The Original Purpose Of The Treadmill Might Surprise You

Nearly every gym or fitness center around the world has one of these, but most people using them today would not know its initial origin. The treadmill is a piece of very popular exercise equipment that people use to get in shape. But prior to its use as a fitness tool, treadmills were originally known as "tread wheels." They were used for various types of labor and non-fitness related activities. And there is even a dark history behind this beloved machine being used as a form of punishment.

The earliest known usage of what we now know as a treadmill dates back to the Roman Empire. According to Attendly, Romans developed a crane that was operated by a tread wheel and used to hoist materials for construction. It was often powered by more than one worker, according to Attendly, and it facilitated the ability to lift double the weight they could normally lift.

A brief history of treadmills

However, there is some positive light. Later usage of the tread wheel would find itself beneficial in the agricultural sector. In the 16th century, farmers globally were using animals to power tread wheels. Animal-operated tread wheels performed tasks like churning and grinding, according to American Artifacts. Horses were preferred due to their size and strength, but dogs, sheep, and goats were utilized to power smaller wheels.

Into the 19th century, the wheel would go back to a human-powered operation — but it was not for constructing purposes. British engineer Sir William Cubitt introduced the wheel into prisons. It was there that a new and brutal use of the machine found a home. Prisoners were forced to power a continuously moving wheel, called an everlasting staircase. They either operated the wheel for the sake of punishment or to perform labor tasks, according to Life Fitness. Due to criticism, penal use of the wheel was later outlawed in the British Prisons Act of 1898.

The treadmill meets healthcare and modernization

By the 20th century, they became known as treadmills and regained a new and positive footing — and the benefits were all health-related. The rich used treadmills for personal entertainment and fitness, according to Attendly. And in the 1950s, American cardiologist Dr. Robert Arthur Bruce started using the treadmill to develop a test that tracked heart health. Most people commonly now know the exam as a stress test. By implementing the test, Dr. Bruce could determine a patient's risk for heart disease, according to The New York Times. Today many doctors' offices and clinics continue to have a lone treadmill on-site to perform such tests. 

The original purpose of the treadmill changed a lot over the years, but the modern and high-powered treadmills seen in gyms and fitness centers today have come a long way — from being used to speed up construction to a torture device to now being a primary tool used to maintain weight loss and fitness goals.