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Can you really walk and work? I tried a treadmill desk for 6 months to find out

It’s 1:42 p.m., I just ate two grilled turkey sandwiches oozing with melted cheese, half a tub of cottage cheese, and I’m ready for a nap. But I’m working instead, and getting a shocking amount done, because I’m on a treadmill desk.

Yes, like some sort of worker bee in a dystopian Black Mirror episode, I’m gazing into a screen while my body robotically paces forward on a belt that never gets me anywhere. I’m enslaved by the corporation I work for, technology, and now, by a sadistic device that forces me to exercise while I fulfill my obligations to both masters.

Except this is awesome.

I know, I know. The image of pacing along as type on a laptop may elicit a raised eyebrow from coworkers (and the blunter “You look like such a dumbass on that thing” — thanks, Ian), but after using a treadmill desk for almost six months, I’m convinced that someday, in the not-too-distant future, you and I will look like dumbasses together.

On your feet, soldier!

Hopefully another news site has already blared this news to you in a headline: You’re killing yourself by sitting around all day.

Moving just two minutes every hour lowers your chance of death by 33 percent. Sitting all day puts you at a higher risk for diabetes. Some scientists even call sitting “the new smoking.” Yet according to recent surveys, a full 86 percent of American workers now spend the majority of their day sitting.

If you’re gonna be shackled to a desk, it might as well be a walking desk.

“Great,” you’re probably thinking, “So what am I supposed to do, get a job as a dogwalker?”

That’s actually not the worst idea. But if you intend to keep your job as a mechanical engineer, graphic designer, or lowly tech journalist, you might need to find a way to get your steps in without stepping away from a screen. Enter the treadmill desk.

They’ve existed in one form or another since the late 90s, but in recent, years, treadmill desks have become more popular than ever. “Our Workplace sales over the last two years are up 300 percent,” says Peter Schenk, the president of LifeSpan, the company that sent Digital Trends a long-term loaner. As you might guess, those are the models geared for the office.

A close relative to the standing desk, the treadmill desk couples an elevated desk with a lower treadmill that keeps you walking along as you work, at anywhere from an idle stroll to a brisk powerwalk. The LifeSpan DT-7 model I reviewed lets you adjust the height of the desk and the speed of the treadmill with simple up and down arrows at belly level.

It also retails for $2,000. That’s not unusual, but you can also find them for as cheap as $500 on Amazon, and up to $3,000 for heavy-duty models. And as I found out, that’s not the only investment you’ll make. Learning to use one of these things takes time.

My experience

Working while walking doesn’t come naturally. I’m an avid bike commuter, walker, and hiker. Honestly, I expected to take to walking at work with gusto. But none of those aerobic activities quite prepare you for cubicle-based exercise, which is more about knowing your limits than pushing them.

Like an episode of Black Mirror, I’m gazing at a screen while my body paces forward on a belt that never gets me anywhere.

I attempted to walk at 3.5 mph — about the hustling pace you would take on the way to a meeting you’re late for — and just about swore off the desk for good. Words bounced all over with every long stride. Pointing the cursor between two letters in Microsoft Word became a real trial using my laptop’s touchpad. My inner voice uttered “C’mon, keep going!” when it should have been uttering the next words in the story or email I was writing. The armpits of my t-shirt soaked through with sweat.

At the encouragement of a LifeSpan representative, I slowed down. “If you’re having trouble typing accurately, turn down the speed!” Adam Ritchie emailed. “If you’re out of breath or breaking a sweat, turn down the speed!”

OK, OK! I relented.

Finding your pace

Turning down the speed transformed the treadmill desk from a work distraction to a work turbocharger.

Working and exercising, it turns out, is a lot like drinking beer and playing pool. A few drinks sharpen up your game, but a few too many and you can’t hit a single ball. In my speed-walking state, I might as well have been a dozen Jager shots deep. At a slower speed, I hit the buzzed state where work just seemed to complete itself without overthinking it. After 5 or 10 minutes acclimating to the whir and jiggle of working on the move, you start to bliss out and forget you’re moving at all.

Screw coffee, go for a walk. Rather than reaching for a cup of the stuff, I found that hopping on the treadmill desk at my foggiest mental moments wiped away the haze. The usual post-lunch slump didn’t have time to set in while I was walking, even at a lethargic 1.1 mph, which seemed to be the right balance of exercise and productivity for me.

I’ve always felt the need to walk around on the phone while talking, and the treadmill desk made it perfectly clear why. A little extra blood pumping while you’re on the phone staves off the zoned-out feeling you get when a conversation goes too long. I was able to stay focused on what other people were saying, respond quickly, and dream up my own solutions without distraction while I gazed out the window (the view might have helped).

Counter to expectation, I never found a walking desk taxing enough to tire me out sooner, or even make me want to cancel post-work running or gym plans. If anything I felt less fatigued at the end of a workday, and readier to go out and conquer the world with my free time instead of slumping on the couch for a marathon of The Wire. It’s the opposite effect you would expect from a device that, ostensibly, is supposed to burn you out as you work.

Is this really working?

Of course, there are caveats. For one, you can’t simply replace standing with walking; it doesn’t work that way. You’ll find yourself in the zone as you walk for an hour or so, but eventually you’ll reach the point of fatigue where a cushy red office chair starts to sound pretty nice.

Standing desks easily accommodate for this by letting you wheel a chair beneath them and dropping them down. It’s more complicated with a walking desk because of the whole treadmill underneath. LifeSpan’s model attempts to make the treadmill more easily removable with wheels you can tilt it up onto, but even on rollers, this thing is heavy, corded, and bulky as hell. I’d feel uneasy about more petite coworkers moving it on their own, and it’s not a maneuver I would probably make more than twice a day: Once to wheel it out, once to put away.

There’s also that pesky issue of noise. I installed the LifeSpan desk in a spare room at Digital Trends, but anyone in a shared work environment needs to think diplomatically before plopping one of these beside coworkers. Our editorial newsroom has an open, bullpen-style design, and the constant swish of a treadmill belt and tapping of feet would have definitely generated some glares and passive-aggressive emails. Put five of these things in the same room and you’ll walk your way to an insurrection.

The desk works best as we situated it: In a different room where workers can use it to escape for a couple hours at a time, not as a main workspace.

You might also think twice if you envision a treadmill desk as a replacement for other types of exercise. After months of use, I started to consider it more of a productivity aid than a piece of workout equipment. According to the onboard metrics, my 165-pound self burned about 156 calories in an hour of walking at a workable 1.1 miles per hour. That’s fewer than the calories in a can of Coke. Not bad, but not really enough to move the needle on weight loss, either. An ambitious treadmill desk owner could put in more hours per day or simply up the pace, but for me, those both seemed to cut into the central appeal of the desk: the ability to get work done while I exercise. If I wanted to focus on exercise and forgo productivity, I’d lace up and run outside for an hour on my lunch break.

LifeSpan TR1200
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

That said, the benefits of merely standing up and walking extend far beyond simply losing weight. From a lower risk of heart disease to diabetes, the long-term health benefits of simply moving seem to justify a walking desk even if its calorie-burning potential isn’t tremendous.

Conclusion

Surprise! Dragging your ass from bed to office chair to car seat to recliner and then back to bed is not really good for you. Science confirms this now, but like the nauseous feeling you get at the bottom of a 48-ounce Slurpee, you probably knew you were messing yourself up long before science ever told you so.

Unfortunately, unless you count lifting a coffee cup to your lips, white-collar jobs don’t really lend themselves to physical activity. Walking desks provide an awesome way to supplement a missing vitamin in your daily routine, even if it’s closer to popping a Vitamin C tablet than taking a bite out of a juicy orange. Unnatural? Yea, but we can’t all stroll the neighborhood delivering the mail like Mr. McPheely.

They’re far from perfect. But as the full toll of sitting becomes known, I wouldn’t be surprised if companies everywhere begin paying more attention to how long their employees sit, and begin offering alternatives like walking desks — even if just for a couple hours a day.

If you’re gonna be shackled to a desk, it might as well be a walking desk.