There’s a lot of evidence regarding the dangers of sitting for too long without adding movement like an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, back pain, obesity, and cancer. When most people think of not sitting all day, they assume they must be standing, but there are other options, such as walking at a slow speed using a treadmill desk.
The originator of the “sitting is the new smoking” movement is Dr. James Levine. He is a physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic who was one of the first to create a treadmill desk.
He devised an experiment that included putting all participants on a 1,000-calorie diet and tracking their weight loss. He found that some lost weight and others didn’t. Theorizing that the amount of activity participants did was influencing whether they lost weight or not, he had the participants wear “magic underwear” that measured how much activity the participants did. What he found was significant: those who moved more were the ones who lost weight.
How Treadmill Desks Work
Treadmill desks don’t involve you running and sweating all day while trying to work. The recommended speed is 2 mph so you don’t work up a sweat. And at this speed you can do almost all activities without much problem. As far as total time walking throughout the day, walk for a half-hour at a time, up to 3 hours per day. The rest of the time you’ll be sitting at a separate desk, or if there’s a large desktop, next to your treadmill.
Dr. Levine does recommend doing some tasks that are more complicated or require more creativity sitting down.
And you don’t have to walk all day. Most experts recommend that you walk until you get a little tired, and then you can go back to sitting or standing at your desk.
Mat Honan, writer at Wired, wrote and entertaining article about his month using a Lifespan treadmill desk. He lost 3 pounds, generally felt better at the end of each workday, and said that for activities that required more attention, he had to sit down.
It’s a good idea to wear clothes and shoes that you can comfortably walk in for up to a few hours per day.
Benefits of Using a Treadmill Desk
Besides reducing your risk of many common health problems, treadmill desk users often report weight loss after they start walking during work, as well as higher energy levels and increased productivity. Some even see a reduction in their back pain.
In a story by NPR, the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Salo took part in a Mayo clinic study headed by Dr. Levine. The company has 12 treadmill desks, and encourages its employees to be more active throughout their day (including walking meetings, pingpong, tennis, and squash). The small study, which included only 18 participants, was to see what happened to employees started using treadmill desks. For 6 months, employees rotated on and off the desks, walking an average of 3 hours per day.
Craig Dexheimer, Salo’s director of operations and administration explains the results, “Total cholesterol decreased, plasma triglycerides dropped on average 37 percent in total for all 18 participants.”
“We didn’t even go to a gym. We just went to work!”
Dexheimer lost 25 pounds since he started using them.
Regarding productivity, Dexheimer said that during the six months of the study, Salo’s revenues were the highest ever. He describes the atmosphere in the office as “more dynamic.”
For those that suffer from an afternoon slump, a treadmill desk could be a great way to keep energy levels up throughout the day.
In a study published by the American Psychological Association, employee use of walking treadmills showed higher satisfaction and arousal, less boredom, and less stress than those who were sedentary. The study also showed reduced satisfaction and performance when participants were using stationary bike desks.
For those who like to count their steps, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends that people walk a minimum of 10,000 steps or 5 miles per day to promote a healthy lifestyle. With a treadmill desk, you can get that in the time recommended by Dr. Levine, about 3 hours.
Danny Sullivan, writer at Cnet, said he walks around 15,000 to 25,000 steps per day in a 4 to 7 hour period, which he estimates to be around 500 to 1,000 calories. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that people walk a minimum of 10,000 steps or 5 miles per day to promote a healthy lifestyle. With a treadmill, you can easily achieve that.
This is great news for people that suffer from “the new poverty,” lack of time. You exercise while you’re at work. Dr. Levine says that some people end up walking a half marathon while they’re at work!
And the research shows that people that are sedentary for 8 or more hours per day at work, then exercise for an hour or two after they leave work, are not necessarily healthy.
Gavin Bradley, the director of Active Working, a group whose focus is to reduce the amount of time people spend sedentary, says that “Metabolism slows down 90 percent after 30 minutes of sitting. The enzymes that move the bad fat from your arteries to your muscles, where it can get burned off, slow down. The muscles in your lower body are turned off. And after two hours, good cholesterol drops 20 percent.”
When you sit for extended periods, electrical activity is shut down in the legs, the body is less sensitive to insulin, you burn less calories, you shut down the production of lipoprotein lipase, which breaks break down blood fats, and your good cholesterol is lowered.
Professor Marc Hamilton, Ph.D from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center tells Men’s Health, “We see it in people who smoke and people who don’t. We see it in people who are regular exercisers and those who aren’t. Sitting is an independent risk factor.”
He further explains, “The cure for too much sitting isn’t more exercise. Exercise is good, of course, but the average person could never do enough to counteract the effect of hours and hours of chair time.”
As Katy Bowman, a scientist and author of the book: Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, told Reuters: “You can’t offset 10 hours of stillness with one hour of exercise.”
Staff writer of the New Yorker Susan Orlean wrote and article entitled “The Walking Alive.” She describes her experience with a treadmill desk, “The funny thing is that when I leave my office, it’s not that I think, oh, my God. Thank goodness I can finally go sit. I find that I have more energy, and what I think often comes to mind is, oh, I think I’ll take the dog and go for a walk.”
In order to have healthier employees and reduce their cost of health care, many organizations are using treadmill desks, such as Google, Aetna, GlaxoSmithKline, Humana, Mutual of Omaha, Best Buy, Arizona State University, among many others. The Oregon House Committee on Health Care approved a pilot program to test the use of treadmill desks by state employees. There are entire classrooms in Denmark that are outfitted with treadmill desks for every student.
Creating Your Own Treadmill Desk Workstation
Before you consider this option, you should look at how much space you have in your office to make sure that you have space to fit the treadmill under your desk. You’ll also need an option for sitting as you won’t be walking for your entire day. If you have a large desk, you can slide a chair under the desk so you can easily switch from walking to sitting throughout the day.
And make sure that your treadmill will fit under your desk. You’ll also want to measure to see that once you slide the treadmill under your desk that you have enough space to walk.
I’m not a fan of this option even if you own a treadmill and desk that you could combine. If your treadmill has arms that come up the side to hold the display screen and controls, you’re going to have to take the treadmill apart to detach the wires that connect the control panel to the motor, then reattach the wires without the arms and area you hold onto while walking or running. You could then place the display and control panel on your desk. You’re risking breaking your treadmill, or worse (you’re working with electricity).
The next issue is height of the desk. Make sure that it will be the correct height for you to work while you walk slowly. This is where a lot of people make a mistake. They want to save money, but if you habitually use your treadmill desk and your monitor and table top are too low, high, or far away, it’s going to cause a strain in your neck and/or back. The money you save from buying a treadmill workstation may not be worth it when you develop or increase your back pain, if you already suffer from it (you may end up spending more on chiropractor visits and massages).
To maintain a correct posture, your elbows should be close to your body. Your monitor should be eye level, and Ergo Canada recommends that the size of your monitor should be the distance it is from your face. So if you have a 17 inch monitor, it should be 17 inches from your face.
Purchasing a Treadmill Desk
The cost for a treadmill desk generally ranges from $500 to $4000, with the average desk usually around $1500.
There are a lot of things to consider when purchasing a treadmill desk.
Walking treadmills are generally quieter than regular treadmills because you’re normally going to be moving at 2 m.p.h. If you have office or people in your house that you don’t want to annoy, look for a quieter motor and treadmill.
You want a treadmill that doesn’t shake a lot when you use it, which makes seeing your monitor and using your mouse more difficult.
Maximum Table Height
Make sure that your walking desk will put you in the best position to use it. If you have to lean forward to type, and you’re looking down at your monitor, you are putting strain on your neck and back. Looking up to high and reaching for your keyboard will cause issues as well. And if anyone else is planning on using the walking desk, make sure that it works well for them as well (especially very tall and very short people).
Belt Length & Width
You want a belt that’s long enough that you aren’t slipping off the treadmill, but the longer the walkway and belt are, the more room it takes up.
If you have a wide gait, make sure that you have enough room that you aren’t stepping on the immovable edge of the treadmill.
Maximum Tabletop Weight
If you’re considering a desk that has a tabletop weight of 40 pounds, take a look at what you currently have on your desk. If you think you might be close to the max weight, weigh your stuff. If your scale can’t measure that small, walk onto your scale and note your weight, then step back on your scale with all of your items in your hands.
Does the treadmill desk have a space to sit next to it when you’re not walking? If not, does your office have enough space for the treadmill desk and a separate desk?
Warranty & Assembly
If you’re handy, assembly may not be an issue for you, but many desks take professionals an hour to assemble a walking treadmill. You may have an option for factory preassembly, which may increase the shipping charge as well (it takes up more space), or you may have the option to get white-glove assembly, where the company will send one or two people to assemble the desk on the spot in your office.
Settings & Special Features
Some desks will have a motor that will lower and raise the tabletop to the correct sitting and walking height for you and others, while other desks require you to do it manually (and some require two people to change heights, which is really inconvenient).
A higher-end feature is to have your desk sync with your fit bit or other wearable technology, whereas many desks will have it’s own fitness trackers (how many calories you burned, how much distance you traveled, etc.)
If you find that you’re getting shocked while working at your desk, invest in an anti-static wrist bracelet (they’re less than $10 on amazon).
How to Use Your Treadmill Desk
Start gradually. You don’t start by spending 8 hours on it the first day. Walk for a little while, and if you start to get tired, go back to sitting. The goal is to do sessions that are 30 minutes long, and 6 of those per day. You may eventually want to do more or less depending on your stamina and how you respond to your treadmill desk. If you start trying to do too much, you’ll get tired and be discouraged from continuing to use your treadmill desk.
You may find that you do certain activities better when you walk, and others when you sit. Some find that doing precise work with a mouse, such as graphic arts, writing, or clicking inside of an excel spreadsheet, is done better sitting. You may find that talking, reading, and thinking are done better standing. If you do video calls, whoever you’re chatting with may get distracted or annoyed that your head is bobbing up and down. Find what works for you.
Some use a fit bit, or technology on the treadmill desk. You may find this motivates you to move more (some offices and households have competitions to see who walks the most).
Wear the right shoes and clothing. You may wear one pair of shoes to and from work, but use a good walking or running shoe while on the treadmill.