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What’s worse than hitting STOP on a moving treadmill?

Years ago, when I was a graduate student doing time in the exercise science laboratory in the depths of the Smith Center at George Washington University, I committed a mistake that nearly turned disastrous.

My lab partner and I were learning how to operate the treadmill in accordance with an exercise stress test protocol. The test started with the treadmill at low speed, shallow incline and low physical demand and progressed gradually by steps to higher speeds, steeper inclines and maximum physical challenge. The test was finished when the participant asked to stop or until they could no longer keep up the pace. The highest level reached provided a measure of their maximal exercise capacity.

On this day, my brave lab partner chose to take the first turn on the treadmill while I, full of A student confidence, deftly operated the treadmill controls. She began walking very slowly on the level belt while I got the hang of adjusting speed and incline at regular intervals. Up she went in speed and incline, easily managing the changes in pace. After several minutes, she, being quite fit, had progressed to very high levels on the test, running at top speed at a steep incline, breathing heavily at a rapid heart rate. She was sweating and near exhaustion when she finally signaled she was ready to stop the test.

Seeing her signal, I did what was natural. Yep, I hit the STOP button. Do you know what happens when you hit the stop button on a treadmill when someone is running at full speed?

For some reason, this event has come alive in my mind in these days when the whole world has lurched to a sudden stop. The corona virus hit the stop button on the treadmill where the very fortunate were mid-run at a steep incline, and all the world has been launched into a free fall.

Now, in my days as a graduate student I was of course not alone in the exercise lab while performing this stress test. Rather, I was doing all this under the watchful eye of my exercise science professor, Dr Paup. He, reacting quickly to what he saw I was about to do, shouted, “Don’t stop the treadmill!” Hearing him and in sudden recognition of what I had just done, I did exactly what one should never do next… Yep, in reflex response, I hit the start button.

Fortunately for me, my lab partner was not only fit but also nimble. Somehow by throwing out her hands for balance, grabbing the handrails and lifting her weight from her now hopelessly entangled running sneakers, she escaped disaster and emerged from my total incompetence completely uninjured.

To this day, I have extra respect and harbor even a bit of trepidation with regard to the OFF button on a treadmill. Please, I beg you, press it only in an emergency and preferably not while someone is running. Isaac Newton was right when he told us that a thing in motion tends to remain in motion.

But please, and in fact this precaution is veritably screaming at me to announce in these days, if one makes the unfortunate mistake of hitting the STOP, which one may do when one is young and this experience is new, do not risk further injury by hitting the START to bring things back up to speed. While treadmills are designed to power down with a bit of grace, they don’t have a safety guard against the reflexive stupidity we are prone to when we go to correct our first error by committing another.

This stoppage time, unwelcome to us all, but especially to those who were just hitting their stride, has given us a marvelous opportunity to power down and assess the reasoning behind our activities and the potential recklessness of our protocols. Surely, it will be tempting and even reflexive to mash the start button to correct our error, but it’s better we didn’t.

What if, in this moment of profound pause and redemptive grace, we took stock of the value that’s been displayed so glowingly before us and decided to honor it by acknowledging its worth? How might that change our protocols?

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