Does Treadmill Belt Width on a Walking Desk Make Any Difference?
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Walking a Fine Line
It may not seem very important at first blush, but the width of your treadmill belt is an important part of treadmill desk safety.
Working while walking on a treadmill desk is – let’s be honest – a bit unorthodox. Instead of swinging your arms back and forth to keep your body in balance – the way you do when you walk normally – you tether them to the keyboard and/or mouse much of the time you work, creating what in bio-mechanical terms is known as a “closed loop.” This closed loop can, among other things, put a great deal of strain on your wrists, neck, and shoulders. Your gait will also change as a function of belt speed (learn about how long you should walk on a treadmill desk for maximum health benefit). We’ve also written a lot about the importance of stretching, proper pacing and minimizing tethered walking time among other sage advice for minimizing potential muscle and joint injury from misalignment or overuse.
What many treadmill desk newbies don’t realize is that walking on a treadmill is different from walking out in the world, and poses its own challenges and ergonomic risks. For example, when you take a walk in the neighborhood your arms are free to swing and your legs get a lot more lateral movement. Walking on a treadmill desk, meanwhile, limits both your walking pace – which is determined on your treadmill controller – and your gait. The narrower your treadmill belt the less freedom of lateral movement you’re going to enjoy and the more strain you’ll be putting on your body.
On Getting Used to Your “Tread Legs”
When you first start walking at your treadmill workstation, particularly on thinner treadmills with narrower walking belts, you’ll probably hit the “landing strips” on the edges of the treadmill every so often, until you get used to where they are. That’s not a huge safety issue at speeds of under 2 mph, but the narrower the belt the more likely you are to run into the edges. Once you get used to where the foot fall zone is, you will naturally narrow your latitude accordingly and get used to the walking space.
Narrower treadmill belts also force users – especially taller ones – to adopt awkward gaits, often very different from the way they usually walk. These unnatural walking postures put an unnecessary strain on users’ muscles and tendons, leading to some significant hip pains. For optimal health and performance, wider treadmill belts are better. Being able to swing left and right even just a little bit as you walk will keep your joints and muscles that much looser, especially useful when you’re rocking out to some tunes while reading your emails.
Treadmills Belt it Out
Treadmill belts are generally between 16″ and 20″ in width. Most are 18″, like the ones used in the LifeSpan TR800, the Steelcase Walksation, the Signature Pace XR200 and XR300 treadmill bases, the TreadDesk, and the ModTable Treadmill Desk. But our new favorite, the Unsit, has a 30″-wide belt.
Only a few walking treadmills provide the full 20″ belt widths necessary to provide a spacious and comfortable walking deck. LifeSpan’s top two models, the TR5000 and TR1200, both come equipped with roomier 20″ belts. iMovR’s new, all-digital ThermoTread GT also sports the 20″ belt, with an extra 3/4″ of free space between the belt and the side rails, for lavish spaciousness plus easy of deck lubrication.
Of the treadmills we’ve reviewed at the WorkWhileWalking Testing Lab only the under-powered Signature Pace XR100 uses a narrow 16″ belt, which we would consider generally unsafe. Ironically the treadmill desk with the lowest WorkWhileWalking Editors’ Rating – the Exerpeutic WorkFit 2000 – sports a 20″ belt. However, it also has the shortest belt at only 40″, which is one of the reasons it rates so poorly and why we can’t recommend it for any but the slightest of adult users.
Because it is so inexpensive one of the most popular bases we see being used (unadvisedly) by do-it-yourself types is the $250 Confidence Power Plus Motorized Electric Treadmill, a unit so cheap that they had to use both the words “Motorized” and “Electric” in its name to overcome the consumer’s natural skepticism that you could actually buy a powered treadmill for less than you’d spend on a low-end lawn mower. Its belt is narrower than some cookie baking sheets at a measly 14″, and hence we strongly recommend against its use in a treadmill desk workstation. Unless you’re a dog.
The bottom line is you’re mostly likely to find at least an 18″ belt on the most brands of walking treadmills and should shy away from anything narrower. A 20″ belt like on the iMovR ThermoTread GT and LifeSpan TR5000 is a much better choice, and the Unsit 30″ width is even better.
If you want to get a personal feel to make sure a treadmill will work for you, you should read our article on guidance to see how you can test one out for yourself.