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Treadmill made exercise — and insularity — easier

William Staub, an engineer who brought to American gyms and households the exercise treadmill, subsequently cutting the amount of usable floor space in thousands of guest rooms and garages across the country, died at his home in Clifton, N.J., last week. He was 96, and his son said he was treadmill devotee until the end.

Mr. Staub, the story goes, had read a book called Aerobics in 1968 that promoted the health benefits of daily exercise. The book mentioned a treadmill, which at the time was a costly device and typically available only in doctors' offices. Mr. Staub developed a low-cost version, the PaceMaster.

By that point, America had abandoned walking altogether. Six million years of bipedal human locomotion had come to an end in a cul de sac surrounded by two-car garages.

This was the adolescence of the sit-down culture, the new television in the new house in the new car-centric subdivision, the drive-in and drive-thru, the golf cart and riding lawn mower.

Cities, and suburbs especially, had taken on a more open design, with wider streets and vast parking lots and timed traffic lights meant to move motorists quickly, and the pedestrian was left clinging to the edge of this dangerous new world.

And our view of the walker changed. What was commonplace became eccentric. If you walked, it meant you didn't have means to ride.

"If you want to be snickered at by the neighbors and snubbed by the PTA, just go out and take a walk," wrote Jeanne O'Neill in The American Home. "Or try to. Actually, you won't get very far. Somebody you know, or somebody you don't, will drive up and insist upon giving you a ride."

Into this world came Mr. Staub's treadmill, permitting the miracle of walking without walking somewhere. His product perfectly suited a society that seemed content to satisfy all its needs in the air-conditioned indoors.

Walking could be a private endeavor with a twist of the blinds. The action was what was important, not the environment, not the chance community encounters and opportunities for natural observation. Walking, heretofore a philosophical activity that inspired the greatest minds, had become a bare form of exercise, a way to stay fit.

And if the angle was right, you could even watch the television.

Hopeful spouses bought them for Christmas and adult children bought them for aging parents. See, you can walk miles without ever leaving the house!

The problem with the treadmill was, of course, the very thing that made it seem appealing: It was a stationary, soulless, solitary device, a human hamster wheel, a symbol of the suburbs.

So it wound up under the bed or behind the couch, waiting for the next garage sale or until the cousins came over at Thanksgiving and launched each other into the wall. Some sat unused for years, so long they disappeared into their surroundings, where they still hide.

We still use them, of course, especially at gyms, where banks of treadmills are fitted with flat-screen televisions, monitors measure heart rates and the push of a button can give us a steep incline. We walk through the hills and valleys without ever seeing the hills and valleys. If we can find a parking space, we can walk blissfully to nowhere.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

COMING SUNDAY: What happens if you give up your car for a week? Read Ben Montgomery's experiment in ambulatory living in Floridian.

Treadmill made exercise — and insularity — easier 07/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 11:43pm]

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