Where Have All the Treadmill Desks Gone?

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Where Have All the Treadmill Desks Gone?

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Once considered a freakish oddity, treadmill desks have begun to be broadly accepted in the offices of Corporate America and are well on their way to becoming a mainstream substitute for the conventional desk.

The Risks of Sitting

With modern-day “desk sentences” the norm as the majority of our work is done in front of a computer screen, we’re burning several thousand calories less every week than our grandparents used to. The incidence of so-called sitting disease continues to rise, practically in lock-step with the rampant increase in obesity and diabetes, especially among office workers.

As more cowboys have hung up their saddles and grabbed a chair to earn their grub, their metabolism has slowed down while their blood pressure, triglycerides, bad cholesterol, and blood sugars have gone up. Not to mention increased joint and muscle pains, reduced circulation in the legs, and increased risk of cardiac disease and premature death. To put it bluntly, our chairs are killing us.

Recently, the American Medical Association adopted new policies encouraging employers to make available alternatives to sitting, such as standing workstations and treadmill desks. “Prolonged sitting, particularly in work settings, can cause health problems and encouraging workplaces to offer employees alternatives to sitting all day will help to create a healthier workforce,” said AMA board member, Dr. Patrice Harris.

Of course, many European countries figured this out years ago and legislated that accommodations such as standing desks (sit-to-stand adjustable-height desks) must be made available to all employees in sedentary jobs. In the US, only the Oregon legislature has taken steps in that direction, and only for state employees. Such a bill has yet to pass.

Concerned with mounting health care costs, many employers have not been waiting around for the government to tell them to do something about it. At WorkWhileWalking, we hear more and more stories every week of companies that have made standing desks and treadmill desks an option for any employee who wants one. According to NBC News, Steelcase alone has sold over 60,000 Walkstation treadmill desks to large enterprise accounts over the past seven years. Numerous new manufacturers such as LifeSpan are breaking onto the scene, getting into home offices and small to medium sized businesses as successfully as the largest employers.

DIY Treadmill Desks

There are no official market share statistics published by research firms as yet, but we estimate that there are several hundred thousand desks are already in use in the US, and perhaps as many as half a million. We derive this estimate by adding up what we know the major commercial producers are selling and factoring in evidence from social media that for every one of their units, there are at least four DIY treadmill desks that people have slapped together on their own.

Many of the homebrewed treadmill desks you’ll find pictures of online are, quite frankly, ergonomic nightmares, but the health benefits of spending an hour working while walking at 1-2 mph instead of sitting still far outweigh the negatives. That said, we have to put out a little cautionary notice about following some of the DIY instructions that well-meaning, enthusiastic early adopters have posted. The biomechanics of walking while tethering one or two arms to a keyboard and/or mouse can lead to repetitive stress injuries if proper ergonomic settings, pacing, and stretching guidelines are not followed.

You can learn about the proper ergonomics and best practices from our experts at WorkWhileWalking before getting started. Also see our complete DIY guide for building an ergonomically-proper treadmill desk of your own. You’ll also find detailed product reviews of all the popular commercially produced treadmill desks and standing desks.

One reason that treadmill desks have exploded in popularity is the apparent ease with which you can build one, especially if you have an old treadmill lying around or can find one cheap on Craigslist. There are a number of desks being promoted that simply straddle the arms of a running treadmill (e.g. TrekDesk and Dr. McBabe’s Walking Desk), though there are numerous problems with this approach. First, walking on a treadmill introduces far more stress on the motor than running on it does (counterintuitive, but true), so even the most expensive treadmill models will often burn out after only a few weeks or months of use in a walking application.

Second, the “computer hunch” is exacerbated on a treadmill desk because we have a tendency to move even further back from the keyboard to keep from bumping into it as our bodies oscillate back and forth from the natural rhythm of walking. Improper height settings can lead to neck and shoulder pains as well as carpal tunnel. Getting the right treadmill desk ergonomics is crucial for successful use in the long run. Simply attaching a surface atop the treadmill arms will put the keyboard at the wrong height and the controls too far away to reach safely while walking.

Preventing Soreness and Fatigue

A recent study published in the journal Obesity showed that workers who received treadmill desks used them half as much the second year as when they first got them. This is usually due to one or more of the following avoidable reasons:

a) the height setting and distance from their keyboard and/or monitor are not ergonomically correct,
b) they didn’t pace themselves properly and jumped ahead to using the treadmill desk for many hours at a time without proper conditioning, or
c) they failed to stretch before, during and after long sessions on the treadmill desk.

Walking too slow for too long can lead to similar health problems as standing for too long. Standing for hours on end really hurts, while strolling casually keeps your feet, legs and lower back happy. Walking too fast is also bad; anything over 2 mph means you’re exercising and sweating, and your focus will begin to be impaired, not improved. It’s important to realize that even though you only walk at a very casual 1-2 mph pace and don’t even break a sweat when working on a treadmill desk, you need to condition your body so that your muscles don’t get injured and can recover quickly from intensive use.

An exacerbating factor all treadmill deskers report is that when walking on a treadmill desk—like walking in the woods—we tend to lose track of time. We get hyper-focused when walking slowly, which studies have shown lead to productivity increases of at least 15 percent, but by the same token, we can easily find ourselves having walked for two or three hours without a break. For this reason, we recommend people use pomodoro timers and set them to go off every 25 minutes to encourage a 5 minute stretching break.

Stretch breaks are also a good time to rehydrate, which is important because although the effort is not enough to make you break a sweat, it is enough to slowly perspire away your waters. When you read blog postings about people who felt tired after a session on their walking workstation, they probably got dehydrated and didn’t know it. Done properly, treadmill desking should result in a higher energy level, not an energy drain. You also may have read about people complaining of lower back pain or foot pain, which are classic signs that they’re probably walking for too long at a time, without proper stretching, and possibly with the wrong kind of shoes.

Our Advice

Sitting, standing, or walking for too long and without proper breaks can be bad for your health. The best regimen is to switch it up throughout the day. Sit for a while, walk for a while, then stand for a while. Rinse and repeat. Our pacing recommendation is to work up to using your treadmill desk for 90 minutes, twice a day, and only go beyond that if you’re properly conditioned and not experiencing any pains or energy drain from overdoing it.

Many people believe that within ten years, everyone with a sedentary job will be using a treadmill desk and/or standing desk, and that spending all day sitting in a desk chair, in meetings, in cars, and on airplanes and then at home on the sofa is going to be recognized as injurious to your health and something to be avoided. The latest research has equated one hour of sitting with smoking a cigarette.

So ask yourself, how many cigs are you smoking on average every day? Maybe it’s time you kicked the habit and joined the millions of people who are already using standing desks and treadmill desks. You’ll live longer.