Sitting for long periods of time is really, really bad for you--no matter how much you exercise when you're not at work.
Sit all day and it won't just make you fatter; as Jessica Stillman notes it can also make you dumber. Sit for the majority of the day and your risk of cardiovascular disease doubles compared to people who stand. Sitting for more than six hours a day can make you 18% more likely to die from diabetes, heart disease, and obesity than people who sit less than three hours a day.
Sitting for more than 11 hours a day makes you 40% more likely to die in the next three years compared to people who sit for less than four hours.
Eleven hours may sound like a lot, but add up all the time you spend at your desk, in your car, and on your couch. Odds are it's close to 11 hours.
Clearly whoever invented sitting did not have our best interests at heart.
Of course the answer is to get off your butt as often as you can. But that's hard to do when you work at a desk.
Since I'm definitely in the 11 hour-plus range, and any sentence that includes the words "you" and "are 40% more likely to die in the next three years" is pretty scary, I decided to do something about it.
I tried a stand-up desk but after 15 minutes my posture was so bad I looked like the lead in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Plus, why just stand when I could get all the benefits of walking?
So I decided to try out a treadmill desk. Here's how it went.
Pros and Cons
I actually tried out models from three different manufacturers. My favorite was the LifeSpan TR1200-DT. It's a little more expensive ($1,299), but compared to the other two it's quieter, easier to adjust, and overall just worked better for me.
So instead of saying bad things about the others, I'll just discuss the LifeSpan treadmill desk.
- Stopping, starting, and adjusting speed is easy. Treadmill controls are on the front of the desk and set below the surface. I never accidentally changed speeds.
- There's plenty of desk space. It holds two laptops, a phone, a couple notebooks, some other odds and ends. Even though it's not as big as a normal desk, functionally it feels as big.
- The padded wrist guard also serves as a stabilizer and absorbs some of the natural movement of your arms and hands as you walk.
- It's quiet. Walk at 2 miles per hour and it makes no more noise than a quiet fan. Even at 4 mph it's quiet enough that people you talk to on the phone can't hear it.
- It's stable. I was concerned about whether the desk would be wobbly, especially since instability would affect typing accuracy. It's not rock solid, but it's close.
- The treadmill itself is a separate unit so if you need to make space you can easily stand it up or move it out of the way.
- The control panel displays speed, calories burned, and distance.
- The control panel displays speed, calories burned, and distance. Obviously that's a pro and a con: If you're really goal-oriented, you'll constantly battle wanting to go faster and farther. (The best move: Set your speed, cover the display, do your work, and forget about the fact you're walking. See the "distance" you travel and the calories you burn as the healthy icing on your getting-work-done cake.)
- The top speed is 4 mph. Based on my experience you will never want to walk faster while you're working. But you won't be able to run 6-minute miles. It's not a hardcore fitness treadmill.
- The treadmill deck isn't as "springy" as a fitness-specific treadmill. The surface is a little harder and less giving. Since you won't run that's a non-issue, but if you're used to a fitness treadmill it will feel different at first.
Set-up was easy. LifeSpan claims the initial set-up should take 15 minutes. It took me 12.
What does take longer is determining where to set the desk height. After some experimenting I decided I like my arms to be a little lower when I'm typing at the treadmill desk than I do when I'm at my normal desk.
Finding the right desk height is probably the biggest factor in whether you'll feel comfortable working while you walk. Take plenty of time to experiment; if your shoulders start to tighten or your wrists start to hurt, change the height.
And also realize that it will take some time for your body to adjust, just like it does when you start using a new chair or desk.
Walking and working will feel awkward at first. In some cases you'll get really frustrated trying to walk and work. Hang in there. It will get better.
Making phone calls is easy almost right away. Mobile phones have made us all good at walking and talking. Within minutes I was able to walk and talk at 4 mph and not even think about the fact I was walking.
Taking notes with a pen and paper was trickier. I had no trouble writing at 1 mph but walking that slow was uncomfortable. At 2 mph walking felt more natural, but my penmanship was like a physician signing prescriptions.
So I practiced a little by writing to-do lists and outlines. Within a half hour I was a lot better. Within about an hour it felt much more natural.
Then I shifted to 3 mph and struggled. Eventually I determined my best pen-and-paper speed is 2.5 mph. (While that may not sound fast, at that rate I still burn 250 calories an hour.)
Walking and typing was actually easier than making handwritten notes. It only took about an hour to feel comfortable at 1.5 mph. Within a week of using the treadmill desk for a couple of hours a day I felt very comfortable at 2 mph. I moved up to 2.5 mph but after a few weeks decided to go back to 2 mph. I could never quite shake the need to think, if only a little bit, about what my hands and fingers were doing.
And that, in a nutshell, is the main downside to a treadmill desk: Just like with learning anything new, you'll need to practice, adapt, practice a little more, and find your sweet spots. Adapting to walking and working will not be instantaneous. You will get frustrated. You will think, "Why am I doing this? It's harder than sitting at my desk."
Work through it. The benefits of sitting less and walking more far outweigh the short-term discomfort of adapting to a new way to work.
Changing Your Work Flow
The only way to reap the benefits is to make walking a normal part of your workday. That means changing a few habits.
If possible set up your treadmill desk close to your regular desk. Then it's easy: When your phone rings, stand up before you answer it, and if you can tell the call will last for more than a couple minutes, go walk. If you're about to make a call get on the treadmill before you dial.
The same is true for any other activity. Just follow the mantra, "I will never sit when I can stand and never stand when I can walk."
If you have to put your treadmill desk somewhere else--because you don't have space or because you want to make it accessible for other people to use--you'll need to plan ahead. Making several calls? Go walk. Need to do some research? Go walk. Taking an hour to think strategically? Walk while you plan to change the world.
If you have employees encourage them to do the same. Set up a schedule--as an employer isn't employee wellness one of your primary concerns?
The less you sit the better, but if you're not particularly fit you will want to ease into it.
Plus working yourself into a hot, sweaty mess is not the point. So resist the temptation to turn your work walks into a workout.
Start off slow. If you find yourself breathing heavier or you're unable to talk normally you're walking too fast. If you start to get sweaty you're walking too fast or too long. Even if you only stand up and stretch every 30 minutes or so, and then walk for a total of 30 minutes throughout the day, you'll still receive a number of benefits. So don't go crazy right away.
On the other end of the usage spectrum, say you change your work routine to allow you to walk two hours a day at 2 mph. If you weigh 190 pounds you'll get life expectancy, metabolism, and cardiovascular benefits, and you'll burn almost 500 calories--all while you work. That's about 3 pounds a month.
Hmm: Longer life expectancy. Improved fitness. Smarter. Better circulation. Lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
All that and you can lose weight.
Now tell me walking while you work isn't worth changing a few of your work habits and working through the short adjustment period.
And yes, a treadmill desk is expensive, but what is a better and longer life worth to you?
Hopefully it's worth a lot--because it's the only one you have.