How to Really Lose Weight with a Treadmill Desk
This is a question we get quite often at WorkWhileWalking, and the answer isn’t as straightforward as “walk x miles a day and the pounds will melt right off,” much as some over-zealous bloggers, book authors and advertisers out there would have you believe. The good news is, there is a way, and I’m here to tell you that after seven years of using a treadmill desk I can finally personally attest to the fact that a treadmill desk, combined with the right kind of diet, can indeed help you drop weight incredibly fast.
How fast? For men, five pounds a week is easily achievable; for women, usually about half that rate. While I did have good weeks in which I achieved that rate, given my busy travel schedule and other handy excuses, I’ve averaged more like 16 pounds a month for going on seven months. Not shabby, by any means. I plan to spend one year of my life on this program to get to my goal weight: winding back the clock 30 years to when I was a bike racer in college. The aim: a 150-pound loss.
I’m already two-thirds of the way there. So for this year’s obligatory New Years Resolution blog article I decided to get very personal, and share the details of my journey with our readers in the hope that it will inspire others who’ve been battling the bulge to deliberately take action to turn their health around. Note that even though this is a science-based approach developed by physicians, everyone would be well-advised to discuss this, or any, weight-loss plan with their own physician prior to starting out.
The diet and the movement program (I won’t call it an “exercise” program, as you’ll soon see why) is both energizing and enjoyable. It provides its own motivation to keep going, when you step on the scale every morning to discover you’ve dropped another half pound or so. Yes, they say you should only check your weight once a week—and, yes, there will be ups and downs, not a perfectly linear day-to-day trend line—but I found that daily weigh-ins were a terrific motivator and learning opportunity.
A long journey of discovery, with many wrong turns along the way
My quest to lose weight using a treadmill desk started seven years ago. Despite having been an athlete in college, the Silicon Valley lifestyle—long hours at the computer, in meetings, on airplanes, in front of the TV watching Startup Junkies, and in restaurants — led to an insidious gain of 5+ pounds per year. After three decades of that, well, you can do the math; “suddenly” I was 150 pounds overweight. Seven years ago, I discovered I was becoming “pre-diabetic” — a horrible misnomer that leads one to think they aren’t yet diabetic. While not yet full-blown, my body was already responding with insulin resistance, making even a restricted carb diet less than effective at stemming the gains.
So, Important Lesson number one: if your doctor has told you that you’re nearing pre-diabetic levels of hemoglobin A1C (nearing 6.0), the time to act is right now, while not all of your beta cells have been rendered dysfunctional as yet, and not to wait until it has reached full-blown diabetes (A1C => 7.0). I ignored this, as do many of the 40% of Americans who are also pre-diabetic today, thinking I was in a grace period and didn’t have to radically change my ways immediately. WRONG.
What I did do was adopt a treadmill desk, reduced red meat and sugary foods, ate more foods rich in anti-inflammatory properties and nutritional value (i.e. reduced the intake of “empty calories”), and increased my exercise routine. With the latter, I had previously failed again and again, leaving the gym after ten minutes when something inevitably started to hurt. I was so out of condition that an ankle, knee, hip, back, neck or shoulder pain would develop almost instantly, giving me the excuse to go home and watch some more quality television programming, while chomping away on carb-rich popcorn. The good news was the treadmill desk did allow me to gradually strengthen my tendons and ligaments, while increasing my stamina, and within months my triglycerides, cholesterol and blood pressure had all improved markedly. All of which created a “gateway” for me to start increasing my sessions at the gym, and to feel I had my health more under control.
Then, business life got in the way. I started traveling so much my treadmill desk was collecting dust. I felt my health decline but “Didn’t have a choice,” what with business imperatives at the time. Important lesson number two: Like the saying goes, “Pay me now, or pay me later. One way or the other, you’re gonna pay me.” Looking back, I wish I had made my health a higher priority then, it would have saved me a lot more time, agony, and money down the road.
With all the stresses of running a high-tech, “fast company,” I managed to find an excuse each day for not getting enough movement, and to blow off getting my annual check up for three years. Along with the return of sedentary immobility came dietary laxness. Lo and behold, when I finally made it in to the clinic, my A1C had shot up to a whopping 10.8 – rampant diabetes. Looking back, I was obviously in denial of my symptoms, which were often pointed out to me by my physician wife. Denial can be a strong enemy of common sense, indeed.
So I met with a nutritionist, adjusted my diet, and started taking medications for diabetes, hypertension, and joint pain – and most importantly, reduced the travel and started working at a standing/walking desk again. At first, I followed the rules religiously and got my A1C back down to a controlled-diabetic level of 6.7 (without medication), started working out at the gym for an hour or more a day, and stopped gaining weight. Alas, “dieting” insincerely (yoyo’ing repeatedly) got me nowhere. I may have felt a little better but I wasn’t facing facts.
As long as I was too heavy (320 pounds at this point) and insulin resistant, the diabetes — even with medications — was not going to go away, and I was shortening my own lifespan by ignoring the realities. Eventually injuries, surgeries and other excuses came up again and again, and I found myself spending more time with health care practitioners than I could afford. Meanwhile, I watched my A1C slowly creep back up to 8.8. For all of the excuses I made to myself about not having time to eat right, prepare healthier foods, or exercise, I seemed to be spending many hours per week running between physical therapy, chiropractic clinics, MDs of various sorts, and massage therapy.
I agreed with my personal physician that it was time to hang up the high-tech lifestyle and venture into something healthier and more sustainable. We discussed my idea of launching this website you’re reading this blog post on, and he encouraged me to do so, saying “If you hang around health-oriented people and talk about health-related subjects all day, you’re more likely to get healthier yourself.” It was the best advice I ever got from any doctor, bar none (sorry, honey).
WorkWhileWalking was launched three years ago, and indeed I am surrounded today by an electrified bunch of health and fitness nuts. Meanwhile, I don’t have a chair in my office, an office which is biased to standing and walking (I get enough sitting time in Seattle’s commute lanes and at home, thank you). Even with that, for the next two years I vacillated in weight and couldn’t get below 300 pounds no matter what I did. I hadn’t yet learned all the technical details of how being insulin-resistance works against you when you try to diet. Movement, exercise, and talking a lot about health wasn’t enough to actually get the weight to come down on its own. In fact, my A1C crept up with each quarterly blood test to a dangerous level of 8.8 yet again.
The turnaround point
By now, you’re probably thinking what I imagine most people who met me in the first couple of years of being in the treadmill-desk business were probably thinking, “If these things are so great for burning calories, why hasn’t this guy lost any?” Fair question. I even signed myself up at a state of the art medical facility for weight loss, only to be petrified by their list of options once they learned I already adopted a low glycemic diet, worked out regularly, and didn’t have any depression or eating disorders. The options boiled down to a) injectible experimental drugs with hideous side effects and less than wonderful results, or b) bariatric surgery. Neither option appealed to me. What finally set me on the correct course was realizing that most people who have bariatric surgery (e.g. lap banding) regain the weight. The reason is obvious. They never fundamentally changed their diet. That’s why the first thing the doctors say about bariatric surgery, is you need to fundamentally change your diet for life.
Important lesson number three: If you’re going to have to radically change your diet anyway, why bother with the surgery?
At that point we began to research the kind of diet that several of my wife’s medical colleagues had great success with — the ketogenic diet. There are several well known ketogenic diets such as Atkins and South Beach, that promoted a low-carb, high-protein regime. Newer diets like Ideal Protein (the one I’m on) and 30/10 (the one you see advertised on TV) are a bit more advanced in also being low fat, and incorporating much tastier foods with higher-availability protein. The basic idea of a ketogenic diet is that you coax your body into changing from getting most of its calories from ingested carbohydrates to instead getting it from stored fat. If you do keto right, 60 percent or more of your daily calories will come from stored fat while eating less than half of the calories per day you used to.
The amazing thing is that once in ketosis, you lose your hunger signal because the body gets all of the calories it needs from stored fat. I’m simplifying things a bit for the sake of brevity, but this method of dieting, properly monitored (by your diet coach), can lead to fairly rapid weight loss. Here’s the rub, and it’s highly counter intuitive to anyone who has been struggling with losing weight: When you’re on a ketogenic diet, you don’t want to partake in any cardio exercise, which can be counterproductive to the weight loss. That’s right, this diet demands that you avoid vigorous exercise, lest you exhaust the tiny amount of glycogen in your system and “bonk out” like a runner at the end of a marathon.
Enter the treadmill desk
The beautiful thing about working at a treadmill desk is that it isn’t exercise. It’s the opposite of sitting, which is good. And it’s easy, because you never work up a sweat at 1 – 2 mph. Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic coined the term for it, “NEAT” – or, “Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.”
Working on a treadmill desk does raise your basal metabolic rate (resting heart rate) and allows you to burn an extra 100-130 calories per hour, but at a heart rate that’s just slightly elevated. That heart rate level is enough to pump more oxygen to your brain and improve your productivity and mental outlook, but not enough to go near the cardio heart rate zone. Thus, I had the perfect marriage of a high-protein/low-fat/low-carb diet and a standing/walking desk regime that conspired to allow me to drop 90 pounds and 12 inches around the waist – in less than seven months.
The best part isn’t even the weight loss. By the time I lost 70 pounds, I was already completely off all diabetes, hypertension and pain medications. My energy level is extraordinary, I sleep much better, my average stress level seems to be down by 90 percent, my A1C is in the low 5’s, and the positive comments from friends and colleagues feels almost as good as it does to leap out of bed every morning. We’ve had to learn to cook “paleo” (minus fruits, nuts and dairy during the rapid weight loss phase), which has honestly been a fun and eye-opening experience, and we’ve tossed out all the processed foods, growing much of our own organic food, and even raising our own chickens. This is the way we’re going to eat for the rest of our lives, and it’s filled with far more delicious culinary variety than I could ever have imagined.
I’ve already begun to introduce limited cardio exercise back in, most notably riding my bike again for the first time in many years, and now with my kids (middle schoolers) for the first time in their lives. There have been many moments of delight along the way, like taking my first flight on an airline without having to ask for a belt extender, and being able to open up my laptop in my seat. Being able to shop for clothes at regular shops instead of Big & Tall stores is another. Having gone this far, I’m determined to go all the way and get down to a BMI of 23, where the risks of cancer and heart disease diminish drastically. Along with this new way of life, is a staunch commitment to avoiding the chair as much as the sugar; to keep standing and walking while I work, as I am right now typing this blog post.
Important lesson number four has to do with organizational leadership. This kind of turnaround is unavoidably inspiring to those around you, as well. I soon noticed that most everyone at the office had also been much more focused on eating well, shedding unwanted pounds, and staying fit. That’s the kind of positive environment I’d like to enjoy working in for the rest of my life. It’s an environment I can now cherish while working to nurture and preserve as the organization’s CEO.
Thoughtfully, the people around me have learned to keep the donuts and chocolates out of site. Instead, we stand around the kitchen exchanging paleo recipes and talking about our most recent hiking trail finds.
New Year’s is coming, and the obligatory resolutions along with it. If you’ve been saying “This is the year I’m going to finally…” – just do it! You’re only regret will be to have waited so long.
This blog article was contributed by Ron Wiener, the founder and CEO of ThermoGenesis Group, Inc., which owns Office Fitness Media (including this website) and iMovR.
If you want to get a feel for if a treadmill will work for you, you should read our article on guidance to see how you can test one out for yourself.