The History Behind the Tortuous Treadmill

Have you ever wondered why running on the treadmill feels like torture? Why exercising on a treadmill makes minutes feel like hours? 

The story begins nearly 4,000 years ago. Animal powered (and often times human powered) treadmills were used to lift pails of water and later were used to grind grain, hence the term mill. However, William Cubitt, the son of a miller saw an opportunity to exploit the free labor at the prisons and also realized the potential for the treadmill to be used as punishment to deter others from committing crimes. His treadmill required several prisoners who stood side-by-side on a wheel to continuously walk upwards in a monotonous and steady fashion.  Prisoners often had to work six or more hours a day. In 1824, prison guard "James Hardie wrote that it was the treadmill’s 'monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.'" In later years, the treadmill in prisons stopped milling products and the device was used solely for torture. 

courtesy of wikipedia

courtesy of wikipedia

It wasn't until the early 1900s that the wealthy elite, with the time and money to spare, transformed the device into a version more recognizable to the current-day treadmill, but it wasn't until the late 1960s, that treadmills became available for purchase in the home. And yet, while the current day treadmill looks vastly different from the photo above, it still elicits the same feelings of monotony and torture.

But Exercise Is Boring...

Despite recent efforts by physicians, the public, the media, and the Flotus calling for an increase in physical activity, obesity rates are still rising. According to the CDC, nearly two-thirds of adults and one third of children and adolescents in America are overweight or obese and 28% (and rising) of Americans are sedentary, as stated by PHIT America, a movement for a fit and healthy America. Why is it that despite a growing awareness calling for Americans to get moving, are we still experiencing these climbing figures?

One answer to these figures is that exercise is boring, tedious, monotonous, dull, unimaginative, repetitive, uneventful and simply not fun. Most could go all day describing how much they loathe to exercise. And that is the problem. Of course, people want to get healthy, but finding the right motivation is key! Current workout routines, gyms, even exercise classes fall short in motivating Americans to get moving. Repetitive movements without an immediate end-goal are often not enough to continually push people to move. This results in gym memberships going unused and exercise devices becoming closet extensions.  

Those that still have the desire to get fit are left searching for the little tricks and cheats to make exercise fun, or at the very least to make it less boring. Countless articles exist offering tips to improve exercise including listening to podcasts or music, walking to the grocery store as an alternative, or as one astronaut was able to do, run on a treadmill for one orbit on the International Space Station.  

Exercise is boring.png

One place to search for exercise tips and support is Reddit (/r/Fitness/, /r/loseit), an online forum, where registered community members can submit fitness, exercise, and weight loss related content including posts, tips, and questions.

For example,  Reddit users provided these tips to the fitness and weight loss communities to distract or trick people into exercising,

"If you're like me, you probably hate the idea of running. Yeah, it's boring and tiring and all you're doing is slogging along hoping to burn some calories. I used to run the loop around my neighborhood but wouldn't get very far, since it was so easy for me to just stop and walk home.  I'm able to now run up to 10 miles on any given day, and I forced myself to do this with one simple trick:Let's say your goal is 3 miles. Design yourself a route...that is 1.5 miles directly away from your starting point with no easy loop back. This way when you run that 1.5 miles you have to run (or walk) the 1.5 back." -ZeppelinJo
"I'm really into music so I like to save an album or try and treat myself with them. Make myself not listen to them until it is cardio time. It is the only way I can make myself look forward to getting on the treadmill." -tatortodd

While well-meaning in their intentions, these provide little help other than to provide distraction from exercise. The workouts themselves are still monotonous and repetitive. Redditor arcadiajohnson asks the million dollar question, "How do you keep yourself engaged while working out? Is there any secret workout that I should get on that turns monotonous movements into a fun game?"

Redditors were quick to give advice. Get Creative and Play! Find a body moving, heart pounding activity that you actually like to do! Think outside of the box and get moving. 

"Get creative and try an exercise that's outside the box. Join an amateur sports team. Go rock-climbing. Take a dance class."  -amgov
"I'm a video game dork, and back in college I worked an arcade. Went from 200 to 145 playing DDR. Now that I'm a grown-up (and back at 225...), I bought my own DDR machine from an arcade that was closing, and put it in my basementA little extreme, but it's all about finding something you enjoy and embracing it." -ebooksgirl
"I play pick-up basketball instead at the gym. Not only is the act of traditional cardio boring, the people that do cardio are equally as boring. No offense to anyone that stays on an elliptical for hours. I did a cardio routine for about a month and in that month, not a single person talked to each other." -DemoFly

The point is, don't pick activities that are purely exercise if you hate those activities. Choose activities that you like to do, that are fun and keep your body and mind occupied. We all know that staying fit and active is not as easy as we'd like it to be, but it is time to finally change the way we think about exercise. By all means, getting daily recommended dose of exercise does not have to mean hours on the treadmill or on the elliptical, so find ways to incorporate movement without it feeling like exercise; play exergames, play sports, or play SymGym!

TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 

This past May, SymGym exhibited at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2015 is TechCrunch's sixth annual conference in New York City. The format combines top though-leader discussions with new product and company launches. Morning executive discussions debate technology-driven disruptions in many industries, while the afternoons were reserved for the Startup Battlefield, where some 30 new companies launched for the first time onstage, selected to present from numerous applications received from around the world. Hardware Alley, the hardware portion of Disrupt, is a celebration of hardware startups and other cool gear makers featuring everything from robotic drones to 3D printers to SymGym! 

Click here to Watch John Biggs and Mike Butcher present a selection of pitches from some Startup Alley companies, followed by a little commentary.

Rainy Day Activities to Keep You Moving

If you live in Chicago like me, or really anywhere that is not California, chances are you see a lot of rainy days.  You might use this as an excuse to stay indoors, park yourself on the couch and watch TV. And believe me, that is what I would really love to do, but in a vow to at least maintain my weight, I shall remain off of the couch and get moving. Here are few things that I like to do (with things I already have at my house) to get moving when I don't want to step outside. 

BBC's Dr. Who

BBC's Dr. Who


Lift weights or dumbbells

A general 30-minute strength training sessions burns an average of 90-140 calories based on body weight. However, not all of us (certainly not me) are the type to have weights or dumbbells around. Instead, use two sacks of flour or sugar (see, sugar can be good for you), but remember to secure them in giant freezer bags or you can move on to the next heart racing, muscle burning activity in this list.

Clean the house

Men and women spend on average 4.5 hours a day watching TV. Use this time instead to mop your flour caked floor. 15 minutes of mopping burns nearly 45 calories and light cleaning including dusting, straightening up and vacuuming can burn anywhere from 102 to 170 calories. Not only will your body reap the rewards of your exercise routine, but your house will sparkle. 

Have a dance party

Grab whomever is around and get moving or dance by yourself. For me, there are certain songs that I almost feel obligated to move to, like Madonna's “Like a Prayer" or practically any Mika song ("Love, today", anyone?). Dancing burns about 450 calories an hour and with any song at your disposal , there is little excuse to not get up and dance.  You can also combine your dance party with cleaning the house like the guy below. 



Play video games

Relax, you just cleaned your entire house. Or maybe you don't like cleaning as much as I apparently do. Instead, why don’t you play some video games? But hold on, don’t  just play any video games; keep moving by exergaming, a term used for video games that is also a form of exercise. There are plenty of options available now to keep you entertained and moving (like SymGym, duh!). Depending on the type of exergame, you can burn 200+ calories. Studies have shown that "activity promoting video games (such as SymGym) have the potential to increase energy expenditure to that of traditional playtime". And unlike more traditional exergames, SymGym's resistance based training can also be used to increase muscle strength and endurance, help to maintain a healthy weight, promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and build a sense of balance, control, and body awareness. 

So whatever you choose, don't let the rain keep you down, keep moving!

Play vs. Exercise

As kids, we exercised all the time. We ran, jumped, crawled, lifted, and threw stuff. But we didn't call it that. We never begged our mom, "can I go out and exercise?".

We played.

At some point in time, organized activities, "sports", seem to take over play. And sooner or later, we found ourselves needing "exercise" to stay fit.

         Exercise - "Activity that requires physical or mental exertion...performed to develop or maintain fitness"

No mention of any kind of fun in there.

          Play - "To occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or recreation."

Our need for play as recreation is still there, just look at the $10.5B worldwide game industry. But it is lacking in physicality. What makes exercise different from play?

Play is social.

Exercise for fitness can be a pretty solitary activity; even in crowded gyms, the vast majority of people are on the treadmill or elliptical, with their earbuds in listening to music. Spin classes, and the like, try to bring some sort of socialization to sitting on a stationary bike, but there's none of the social interaction of even a simple game of tag.

Play is interactive.

Treadmills, stationary bikes, ellipticals, and weight machines all have one thing in common; all expect you to perform the same repetitive motions in the same sequence until you quit or get fit. With each, there is little variance or any kind of interactive nature. In a simple game of tag, when you're "it" and chasing after your friend, constant changes in direction and speed force you to adapt and interact. This continual interaction keeps the game interesting and prevents it from becoming the drudgery that is the treadmill.

Play is adventurous.

We like new challenges, surprises, and plot twists. Look at how popular "adventure" and puzzle solving games are. These concepts are the antithesis of current exercise devices, which advertise "the most workout in the least amount of time", admitting that time spent on them is going to be tedious.

Play is fun.

One of the characteristics of "fun" experiences is famous Psychology Professor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's, (pronounced "chicks sent me, hi" according to him) concept of "flow" in which our senses and mind are in a state of complete absorption with the current activity. Modern video games are masters at getting players into the "flow", and players happily spend large amounts of time and money for the experience.

And then they get on a treadmill to exercise.

We're not trying to make exercise fun. There are many who have attempted that. Whether it's adding a TV screen to try to distract you from the treadmill or pretending your stationary bike is in the Tour de France, attempts to make traditional exercise devices less tedious have a long history.

What we're doing is taking play--the interactivity, the adventure, the FUN, and adding the, until now, missing physical component to give you a workout.

Please join us. We'd love to hear your comments, suggestions, and game ideas. Email us at Join our mailing list for updates and/or follow us on Twitter, @sym_gym.