If You Think Treadmills Are a Form of Punishment, You're Right

The workout machine that so many of us dread has frighteningly dark origins.

Treadmill Torture Device

If running on the treadmill has ever felt like an act of torture, it's because it was one. Getting nowhere fast on a human's hamster wheel can make a 10-minute run feel like it drags on for many cruel and unusual hours. When TED-Ed looked into it, they found that our hatred of the device makes a lot of sense.

In the 1800s, treadmills were created to punish English prisoners. At the time, a typical punishment was execution, deportation or hours of solitude. But the prisoners got lucky: Social activists and celebrities at the time (Charles Dickens included) supported a "much better" punishment wherein prisoners would step on the spokes of a paddlewheel (think giant gear), and if they stopped walking, they would fall off. Oh yes, so much better.

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Not only did the monotonous torture devices "tame" prisoners, but they had the added benefit of providing power to mills, hence the name. And the prisoners weren't just hanging out on these things for a few minutes. On average, they spent six hours a day on the treadmills, which apparently is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in terms of the number of steps taken. And here we are complaining about a quick run after work.

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So how did this torture device turn into the exercise machine we know and hate today? They lasted in England until the late 19th century when they were banned for being too cruel (no surprise there), but that didn't stop them from coming back in the early 1900s in the United States. By the '70s, everyone was jogging on treadmills to get fit and lose weight. Only this time around we did it by choice. Check out the full history of the treadmill in the TED-Ed video below.

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