the innocent, as JStor notes. In the early 1800s, “prisons [in England] began providing necessities, [and] people worried that the poor would commit crimes just to get free stuff. Such luxuries needed to be offset by labor—ideally, labor that was painful and possibly even pointless.” The grueling, hours-long workout on the treadmill served that purpose perfectly. But the utilitarian reasons for putting convicts on the treadmill did not last long. Within a few decades, inmates were assigned to the machine as punishment, even if there was no grain to grind or water to pump out. They would simply, as JStor notes, “grind air.” Prisons in the United States also adopted the device, and for most of the 19th century, they were a rather common fixture across both countries.

As the 1800s gave way to the next century, the prison treadmill disappeared. Reformists successfully stemmed (and ultimately ended) the role of hard labor as part of a prison sentence, and the treadmills like the ones pictured above went away. But a decade or so later, in 1913, an engineer named William Staub patented a “training machine,” seen here, that resembles a modern treadmill. Fifteen years after that, another inventor, AJ Wood, received a patent for a “tread mill exercise machine,” taking the name from the prison contraptions of a generation or two prior. The space between the two words went away but otherwise, the devices we use today still bear that name –proving once and for all that running in place and going nowhere is, indeed, torture.


Bonus fact: In 2007, an American astronaut ran the Boston Marathon from space. Well, kind of. That year, the Boston Athletic Association (the organization that oversees the Marathon) issued bib number to 14,000 to Sunita Williams, a NASA flight engineer from Needham, Massachusetts. At the time of the race, Williams was serving on the International Space Station, making it a bit difficult for her to attend the race in person. But the ISS is outfitted with a treadmill and the Association decided that they’d make an exception in Williams’ case, and let her run the race remotely. (This wasn’t a loophole — it was a PR stunt. The Association, NASA, and Williams all knew that she was in space when she applied to run the race.) She completed the 26.2-mile “course” in 4 hours, 23 minutes, and 10 seconds — and per NASA, orbited the Earth at least twice while doing so.

From the Archives: Pedaling to Freedom: Bikes, not treadmills; power, not grain. And optional, not required. But otherwise, the same as the early treadmills, kind of.