Learning to walk again: My month spent on a treadmill desk

OPINION: I spent a month doing all my writing while walking on a specially-designed treadmill connected to a standing-height desk. My typing speed and focus cratered at first, but once I got used to the treadmill desk, it had the unexpected benefit of making me feel more focused and energized.

LifeSpan Fitness
I spent a month doing all my writing work while walking on a treadmill desk. In this promotional photo, a man uses the same treadmill desk I did: a LifeSpan TR1200-DT5.

Walking and chewing gum at the same time might be the low bar of multitasking, but walking and writing is actually pretty difficult – or at least, it was at first. As I write this article, I’m striding along at exactly 1.9 miles per hour. My phone tells me I’ve been at this pace for about an hour and a half, and that I’ve burned 338 calories during that time.

The idea of sitting down to work seems faintly old-fashioned to me now. I’ve been doing all my writing work at a treadmill desk the past 30 days, and while that’s too short a time to quantify any potential health benefit, the experience is certainly making me more productive.

It was not always thus. My first few hours on the desk were a mess as I tried to focus on my work while also making sure to keep a steady pace. My typing accuracy took a big hit as a good portion of my attention was focused on not falling off the treadmill. I tried playing a few first-person-shooter video games while on the desk, but because my lower body was constantly moving it was almost impossible to keep my aim steady.

Within about a week, though, I got used to walking and working simultaneously, and as my newly upright posture and constant motion became familiar sensations, I found that I was actually slightly more productive than when I was sitting to work. My typing speed had returned to normal, and I felt more focused and less susceptible to distractions.

My wife, a middle school teacher, spent some time walking on the treadmill while grading student papers, and said she was surprised her attention didn’t wander off in the middle of the task. We both speculated that the physical motion of walking while working brings with it a kind of forward mental momentum. Neither of us felt the tiredness or fatigue that we expected after hours spent working in a chair or on the couch.

That said, desks that let you work in something other than a seated position are a relatively recent development. In the mid-2000s, "do-it-yourselfers got tired of sitting down to work and started building their own standing desks,” says Peter Schenk, president of treadmill-deskmaker LifeSpan Fitness. (Full disclosure: the desk I used for the month, a LifeSpan TR-1200-DT5, was loaned to me by the company.) It’s only in the past ten years that professionally designed standing desks have appeared on the market, and that low-speed treadmills have been added to those units to create walking desks.

Using the treadmill desk was tiring at first. I wasn’t able to walk for more than about two hours at a stretch before the constant pace felt fatiguing. But as the weeks went on, my stamina increased, and by the end of my month-long test, I could comfortably spend about three hours walking in the morning, take a break for lunch, and then walk and work for another three hours or so in the afternoon. Mr. Schenk tells me he uses a treadmill desk almost all day, logging between 6,000 and 8,000 steps on an average workday and sitting down only for company meetings.

Am I healthier as a result of using the treadmill desk? It’s tough to say. Researchers argue that it’s more natural for the human body to be upright and in motion than to be folded at 90-degree angles, stationary, for hours on end at a desk.

“There’s no single perfect posture, since we’re designed for movement,” says Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley College of Environmental Design and the author of "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design." “Being sedentary is the big problem. We should really be getting up every so often and changing positions.”

Working at a treadmill desk certainly keeps one in motion, and somewhat counter intuitively, I feel more energetic overall as a result of the constant movement.

Workers who aren’t ready to go all-in on a standing or walking desk can achieve a similar result by simply taking regular breaks throughout the workday, or by switching from an office chair to a balance ball or stool. (Dr. Cranz says she’s partial to the Focal Upright Locus Seat, which puts the user’s body in a kind of perched position halfway between sitting and standing.)

It’s worth mentioning that a treadmill desk is different from a fitness treadmill. The LifeSpan desk I used has a maximum speed of 4 miles per hour, which for me is right between a brisk power walking pace and a light jog. It’s tough to burn many calories at such a light pace, so a treadmill desk is really more of a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, a person’s regular fitness routine. That said, any physical activity at all is healthier than sitting motionless for hours on end.

You won’t see rows of employees treadmilling away in the average office building anytime soon. For now, most treadmill desks are being sold to individuals rather than businesses, Schenk says. But that’s starting to change a little bit.

“[Human resource] departments and wellness coordinators are starting to request treadmill desks as an augmentation to company health plans,” he says. Companies frequently install treadmill desks in groups of four or six in a conference room or hallway, so employees can jump on them for a bit during the workday, and LifeSpan has even had orders as large as 50 or 100 treadmills for multi-floor companies.

In spite of the week-long adjustment period, in which I spent hours feeling like I was back in fourth grade learning how to touch type, I've enjoyed my month with the treadmill desk. While I wouldn’t recommend a treadmill desk for gaming or computer work that requires mouse precision, walking while typing is perfectly doable. And while treadmill desks are still something of a niche product, especially in office parks, more and more people are starting to do some or all of their work from something other than the traditional desk-and-chair setup.

My month with the treadmill desk suggests to me that maybe there’s no real “best” position from which to work – if I want to avoid feeling sleepy after lunch, I’ve just got to keep moving.

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