Work this way: Using a treadmill desk can lead to better health and greater productivity

After using a treadmill desk for two months, Alex Howard is seeing positive changes. Read about the reported health and productivity benefits that are motivating some workers to walk while they work.

Image: Alex Howard

About two years ago, I started seeing a noticeable rise in coworkers, friends, and contacts setting up or asking about standing desks. Some acquired expensive stands or tables. Others made DIY standing desks from IKEA shelves or materials from their local Home Depot or hardware shoe. Another invested in a gimbaled arm that enabled his 27" iMac to swing to any height or angle. One or two even went the extra mile, so to speak, and added a treadmill to the mix, creating a walking desk (Figure A).

Figure A

Image: Alex Howard

The health and productivity benefits of walking while you work

What's driving the shift in behavior? Most people named health concerns. There have been enough articles about "sitting is the new smoking" for our generation of office workers, even runners, that it's leading some people to get out of their chairs. Most have not: Millions of people are sitting at work for an average of 9.3 hours every day.

Millions of people are sitting at work for an average of 9.3 hours every day.
I found the research that led The Wirecutter's review of standing desks terrifying: In article after article after article after article after article, the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle were appallingly apparent. Even if you exercise during the rest of the week, as I do, sitting all day still significantly increases your risk for all sorts of undesirable conditions.

If 2012 was the year when standing desks went mainstream, 2013 may have been when treadmill desks broke through into national consciousness, evangelized by New Yorker author Susan Orlean's account of "walking alive" and other celebrities. Here at TechRepublic, editor-in-chief Jason Hiner wondered, way back in 2010, whether desk treadmills could save the lives of knowledge workers. 85% of those surveyed at the time said they'd like to try such a setup. (Mr. Hiner, you were way ahead of the trend, as usual.) While the raw number of people using treadmill desks still isn't high, years later, there's good reason to encourage people to try them.

Numerous studies have backed up the health benefits of walking while you work at a desk, with estimates that replacing sedentary time in front of a computer with 2-3 hours of walking every day could lead to weight loss of 20-30 kilograms (or 44-66 pounds) per year, along with other associated health benefits.

Dr. James Levine, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who has sometimes been credited with the invention of the treadmill desk, is unequivocal about the health benefits of working this way. I've embedded a video of Dr. Levine.

A new study now strongly suggests that productivity benefits are also on the table, belying the anecdotal report on the "truth about working on a treadmill desk" filed by a Business Insider writer.

Walking while working burns about 8% more calories each day than sitting.
In a paper on treadmill workstations published in February 2014 in PLOS ONE, researchers at the Carlson School of Management in the University of Minnesota found that not only did walking while working burns about 8% more calories each day than sitting, "overall work performance, quality and quantity of performance, and interactions with coworkers improved as a result of adoption of treadmill workstations."

A 2012 New York Times article on the new "digital divide" highlighted just how much screentime Americans are now putting in — and why these results could matter.

"A study published in 2010 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teenagers whose parents do not have a college degree spent 90 minutes more per day exposed to media than children from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes. The study found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999."

Combine that lifestyle with low health literacy, sedentary commutes, and high intake of fast food and high fructose corn syrup and bad outcomes are apparent everywhere. The trend in media consumption habits in a sedentary position is leading us in the direction of looking like cetacean-like people in WALL-E.

That accumulated evidence should have been enough to get me standing and walking years ago. It didn't. I put off making the change and kept working just as I always had, usually sitting at a desk or coffee table at home, in coffeeshops, conference rooms, lounges, trains, planes, patios, buses, and, every now and again, ferries. I'd stand where counters were available, but I was sitting — and the accumulated impact of all of that sitting was worrying me. If it was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and 78 year-old Donald Rumsfeld, why wasn't I standing? And if health and productivity mattered to me, why wasn't I walking?

My standing desk: build vs. buy

Last winter, my wife asked if I was still serious about making this change. When I said yes, she told me that she'd found a used treadmill at a terrific price if I would pick it up and get it into our place. With the help of my college roommate, we did it. All I had to do was add the desk.

When I started looking through the options back in 2012, from browsing ideas to buy or build a standing desk to watching videos to reading wikis to checking out furniture my parents might tolerate in their den, I wasn't sure if we could find the space or bear the expense. The post that caught my eye was the $40 standing desk courtesy of Lifehacker.

Inspired, I placed a sturdy, long red oak board atop three 16" wooden cubes on each side as support, and added a laptop stand to put the screen at eye level and a keyboard at my fingertips. I had a working walking desk (Figure B)!

Figure B

Image: Alex Howard

Now, I can't help but think about Devin "Skeletor" Skraelin, the virtual worlds writer in Neal Stephenson's novel, REAMDE, a formerly obese man who became whipcord thin from constantly exercising on a machine while he created storylines. While I don't expect to end up anywhere near that extreme, I have already noticed some positive changes, from weight loss (about 10 pounds since I started walking, this January) to decreased discomfort from walking itself. The desk isn't the only factor: I've also been taking long walks with my baby daughter around Washington DC and its environs.

Potential downsides and considerations

Some people can get shocks from poorly grounded treadmills, although that can be allayed by putting them on a rubber mat. Other people might experience vertigo, aches, pain, swelling, or even sprains, in the case of a fall.

This isn't going to be workable for everyone, starting with people with disabilities and injuries. A recumbent bicycle might be an option (or a so-called deskcycle) or even a bike that you can mount to a desk.

If you're not used to standing and walking for hours every day, you'll have to work up to it (I did). If you're not used to standing all day, you'll have to work up to that, starting with short periods of time and working up to longer periods.

A successful experiment

A walking desk has been a successful experiment for me. I wrote much of this column on it, along with thousands and thousands of words over the past two months. I've rarely spent more than 3 or 4 hours in a given day walking, though it's happened. I generally walk about 3-4 miles more than I would otherwise, given the pace I find comfortable. I can't write as well at more than 2 MPH, although I can watch video while moving much faster, even running. I often do interviews while walking (both giving interviews and dialing in for interviews). So far, so good.

Given the nation's media consumption habits and work routines, getting many more people to stand up while they work and spend time online is something worth encouraging, supporting, and perhaps even employers subsidizing in the workplace.

Tell us about your workstation setup

Most of the time when you're working, do you sit, stand, walk, or pedal? If you don't use a standing desk or a treadmill desk, do either of those work setups interest you? Share your thoughts on this topic in the discussion.

Also read

Disclaimer: TechRepublic, CNET, and SmartPlanet are CBS Interactive properties.


Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox