Do you love your treadmill desk LESS every day?

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Do you love your treadmill desk LESS every day?

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[Ed: this article was originally contributed to the Dr. Michael Nirenberg’s Flowalking.com blog]

Though 99% of treadmill desk users would probably deny this assertion, it may be statistically accurate. A fraction of people who start using a treadmill desk give it up. Recent studies show that they end up spending about half as much time treadmilling by the end of the first year compared to when they started. What might explain this surprising phenomenon?

What Does the Research Say?

A study published in the journal Obesity this year looked at the effectiveness of treadmill desks in promoting physical activity. The team of researchers included individuals from the Mayo Clinic, the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota. Granted, it was a small study of only 36 individuals, spanning a period of only one year, but the observations are not inconsistent with our own at www.WorkWhileWalking.com.

After 6 months of adopting a treadmill desk, daily sedentary time among the study’s subjects had decreased by 91 minutes per day. That’s terrific, but after 12 months, the average decrease was only 43 minutes per day, less than half.

There can be several reasons for this, most commonly including deflated motivation to lose weight, pain or sore muscles from overuse or insufficient stretching, and pain or sore muscles from working with an improper ergonomic setup.

The Main Reason To Use a Treadmill Desk

The primary benefit of using a treadmill desk is reducing the number of hours you spend sitting each day, avoiding the terribly harmful effect of so-called “sitting disease.”

Let’s look at the motivational factor. All the participants in the study lost weight, but only a very modest amount: 3 lbs. on average. While some treadmill desk vendors make claims that using their equipment will allow you to “lose 70 pounds in a year,” there is no scientific basis for such outlandish expectations. (For realistic expectations see out synopsis of recent research on treadmill desk caloric burn by the Mayo Clinic and iMovR.)

The unnecessary hucksterism detracts from the benefits of treadmill desk use and contributes to a sense of disappointment when the treadmill desk owner is 5 lbs. lighter than the year before. Where the occasional treadmill desk user has reported losing 30, 40 or 50 lbs. in a year, it was usually in conjunction with major dietary modifications and increased exercise, not solely a result of switching to a treadmill desk.

What You Should Do To Avoid Injury On A Treadmill Desk

Proper stretching before, during and after treadmill desking sessions is necessary in order to avoid developing painful soreness in the calves, feet, glutes and lower back.

In our Best Practices Guide, we describe how to set a safe pace for breaking into the rhythm of treadmill desking as well as how to stay limber and keep from having your legs and lower back muscles seize up 20 minutes after your walking session begins. Users who skip stretching very often get tired or sore after only 45 minutes of treadmill desking. With regular stretching, you should be able to walk a satisfying 90-120 minutes at a time, at least twice a day, without any soreness.

To Avoid Problems, Plan Your Treadmill Desk’s Setup Carefully

Lastly, improper ergonomic setups are unfortunately much more common than proper ones. An improper desk height and/or monitor height, incorrect keyboard position or incorrectly placed “anchoring cushion” can easily lead to the development of carpal tunnel syndrome or numbness in the hands from overly pronated wrists, as well as neck and shoulder pain from carrying a more pronounced “computer hunch.”

Remember that the human body was designed to walk freely and to balance itself using the entire body, not to walk while tethered by one or two arms to a fixed desk. Any time you constrain a limb or two while walking, you’re likely to stress some muscles and joints over time.

Our Ergonomics 101 guide goes into complete detail on how to set up your treadmill desk to avoid these common maladies and compensate for the unnatural act of typing while walking.

Important Advice For Newbies

In fact, our first piece of advice to new treadmill desk users is for them to try to do as little typing as possible, especially in the beginning. It is a good idea to save up content consumption time – reading through emails or online journals, or enjoying those “Battlestar Galactica” episodes on Netflix – for when you’ll next be on your treadmill.

If you do need to type a great deal while on the hoof, consider using a speech recognition product like Dragon Naturally Speaking to minimize your tethered time. This alone will increase the amount of time you feel like spending on your treadmill desk every day, instead of in a chair or on a sofa. Using a hand-held trackball will also reduce your mouse grabbing time.

Until a larger study takes a closer look at the above-mentioned factors, we can only tell you that in the experience of the editors at www.WorkWhileWalking.com, and from the stories we’ve heard from “veteran” treadmill desk users (3 years or more), having a rational expectation of what “results” means  is crucial. Taking the time to set up a proper workstation and to stretch frequently will allow you to keep your motivation intact, and your sitting hours reduced for years to come.

Comment by Dr. Nirenberg

I’ve been curious about how treadmill desks would affect people for some time. In a post from March, I reviewed this same study on these desks and came to many of the same conclusions as the writer of this post. I believe treadmill desks are best in the fight against excessive sitting. Can you find an entirely new path to health in a desk that is part treadmill? Probably not, yet the benefits are legitimate, as long as you keep your expectations realistic.

I also appreciate Ron Wiener’s advice on stretching. Many walkers, not just those walking on treadmill desks, do not stretch enough. As I often say, you cannot stretch too much (unless you happen to be in the Spanish Inquisition).