William Staub: He Gave Us a Run (Indoors) for Our Money

Even if you’re a dedicated walker or runner, there are days when the weather is way too yucky to go out. Or maybe you just want to catch the nightly news instead of going for a run.

Fortunately, thanks to the indoor treadmill, you can get a vigorous aerobic workout without giving up either air-conditioned comfort or your TV show of choice – and, most amazing of all, without covering any actual ground at all. For that, we owe a debt of thanks to the man who turned us into hamsters in spandex and fancy shoes, an efficiency-minded aerospace engineer named William Staub.

See also: Walking Help’s Parkinson’s

Staub, who died July 19 at age 96 in Clifton, N.J., didn’t actually originate the idea of running or walking on a moving conveyor belt. According to the 1911 edition of The New International Encyclopedia, the first such devices were installed in British prisons in the 1800s, as a way of compelling prisoners to use their muscle power to grind grain or pump water. (And you thought the hill program on your treadmill was tough.) In the 1950s, exercise physiology researchers adapted the concept to use in laboratories where they studied the effect of running on fitness.

But it was Staub who commercialized the concept, developing the first practical treadmill for everyday use in the late 1960s. He was moved to do so after reading Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s jogging manifesto Aerobics,  which preached that cardiovascular fitness could be attained by running an eight-minute mile four to five times a week. Staub figured that since getting in shape required such a minimal time investment, everybody should do it, and he wanted to eliminate whatever excuses – bad weather, a lack of sidewalks, the angry neighborhood dog ready to give chase – that would keep them from it. With Cooper’s blessing, he developed a simple device with 40 steel rollers covered by an orange belt, with dials that enabled the user to adjust the time and speed.

Staub’s invention became wildly popular, to the extent that $870 million worth of the devices were sold in 2009. And besides exercising, people have found other creative uses for Staub’s invention, as this music video by the band OK Go illustrates.

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