Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Manual Treadmills? OMG!

     There was an article in the July 7, 2015 Wall Street Journal, Treadmills Unplugged: A Gym Workout Powered by Your Feet, talking about manual treadmills gaining a foothold (pun intended) in gyms around the country.  
"Treadmills without motors, or manual treadmills, are popping up in high-end health clubs and at the CrossFit Games, an international fitness competition. Instead of pressing a button to start a mechanical conveyor belt, users make the belt go simply by moving their feet."
     Imagine powering a treadmill with one's own energy and exertion.  What a novel idea.
     Well it is not that novel an idea.  Before the fitness craze of the past thirty years, most treadmills were not powered be electricity.  Most were powered by whoever or whatever was on the treadmill.  I remember back when treadmills were becoming popular in gyms, I just assumed they were devices driven by manual power.  The only treadmills I could remember seeing were manual powered.  The idea of a treadmill driven by an electric motor seemed odd and counterproductive.
    Whatever was on the treadmill? Yes, whatever. Consider the definition of the word treadmill:
1. an apparatus for producing rotary motion by theweight of people or animals, treading on a succession of moving steps or a belt that forms akind of continuous path, as around the peripheryof a pair of horizontal cylinders.
2. an exercise machine that allows the user to walk or run in place, usually on a continuous moving belt.
3. any monotonous, wearisome routine in which there is little or no satisfactory progress. 
     Certainly, numbers two and three make sense.  What are they talking about in definition number one?  Consider the word treadmill itself.  One definition of tread is to walk and that makes sense since walking is one of things people do on treadmills.  Mill?  The first treadmills were not human exercise machines.  Treadmills were used to grind grain and they were powered by people or animals.  Treadmills were human and animal powered devices to generate energy for the milling of grain in places where water and wind mills were not practical or not known about.  In the 1800s, treadmills were used in prisons.  These prison treadmills, which were more like stair steppers, were used to punish prisoners while grinding grain.  These non-exercise treadmills were indeed monotonous and wearisome routines.  
     Eventually steam engines took on these monotonous tasks.  Gasoline engines and electric motors replaced steam engines.  Thus, an electric treadmill is kind of an oxymoron.  It is clear why I was confused by electric treadmills.  They didn't make sense. 
     When I was growing up and was first exposed to ecology, I had an odd notion.  Why couldn't we generate electricity by having everyone that was able, spend a half hour a day on a treadmills or bikes rigged up to harness that human powered energy?  People could exercise and perform a civic duty at the same time.  I never did anything with the idea thinking that hundreds of thousands of folks spending thirty minutes a day on a hamster wheel would never fly.  Silly me.  Clearly, my oxymoronic view of electric treadmills were rooted in this sophomoric notion of mine.
     NordicTrack makes a full line of aerobic exercise machines.  Their business began with a very simple, small footprint, and elegant (in minimalist Scandinavian way) cross-country skiing device.  There was definitely no electricity involved.  If memory serves me correctly, they followed up the success of their skiing product with a manual treadmill.  Their treadmill had many of the same simple and elegant design features as their skiing machine.  While the skiing machine was popular and made both profit and a name for company, the treadmill was not.  Looking at the NordicTrack website today, all of their treadmills are powered.  They had to follow the market.
     Of course electric treadmills make sense.  The first were used in medical facilities to get patients heart rates up very quickly and efficiently for stress tests.  Patients probably exclaimed, "that was quite a workout."  Folks who were better at commercializing ideas than I am, ran with it (yes, another intended pun).  The purpose of a treadmill is too get a good workout, not to generate energy to drive other machines.  Plus, manual treadmills were just too hard as the human was required to get it up to speed and keep it there... just like real running.
     Manual treadmills were too hard.  I tried one once.  It was even more monotonous and wearisome.  My pace was uneven.  Electric treadmills was easier.  They were easy to get a good workout.   There are programs to vary the pace and incline as well as tracking heart rates.  For me, I gravitated to stationary bikes.  Besides preferring biking to running, I liked that electronics on these machines were generated by the rider. 
     So, we have come full circle.  All things old are new again.  As folks are looking for more extreme and vigorous workouts, the manual treadmill is gaining popularity.  Perhaps we can hook them up to the electric grid...


  1. In New Salem, IL is a large treadmill built to reproduce mill from this period(1828-38) when town was built(Abe Lincoln
    as young man). Looks like you could put a pair of oxen to drive the mill.

  2. When the Romans found that they need to lift heavier weight, they start incorporated the treadmill with replacing the winch in their cranes. The men used to walk on the wheel itself around a larger diameter, so they were able to lift double the weight with half the crew.

  3. Hmm, wouldn't fancy using a manual treadmill for anything more than a walking exercise, anything faster and i would worry about being flipped off.....this is one example where progress is a good thing in my book.