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Walking While Working: Is the Treadmill Desk Worth Sweating For?

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Office Workstation, Treadmill Desk

In the US, most people spend more than half of their waking lives sitting down according to James A. Levine of Mayo Clinic. Most of that time is spent watching television, driving a car, or working in the office. We can all thank modern technology for the everyday conveniences that don’t have us walking miles under the hot sun to slave away doing hard labor and then forage for our own food.

Unfortunately, the human body wasn’t originally programmed for all this sitting around.

In 2011, Men’s Health editors brought up a study published by the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that tracked the lifestyles of 17,000 men and women over about 13 years. The big observation from the study is that people who spend most of their days sitting had a 54% more likely chance of dying from a heart attack. 

It doesn’t matter if you don’t take up any vices such as smoking or drinking, or if you eat a balanced diet, or even if you regularly exercise. Sitting down seems to be an independent risk factor, and considering the majority of Americans do have a sitting-heavy lifestyle, chances are you are at risk. 

While you can choose to spend your leisure and commuting time being physically active, you like many other working professionals can’t afford to cut your office hours to get your legs moving. 

Exercising in the Office?

The concept of merging work with exercise sounds crazy, but the treadmill desk pioneered by Dr. James Levine shows that it is definitely possible to get work done in the office at your desk while getting a work out with your legs.

The idea is so obviously simple that you wonder why it hasn’t been done a long time ago. Just strap a treadmill to a desk that has been leveled properly so it’s appropriate to your height, and then you can start walking while you send emails, write reports, and take calls. 

Of course, there are desk treadmills specially designed for work environments. They have height-adjustable desks to accommodate different people, and their speeds only go up as high as 4mph. That means no actual jogging or running in the office, only brisk walking at most. That’s only reasonable, as it’s hard to imagine getting any sort of work done if you’re bouncing up and down the treadmill while sweat is constantly pouring down your face.

Walking the Walk?

The question now is how effective are these treadmill desks, either at maintaining/increasing productivity or at improving one’s health. 

Because the technology is still relatively new, there haven’t been much widespread studies conducted on their efficiency. What is available right now are anecdotal pieces of evidence, and they’ve mostly been positive experiences.

Owen Thomas, the editor-in-chief of ReadWrite, said that he first lost 6lbs in just less than two weeks on a Lifespan treadmill desk. He has since lost 13lbs months afterward, walking 10 miles a day with sessions lasting as long as 3 whole hours. 

He does say that typing while walking faster than 3mph isn’t possible, and that editing is much harder to do walking than staying still. On the other hand, he does think he writes better walking than sitting, as he can put all of his focus on that single task when moving.

Nikki Raedeke, director of the dietetics program of the University of Missouri’s Dept. of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, averages six miles a day in her five-day work week. From January 7 to June 27 in 2013, she has walked 563 miles, and she has experienced having more energy while losing weight. Her work hasn’t been compromised, although her writing has turned out “a little shaky”.

Dr. James Levine spearheaded a study that had 36 sedentary office workers use treadmill desks for a whole year. Weight loss was definitely experienced by the subjects, while their work performance did not suffer. 

Another study had 20 people use treadmill desks while performing simulated office work tasks. It concluded that there was a 6% to 11% loss of performance with tasks requiring fine motor skills and math problem solving compared to carrying out those tasks while seated.

There just isn’t enough concrete data to make a final decision on treadmill desks, but the current evidence does lean towards a more positive experience. If you can get yourself moving more and thus leading a healthier lifestyle, it won’t hurt to try. 


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