Treadmills are miserable machines. There's no scenery, fresh air, and time just crawls on them. But where there’s misery, there’s money to be made, and app designers and treadmill manufacturers are on it. Search the iTunes store for "treadmill apps" and you’ll find everything from motivation via zombie apocalypse, to famed Olympic runner Jeff Galloway speaking gentle encouragements in your ear.
It turns out there’s a scientific reason why our brains loathe the treadmill. "Your brain is an extremely energy dependent organ," explains Art Markman, PhD, an University of Texas psychology professor. Markman studies goals and motivations, and is the author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create New and Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others."Your brain is three percent of your bodyweight yet it uses 20-25 percent of your energy supply. Because it’s so expensive to operate, it always wants to be doing something," he says.
But the treadmill is its own special kind of hell because it doesn’t quite let your brain wander at will. "It takes just slightly too much vigilance to stay on it, so you can’t disengage from your environment," says Markman, Which is why binging on Game of Thrones doesn’t help with the distraction factor. You can’t fully focus on the plot without worrying about cartwheeling headfirst into the treadmill beside you.
Run to the Beat of an App
This, however, is why apps and tech-integrated treadmills are so ideal. Take for example, Beat Burn, a treadmill app that manipulates the speed of your playlist to match the intervals in your workout. Listening to music doesn’t take the same kind of focus as watching a drama. "It’s the combo of music and coaching that keeps you motivated," says Chris Klug, who designed many of the workouts in the app. "And it’s constantly changing, so you don’t have to think about getting through 90 minutes. There’s a change about every minute and a half."
Research supports Beat Burn's efficacy. A 2006 paper published in the journal Ergonomics found that study participants ran faster when listening to loud, fast music. While that’s not all that surprising, the participants didn’t notice any difference in perceived effort between running quickly to music and running more slowly without music.
Of course, music won’t make that rat in a cage feeling go away. It’s hard not to spend your treadmill time ruminating on when life got so sedentary that jogging in place somehow become necessary to keep from permanently melding with your office chair. For this distinct feeling of misery, there’s, as the industry calls it, exergaming.
Kai Huang, the co-founder of Guitar Hero, thinks exergaming is the cure to the American epidemic of treadmills being used as clothing racks. He’s created the Goji Play, a system that turns any stationary cardio equipment into an interactive game console. For $99, users get two wireless controllers, an activity tracker, and software to download onto their Android and Apple tablets and phones. With the software, users can zoom through a snowboarding course, pedal through rush hour traffic, or compete in a jet-ski race.
Zombies, Run! which motivates with the threat of undead stalkers, is another popular exergaming app. Through a long and winding narrative, you’re pushed to run faster as the zombies gain ground. It’s aimed at outdoor runners, but can be adapted for a treadmill.
Run Around the World
But gaming isn't the answer for all runners. Bit Gym, a popular fitness app developer, entered into the app market with an exergaming racecar offering, but has since pulled it. "We found it wasn’t what our users really wanted," says Jean-Michel Fournier, CEO of the company. Fournier is a longtime mountain biker and the former VP of technology at UnitedHealthcare. However, Bit Gym's research found that compared to a passive treadmill activity, like watching TV, treadmill runners engaged in an app or program worked 37 percent harder. Maybe more important, two-thirds of the subject said their workouts went faster, and afterward, that they felt fulfilled.
"Watching TV during your workout creates a disconnect between your mind and your body, says Fournier. "This disconnection impacts your intensity and makes you burn fewer calories."
Now, Bit Gym offers "destination tours" in 70 different locations. You can run through the streets of Chicago, jog past bikini-clad women on the beaches of Sydney, or explore trails in the Swiss Alps. "Everything is filmed from the athlete’s point of view, and using interactive technology, the video goes as you go," explains Fournier. Bit Gym uses the camera on your smart phone or tablet to analyze how fast you’re moving. If you slow to a walk, the video slows to reflect your change in pace. If you embark on speed work, the video progresses more rapidly. With a program like Bit Gym, you never forget you’re working out, but you have something to look at besides the wall in front of you.
Apps Enter the Treadmill
These types of programs are so effective, that treadmill companies are looking to integrate the technology. "An interactive experience — integrating what I’m seeing with my eyes and what my body is doing — reliably creates engagement," says Mark Watterson, director of iFit at ICON Health & Fitness, which manufacturers integrated digital displays for the major treadmill brands.
On an iFit-equipped treadmill you can use Google Maps to run rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon or explore the streets of Paris — with the exact elevation changes each course would entail. iFit treadmills can also give progressive training plans and allow you to race friends on the same Google Maps-created course. "By adding in features like this we’ve found users are a lot more likely to continue using their treadmill," Watterson adds.
So even if treadmill users aren't actually going anywhere, we might grind out more miles, more consistently now that tech companies have figured out how to help us forget we're sweating down a road to nowhere — we might even start to enjoy it.