Picture: 123RF/HXDBZXY
Picture: 123RF/HXDBZXY

If ever there were an award for the least “sexy” piece of fitness equipment, the treadmill would be a major contender. Despite a PR image problem as dull and boring, the treadmill is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in global physical fitness trends for 2019.

Still, the mere mention of the word can conjure up Sisyphean images with a hint of torture. That’s thanks to the treadmill’s dark history. 

English civil engineer Sir William Cubitt created the prototype in 1818 specifically to “reform stubborn, idle convicts”. It looked nothing like today’s streamlined, high-tech treadmills.

Cubitt’s device forced prisoners to step on the spokes of a large paddle wheel and climb it, much like a Stairmaster (the modern device that replicates benefits of running up and down an infinite staircase). As prisoners stepped on the spokes, gears pumped water to power plumbing or ventilation systems in mines or simply to crush grain — hence the later title of treadmill.

Prisoners considered the device a source of “terror” but prison guards attributed that to its “monotonous steadiness, not severity”.

Inmates effectively had to climb more than 2km in gruelling eight-hour shifts on Cubitt’s creation. That gave them “rock-hard glutes” — the affectionate term for the three gluteus muscles that make up the body’s butt area. It also often caused injury and illness when combined with poor prison diets.

Authorities in 19th century England ditched Cubitt’s device as “too cruel” and it was “lost to history” until its triumphant return in a modern incarnation in the 1960s, courtesy of US physician and former US Air Force Colonel Kenneth Cooper.

Cooper is acknowledged as a pioneer of aerobic exercise for improving and maintaining overall health. That spawned proliferating global use of treadmills in cardiac and physical rehabilitation clinics, gym and homes.

Yet SA personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach Rob Labuschagne says that treadmills have never fallen far out of fashion.

Labuschagne has studied sports and exercise science and is general manager of MiFitness, a supplier of home and commercial gym equipment in SA.

He says that treadmills have “always been a staple in most gyms around the world”. However, they have languished on the fitness sidelines in recent years with the introduction of more movement-based functional training, such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), CrossFit and other forms. The cumbersome nature of treadmills left them ill-suited to the spaces of these modern training methods.

Treadmills also posed potential risks with the integration of other movements, including climbing on and off while the belt was still running, he says.

The introduction of self-powered treadmills and virtual running programs and instruction has put them firmly back into fashion and on safer, more effective fitness tracks.

Self-powered treadmills bring back “the true biomechanics of running”, Labuschagne says. That element was missing from motorised treadmills, with belts that move under users, independent of their movement.

Self-powered treadmills allow trainers to introduce HIIT classes safely because the belt stops moving when users aren't running, he says. These treadmills also recruit more “stabiliser muscles” that give an improved overall workout.

Virtual running programs take users “on an enjoyable journey”, Labuschagne says. Whether it be a virtual promenade run along a coastline or a countryside trail run, the technology creates a distraction that alleviates the monotony inherent in treadmill use.

“You’ll also have a personal instructor guiding you through the run, letting you know when to push and to breathe,” he says.

Another advantage is that new treadmills adjust the incline and speed automatically when the virtual program takes users up a hill or on a flat.

Even at their most basic, treadmills provide all the benefits of running, including building a good baseline of cardiovascular endurance, Labuschagne says. They also allow users to run in the safety of a gym or their home without having to navigate traffic and pavement hazards or worry about the weather.

As with any exercise equipment, there’s always an injury risk. However, Labuschagne says most accidents are from “a lapse in concentration”.

He gives tips for getting the most out of home treadmills:

  • Whatever home equipment you buy, make sure it’s an activity you enjoy. Otherwise, you’ll waste hard-earned cash;
  • Familiarise yourself with the type of motor when buying a motorised treadmill. DC (direct current) motors are most common in home-use treadmills and recommended if you run for more than an hour a day. Commercial-grade treadmills have mostly AC (alternating current) motors. Expect to pay R10,000 for an entry level motorised treadmill.
  • Self-powered treadmills can give better workouts but also severely strain pockets: an entry-level device starts at about R40,000, rising up to R200,000.
  • Treadmill warranties determine the grade and quality assurance from the manufacturer. Some treadmills have a one-year warranty, others offer a lifetime warranty;
  • Vary training days with short, intense workouts and slightly longer, steady-paced days. Always include strength training;
  • Treadmills are not safe for children.