Treadmills have always carried an element of risk—even before the recent developments with Peloton’s Tread and Tread+ models.
Before we get into the recent Peloton recall, let me be very clear:
We should do everything to prevent deaths and injuries—especially to children. Any negligent manufacturer should bear responsibility for products that injure people and work to ensure all products are as safe as possible.
With that said, I’m not certain the current backlash against Peloton treadmills is totally warranted.
A Short History of Treadmill Injuries
I’ve worked in a gym with a fleet of treadmills, and I can tell you that incidents on treadmills of all kinds—and step mills—are not particularly rare. Any gym employee or owner can verify my statement.
With treadmills, you have all sorts of stumbles, falls and injuries—24,400 in 2014, according to the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission also reported 30 treadmill-related deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s about three per year. From 2018 to 2020, the number is 17 deaths, according to the same agency.
Think about the physics for a moment: A person is ambulating atop a motor-driven belt that can go very fast—faster than many people can run.
Worse, treadmills are fascinating and tend to tempt people to do silly things. Proof: This clever video from the band OK Go.
Conveyor belts and moving sidewalks have been fuel for cartoon escapades for generations, and there’s a reason treadmills are generally equipped with kill switches or safety keys that stop the machine when a user trips—if the key used properly, which is rare. And there’s also a reason treadmills have warnings to ensure children and pets are not at risk during use.
It’s clear that treadmills are not 100 percent safe.
If you don’t believe me, Google “treadmill fails” and you will find a huge number of videos. Some are funny, and others are sickening. Many feature behavior you might call “irresponsible” if not “stupid.” Few show people using the devices with safety features engaged or in the manner recommended by manufacturers.
Risk is clearly involved, but it is relatively low when treadmills are used correctly. For my part, I believe the dangers of inactivity—heart disease, obesity-related afflictions—outweigh the risks of activity.
Peloton Treadmills: Are Injuries Preventable?
With Peloton, there’s an issue with the large screens loosening or falling off one model of treadmill. That’s a problem for sure.
But when it comes to other injuries, I’m not sure the manufacturer is totally at fault or that the injuries would not have occurred with a different product design.
In the two most famous videos that are always shown in news reports, a ball of some sort is involved in both.
This video shows an exercise ball getting sucked under a treadmill and bucking the user off. Luckily, there were no injuries. The video footage seems to suggest the safety key was not being used:
I’m thrilled that the user, the unattended pet and the unsupervised child are OK, and I’d suggest that the hybrid gym/romper room would benefit from a layout adjustment that allows treadmill users to monitor kids and pets—especially kids and pets near exercise balls. You’ll also note the doll house and trampoline are very close to the back of the treadmill. I’d relocate both.
This very disturbing video shows another ball being sucked under a treadmill, this time taking a child with it. This is tragic. It’s clear that parental supervision was absent, and the room is cluttered with a host of other toys that could have been sucked under the treadmill. Thankfully, the young one escaped and walked away.
Be warned: This one is tough to watch.
YouTube: Lessons From the Past
But before we blame Peloton, it should be recalled that the treadmill-ball combination is a known hazard, and it’s even been a source of entertainment for some.
I’ve long considered exercise balls the most dangerous objects in any gym, and if you combine treadmills and balls, bad things will happen—to property, people or both.
Dangerous ball-treadmill incidents are not unique to Peloton, and I’d suggest the height of the treadmill deck and the slat construction some have criticized have little to do with the current issues.
Check it out: This 2015 video shows a standard belted treadmill that’s very low to the ground. It’s being used by children who should not be allowed to use it.
This video shows a disaster waiting to happen, in my opinion, and thankfully no one was hurt.
This is dumb and dangerous.
This appears to be a science project gone wrong.
Here’s a ridiculous consumer report video that suggests it’s the slats in the Peloton treadmill that cause the danger.
The reviewer actually says “the slat-belt design kind of sucks things up underneath. … We didn’t even really know what was going to happen.”
Really? A treadmill expert had no idea that a high-speed belt would have a dramatic effect on an object? These two backyard scientists weren’t surprised at all:
I’m not making light of the situation, just showing that many members of the general public are very aware that things can be sucked under a treadmill—whether its belt has slats or not.
One child has reportedly been killed in an incident with a Peloton treadmill. This is incredibly sad. We’ve been given few details, but I’d have to guess the child was pulled underneath the machine. I can’t imagine what the family is going through, and I wish the death hadn’t happened.
But I’m not sure treadmill height or construction has much to do with recent incidents. An object of any size that is inserted between an immobile surface and a sticky high-speed belt will either be sucked under or very badly burned. The height or construction of the belt doesn’t really change that. This is not my opinion. It’s physics, and it applies whether the object is a ball, a person or something else.
Peloton needs to fix its screens—that’s certain. And the company will likely do something to try to prevent injuries related to other issues. But my guess is that the recent injuries are part of a perfect pandemic storm: Many people are using home fitness equipment with a coach and without following the manufacturer’s instructions, and they’re using it while trying to care for children who can’t go to daycare or school because of lockdowns. And some aren’t using the safety features.
Remember, I’m all about safety here, not defending Peloton. I’m just not sure design changes can prevent injuries. For example, any sort of guard on the back of the treadmill could seriously injure users who fall and get shot off the back—which is not rare.
You Can Prevent Injuries
To help prevent more tragedies, I’ll offer some common sense acquired over 14 years as a gym employee or owner, and my advice applies to every single model of treadmill in existence.
This simple advice can save lives and prevent needless injuries. It applies to every single model of treadmill.
- Use treadmills with great caution and only according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Use all safety features—including the safety keys that attach to clothing (almost no one does this).
- Ensure all children and pets are in a safe area and cannot ever make contact with any part of the machine while it’s in use.
- Ensure that all objects—especially balls of any kind—are clear of the treadmill and cannot roll underneath without warning.
- Do not allow young athletes to use treadmills without close adult supervision.
- Do not ever allow children to play on a treadmill or turn it on.
- Set up your treadmill so a misstep will not shoot you into a wall or trap you between a wall and the belt.
In short, treat the treadmill like a blender or lawn mower: a useful tool that’s very safe when used properly and kept out of the reach of children and pets.
Treadmills can help you get fit. But they’re not without risk. That was true before Peloton’s products were on the market.
Please take all steps to keep yourself, your clients, your family and your pets safe when exercising at home. If you have a treadmill, the best thing you can do is ensure children, pets and objects never have a chance to get pulled underneath.