Run On a Treadmill? Bet You Didn’t Know It’s Been Around for 4000 Years

Treadmill Running

The treadmill has become a tried and true go-to for fitness junkies and casual exercisers alike. Not surprising, given the benefits of the equipment. A treadmill offers a controlled versatility that you won’t get running on the street. Who doesn’t love being able to control the incline, speed, monitor distance, and watch the estimated calories burned climb ever higher?

Add the fact that you are getting a good cardio workout that is heart healthy, and available in any weather, and you have a clear winner. No more sweltering heat in the summer months forcing you to pound the hot pavement. The days of worrying about hitting a patch of black ice and skidding into an injury are done. And rain? You can keep nice and dry indoors, and won’t face the dangers of limited visibility.

You know what a treadmill looks like today. But did you know the treadmill has been around for at least 4,000 years?

A Brief History of The Treadmill

1 AD

You can trace the history of the treadmill all the way back to the peak days of the Roman Empire. Its first inception was not a piece of fitness equipment, as you probably guessed. It was a piece of machinery used for physical tasks involving repetitive motions, and lifting incredibly heavy objects.

At that time it was called a Tread Wheel Crane or a Tread Mill, and milling was often the reason for its use. Men would step into the wheel itself, and walk to turn the grinding wheels and mill grain or lift heavy objects. They would also use it to lift buckets, pump water, knead dough, and move one large, cumbersome object from one place to another using a winch system.


The next step in treadmill evolution wouldn’t occur until 1818. English civil engineer Sir William Cubitt came up with the idea for the eternal wheel: a spoked wooden wheel that was long enough for several people to stand across it. It was designed for free labor by prisoners who had been incarcerated.

For as much as six hours a day, prisoners were forced to climb from spoke to spoke, spinning the wheel. They would pump water or mill grain, which was then transported primarily out of the prison to be sold on the market. Using this “treadwheel”, prisoners would produce huge amounts of milled grain, and climb up to 14,000 vertical feet a day.

These treadwheels would be used until 1898, when the Prisons Act named it a cruel and inhumane practice.

In 1834, a new kind of machine was patented: the horse powered treadmill. This device was used by farmers who were unable to get the consistent results they needed through wind and water produced energy. They needed a new way to power machines, using a strong enough energy flow to keep it running smoothly.

They created a treadmill encased in a small fence where horses could run on a belt. This produced the energy needed to power the farmer’s equipment. The energy used for this purpose came to be known as “horse power”, a term that would be applied to automobiles and other powered vehicles later on.

A similar treadmill would be created for dogs in 1871. A much smaller scale energy source, it was mostly used for churning butter. The creator, Nicholas Potter, marketed it as a way for household and farm dogs to further assist in chores. While they did see some success, they never found the level of fame that the horse powered treadmills did.


In 1913, a patent was issued for what was dubbed a “training machine”. Scientists used it for experimentation in sports medicine, and it would become a well known training machine for the next twenty years before it gained any mainstream notoriety outside of the industry. A Popular Science article published in 1933 would change the way people looked at treadmills in the future. It was the first step in the treadmill evolving into an exercise machine, used to train athletes.

It was in 1952 that Dr. Robert Bruce of the University of Washington came up with a method of tracking cardiac malfunction, called the Bruce Protocol. This discovery showed the potential for medical uses of the treadmill, and popularized its use in hospitals and clinics around the United States.

Finally, we have the treadmill of today. The first commercial treadmill sold to consumers for home exercise was developed in 1969 by William Staub. He was the first to claim that regular runs of as little as eight minutes a day, four to five times a week, could improve their physical health.

Since then, several incarnations of treadmills have been put on the market. Features like incline, distance monitoring, speed control, calories burned, heart rate monitors, and even treadmill desks have become staples of homes and gyms around the world.

The Benefits Of Running

We know now that there are many physical and mental health benefits associated with running. Lower risk of heart disease, weight loss and maintenance, joint pain relief, stronger muscles, and even increased oxygen capacity are just some of the positives touted by medical experts. Not to mention lessening depression, improving mood, better sleep, a boost in confidence, the rise of endorphins, and greater energy and focus.

Runners may even live longer. A study done by the University of South Carolina found that those who took leisurely runs had a 19% lower overall mortality rate than those who didn’t run.

The conclusion was that those who ran a distance of between 0.1 and 19.9 miles per week, at speeds of between 6 and 7 miles per hour, or at a frequency of between 2 and 5 days per week were less likely to die from all-cause mortalities.

However, speeds, durations or frequencies of higher than those rates were not associated with lowered mortality rates. So it turns out the the ‘right’ amount of running could improve both the length, and the quality, of your life. Who doesn’t want that?

Does that mean that one type of running is better than the other, i.e running on a treadmill, versus running outside? No, not when it comes to the health positives or risks. Though it could be argued that treadmills give you more safety features (no cars, climate controlled environment), and more flexibility (run any time of day or season) than hitting the pavement would.

For many, those pros are enough to keep them on a treadmill, avoiding outdoors running. Or they will split the difference and sometimes run outside, sometimes inside. It comes down to a matter of needs and preferences, not one being better than the other.

Treadmills: A Modern Marvel With a Long History

Treadmills have come a long way from their original form. From their beginning origins as machinery for milling and construction, to a prison punishment, to a daily part of our physical and mental health; it is a versatile and fascinating piece of equipment. One thing is for sure: it has been around for 4,000 years, and will doubtlessly be around for at least 4,000 more.

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