In 200 years, little about the treadmill has changed. Photograph: RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images/iStockphoto
With the freeze of winter just arriving, many runners are struggling with the icy cold and the darkness. They dig in nonetheless, racking up what miles they can bear in the few hours of light they have. For many, the alternative seems even less attractive.
This year is the bicentenary of the treadmill. I wrote in my book, Footnotes, about its invention in 1817 by William Cubbit and how it came about as a solution to a set of problems raised by the needs of a reformed penal system that wanted to punish prisoners heart and soul without actually killing them. Only through a peculiar twist of fate is it now the mainstay of our cardio fix in the gym.
In the two centuries since its invention, little about the treadmill has changed. But if I ran a fitness empire, I’d want it to be able to do so much more for runners.
In recent years, the discipline of environmental psychology has emerged, seeking to explore and explain the impact that environments have on our wellbeing. It has shown that nature is good for us in innumerable and sometimes surprising ways. Green spaces lower crime rates; having a plant in a patient’s room shortens post-operative recovery times; and looking on to a green space increases workplace productivity and restores our ability to concentrate faster than anything else.
Proximity matters, too. How close we are to green spaces has an impact on their potency, ranging from a “a view” (through a window or a picture) to having immediate access (being on a bench in a park) to being in a green space and interacting with it (gardening, climbing a tree). While emulating nature is not as effective as being in it, many trials show that this still has a substantial impact on our psychological and physiological response systems. So, what can we do to bring some of it back?
The easiest option is to use pictures or videos. On an evolutionary level, we are thought to subconsciously perceive urban environments as more stressful because we cannot see access to traditional sources of food, shelter or water. To decrease stress levels, we certainly don’t want to be looking at the bare walls of a gym. So, why not load up a running video instead? Outside Interactive offers a tablet app that plays Steadicam footage of routes and races from all over the world, and can even sync to the speed of your run. If you want the rewards associated with “green exercise”, choose a “green”route.
But this stimulates only one sense. We need virtual reality to satisfy the others, too. The Outside Interactive run-alongs include natural, ambient sounds, but if you go for a free option (such as an online video), play some natural sounds to trick your brain into relaxing. My dream treadmill would also be whisper-quiet, but it is tough to get the noise levels from a grim-gym experience in tune with a Venice run.
Iya Valley, Japan, in autumn Photograph: Alamy
It’s not all about audio and video, either – we also have to reward the other senses that are occluded when we run indoors. Recent research from Japan focuses on the potency of forest environments, particularly their odour. Plants, as part of their defence, emit substances called phytoncides(it’s why, say, garlic and pine trees have such a distinctive smell). These can lower our blood pressure and stress levelsand may even aid in the prevention of some cancers. So, our ideal treadmill will be loaded up to waft restorative scents at us, too.
If you like to feel your runs, treadmills are horrible to run on barefoot – the rubber belts give you horrendous heat blisters and pin-sharp static shocks. Woodway has replaced the traditional belt with slats that don’t burn, and, if you are concerned about your ecological footprint, they even have one that isn’t motorised – it runs on ball bearings and gravity.
The effects of green spaces on us are so potent and innate that they bypass our feelings. Saying you prefer an urban to a natural run is a bit like your kids claiming they don’t like drinking water: it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, it’s still good for you.
Our bodies are wired in complex, subtle and miraculous ways to be rewarded by outdoor exercise, so we should think more carefully about what we are freely giving up when we step on to the belt indoors. It’s important to remember that the sensual occlusion of the treadmill was never intended to help you with your exercise; it was supposed to break prisoners who had committed heinous crimes.
However, with a bit of virtual reality, we can get surprisingly close to the benefits that outdoor running provides. Adding a few plants in the room, maybe even a bit of wispy grass that occasionally brushes against your legs (haptic feedback from the environment is more immersive), would surely make a near-perfect indoor running experience, particularly when faced with the dark, cold and rainy outdoors – although, if I’m honest, even that sometimes has its charms.