A few years ago, my kids had a hamster named Little Ostertag.
One of his tricks was dunking Planters Cheez Balls down a long clear tube in his hamster cage. At the time, Greg Ostertag, the 7-foot-2 NBA center, was dunking regularly for Kansas University. So the name stuck.
But what I remember most about Little O was how he liked his treadmill.
He'd get in his little circular cage and run and run, make it twirl around for what seemed like forever.
I was thinking about Little O during the past month as I weighed the pros and cons of getting a treadmill to use during the cold winter months.
Would I really use it? Or would I get bored after a while and abandon it?
Even Little O got weary of his spinning wheel. He eventually gnawed his way out of his plastic tube prison to freedom before eventually getting lost in our heating ducts at least that's what we guessed from the smell a few days later.
Treading into the Web
I skeptically checked out a few treadmills last week, just to see if they would hold my interest for more than a few cold days of the year.
That's when I found out that treadmills have come a long way since they were used in prisons for punishment.
Most are motorized.
Many keep track of the calories you burn, tell you how fast you're going, how far you've gone and how long you've been on the machine.
Some even have a little oval track on their lighted displays that shows your position on a virtual quarter-mile track.
Several also have hand grips that measure your heart rate which seems much less intrusive than the models with devices that allow you to clip a heart monitoring device on your ear or strap one to your chest as you run.
But what caught my attention was when I learned about how one company is tying its products to the Internet.
You can hop on your treadmill, log on to a Web site and go through interactive workouts or even race online.
The company making this happen is iFIT.com (www.ifit.com). It bills itself as "the world's first truly interactive, comprehensive, personalized Web site for total fitness."
All you need is one of several treadmills that are iFit.com compatible, such as the NordicTrack EXP3000, the HealthRider S300i or the ProForm 835QT. NordicTrack, HealthRider and ProForm are all owned by Icon Health Fitness, which set up the iFIT.com Web site.
Like to compete?
Using the technology on iFIT.com, you can soon theoretically organize a race, treadmill vs. treadmill, with someone halfway around the world.
You can pick a virtual course and watch where you and the other racers are on the course on the Web site.
The iFIT.com site, which is set up only for Internet Explorer Web browsers, also offers live, one-on-one training. The workouts are "streamed" from the Web site, like a live broadcast, to your treadmill, feeding it special cues that make it speed up, slow down or change incline.
If you set up your own Web cam, have headphones and a microphone, you can log on to iFIT.com's personal trainer site and go through a live interactive workout with certified personal trainers.
But there's a catch.
Most of the true, real-time interactive activities will require you to buy a special box that feeds the data from your treadmill back over the Internet into the iFit.com database. The Web site says those boxes are expected to be available in February.
In the meantime, iFIT.com has CDs and videos you can buy that actually control the speed and incline on your machine as you listen to music or watch your program on a video course.
You just plug your CD player or VCR into the audio port on the iFIT.com-compatible treadmill and take off.
Special digital cues are built into the music CDs or in the audio track of the video and send signals to your treadmill to run you through a workout.
You get to see video of walking through dozens of exotic locations and get a real feel for the inclines or the downslopes.
"You can walk through the Grand Canyon or run in Hawaii," said Eric Rauscher, sporting goods coordinator at the Sears store in Lawrence, which sells several models of iFIT.com-compatible treadmills.
He said most people who are interested in models that are iFIT.com-compatible are age 35 and younger. The iFIT.com-compatible models generally cost more than $600.
According to Rauscher, a lot of people turn to treadmills as the temperatures drop below freezing.
"January is our big month. It's cold. People don't want to go outside," Rauscher said. "We have sold over a hundred treadmills this month. There are a lot of people who need to get in shape. Their doctors have told them they need to do something."
As I tried out a treadmill last week, it seemed like it might be the way to go for the winter months. I felt a little unsteady at first, then it became easier.
As I ran, I thought again about Little O. Suddenly, I wanted some Planters Cheez Balls.