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There are days when we freely step into a HIIT treadmill workout, and it can feel like a prison sentence. A medieval punishment from treadmill lore. Or perhaps these elevated heart rates, tired legs, and gasping breaths are just that?

Treadmills for prisoners

English engineer Sir William Cubitt introduced Cape Town punishment treadmills in 1818. A miller’s son, Cubitt noticed prisoners in Bury St Edmunds Prison standing around with no purpose. And he promptly suggested using their innate muscle power to cure their idleness with some high-intensity interval training masquerading as agricultural work.

Until the second half of the 19th century, punishment conveyors remained in operation; they were typically two-meter-long paddle wheels with 24 steps around a six-foot-long cylinder. Several prisoners stood side by side on a wheel and had to work six or more hours a day.

Although the purpose was mainly punitive, the most notorious mill was installed at Brixton Prison in 1821 and used to grind grain to complement an existing windmill that Cubitt had previously installed nearby. It became famous for the cruelty with which it was used, becoming a favorite satirical metaphor for prisoners of the early 19th century.

Like William Cubitt, people out there are trying to turn the treadmill into a productive tool.

New importance for HIIT treadmill workouts

If you see a treadmill as a form of punishment, you are not alone. Typically, the prisoners would burn more than 2,000 calories. The exertion, combined with inadequate nutrition and rock-hard mud, often resulted in injuries and disease, but that did not stop jails throughout the United Kingdom and the United States from buying the machines.

Prisoners sentenced to forced labor climbed onto a 24-paddle pedal bike. The inmates moved the 24 spokes of the large paddle wheel like they were climbing a modern StairMaster. Powering the machine with continuous effort.

As the spokes spun, the gears pumped water or crushed grain, hence the name treadmill. One of the most extended ‘treadmill workouts’ was Warwick Jail, where the prisoners climbed a total of 17,000 meters in 10 hours – the equivalent of climbing the Empire State Building 13 times.

In an 1824 journal, prison guard James Hardy credited the device with the taming of New York’s more incorrigible repeat offenders as the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness and not its severity [that] constitutes its terror.”

As the years went by, American prisons gradually stopped using these early treadmills in favor of other menial physical tasks, such as picking cotton, breaking rocks, or cleaning the roadside. While in England, the treadmill was used until the late 19th century, when it was abandoned for being too cruel.

Today, thanks to some innovative solutions to heart disease and an increase in overall fitness, well-paid personal trainers have happily replaced prison wardens.

Redesigned for better heart rates

And when Dr. Kenneth Cooper demonstrated the health benefits of aerobic exercise in the 1960s, the treadmill made a triumphant return.

As an Army and Air Force physician in the 1960s, Cooper famously used treadmills to measure oxygen consumption and endurance in test pilots and candidates for the space program.

“The treadmill became a way to determine whether somebody is sick or is going to get sick.” Cooper’s early work in detecting heart disease led to a more significant career boost when he met William Staub. Staub created a home fitness machine called the PaceMaster 600.

“He was the pioneer for the use of the treadmill in the home,” Cooper told the New York Times.

In 2017, sales of home treadmills reached $999.8 million; sales of gyms were $348.9 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. The new HIIT treadmill workout is a far cry from prison time.

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