Emerging Tech investigate

Can desk treadmills save the health of knowledge workers?

With the world moving toward more desk jobs and obesity rates rising, one possible remedy could be the walk-while-you-work approach.

The U.S. is in the midst of a massive transition to a more knowledge-based economy. That means more people sitting at desks for extended periods every day, and that's one of the factors contributing to a dramatic increase in America's obesity rate in the past 20 years.

There's a new idea for combating this trend: Walking while you work.

The idea is that you have an elevated desk where you can stand rather than sit. Then, instead of just standing, you put a treadmill under your desk and set it to a low speed so that you're continually doing light exercise while you do your daily tasks at the computer.

The company promoting this concept is TrekDesk, which sells its TrekDesk Treadmill Desk for $500, and then you supply the treadmill (which typically costs from $500 to $2500).

Here are a few notes that I gathered while researching this:

  • The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that people walk a minimum of 10,000 steps or 5 miles per day in order to promote a healthy lifestyle; with the walk-while-you-work system, you can get that in about 3 hours
  • If you do that every weekday, you can loose 2-3 pounds per week
  • The height of the TrekDesk is adjustable
  • Most people don't sweat while doing this because you set the treadmill to a low walking speed
  • Walking can also boost cognitive functions, memory, and energy levels, according to some studies
  • There's a history of thinkers who preferred standing desks, including Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and Ernest Hemingway
  • The TrekDesk is the brainchild of Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic
  • Treadmill desks are already in use at a number of U.S. corporations, including GlaxoSmithKline, Humana, Mutual of Omaha and Best Buy, although they typically use more expensive systems that cost $5000 or more.

The TrekDesk has gotten a lot of publicity from the mainstream media but my favorite explanation and demo is this three-minute video from Daily Grommet:

Sanity check

How many companies in corporate America will be willing to replace cubicles with TrekDesks and treadmills? Probably not many. But, those companies could run an experiment where they set up several shared work spaces with TrekDesks and treadmills where users could bring their laptops and work for a couple hours.

In general, this type of thing could be an interesting development for IT professionals, administrators, and programmers, who are often "chained to the desk" for long periods at a time.

I could also small businesses and professionals who work out of their home offices latching on to this concept even more quickly than corporations.

It may look hokey, but I have to admit that I would love to try it. As I often tell people, I do my best thinking when I'm walking. That's why I tend to put on a headset and pace back and forth in my office when I'm on conference calls. It's also why I try to walk a couple miles in the mornings and evenings whenever possible. That's when I get my best ideas. But, it's hard to make the time to do it consistently, so integrating it into my regular work day could make a lot of sense.

My only question with walking-and-working is how fast I could actually type while strolling on the treadmill. Still, it could be worth the experiment. What do you think? Respond to the poll and jump in the discussion.

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About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

94 comments
Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Standing work stations. Churchill, Hemingway, and Jefferson had the right idea. Take your entire work area, raise it up by 12 to 24 inches. Trade your chair for a padded stool to perch on when you want to rest your dogs for a few minutes. Best part, no moving parts. No moving parts, nothing to break, or fall off of. if you're going to install treadmills at the workstations, you may as well get the kind that hook to a generator and dump the power back into the grid.

Realvdude
Realvdude

Any first person historic facts to support the notion that these historic figures preferred standing desks for any particular reasons? Seems to me that a standing desk would be used where you either don't spend enough time to bother to sit down or you frequently move to and from the desk. I think a modern day example of could be server console or tech bench. It was handy to have a stool though, for those occasional long stretches at the keyboard.

are@fccucom
are@fccucom

Wouldn't it make more sense, and be more cost effective and safer to just install several treadmills that employees could use during their lunch hour, and extend the lunch hour so they can use it.

firstaborean
firstaborean

I've always been one to walk, but, when I worked in industry, I definitely sat at my desk or drafting table. I wouldn't do otherwise, but I'd get up every twenty to sixty minutes to walk around a bit, or do even more. At some places, I'd walk to the nearest market, typically a mile or so away, during my lunch break and come back with, say, a dozen donuts for all of those others who weren't as active as I. These days, I work at home, and I split my own firewood for exercise. I heat my home with it. The gas furnace has been off for about seventeen years. Sledge and wedge, anybody?

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

who can't walk and chew gum at the same time, this is an exceptionally bad idea. :|

kevin.edge
kevin.edge

Treadmill walking is not stable enough to type and operate a mouse accurately enough. combining and exercise bike with a desk would be a better combination giving a more stable upper body.

optmystc1
optmystc1

"Walk-work" got me through Network Administration school! I did all my textbook reading and studying while on a treadmill at the local gym. Only way my mind could concentrate on all that boring stuff was to keep my body busy.

Just Another IT guy
Just Another IT guy

Many of my co-workers can't walk and chew gum at the same time let alone use a PC, phone or calculator! Don't see this catching on for many of the reasons already mentioned, but I agree obesity is certainly becoming common.

Eoghan
Eoghan

Don't be short-sighted... Employers will sell this as a health benefit ("log 5 miles a day, every day, and get $5 off your monthly health benefit cost) and then plug the devices into the grid, to reduce their electric costs. When times are tough employees will be required to do 7, then 10, then 15 miles a day!

GSG
GSG

I'm too clumsy, and I have issues periodically with vertigo. I have trouble walking on a treadmill when I'm concentrating on walking, which is why I walk on the track. No, I'd go flying off the thing, break a leg, and then have to file a worker's comp claim. It would be nice to have a couple of treadmills in the office to use when trying to think. Now when I have a problem that I'm trying to think through I pace around muttering to myself, or close my eyes and lean back in the chair to think it out. Edited to add: Instead, with that money, you could give everyone who wanted it free membership to a health club. Then, like a local company does, you go in, and a trainer signs off that you were there, AND that you did a good workout. If you do that 3 times per week, your part of your health insurance premium is reduced significantly.

becksdark
becksdark

Already has several of the laptop/corporate LAN/treadmill workstations in teir corporate HQ in Minneapolis...

william.bondy
william.bondy

At work I will sit about 70% of the day and walk around 30%. At night I game. I have removed my Chair and put up a 2 Post rack with my Gaming Rig 2 monitors one on a swivel arm. Keyboard is on one tray and my G13 and Naga mouse is on another level. I am not a skinny guy just average build. This has helped a bit.

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I think I would have trouble concentrating on my thoughts and typing while walking. OK, I'm clumsy! So what! :) That said, there are activities that walking or moving does help with. Thinking out a problem. Just sitting at your desk is counter productive sometimes. Sometimes fixing the problem in your mind, then actually leaving your desk and walking around looking at other problems is the fastest way to remove a roadblock. But I prefer to actually walk over to a coworker's area and hash out the problem with them. Maybe walk by several coworkers and get some input. Yeah, some bosses don't understand the process.

SSandersTX
SSandersTX

I saw Dr. Levine talking about this several years ago on 60 Minutes and loved the idea. When I was working from home for a couple of years I tried to figure out a way to make it happen but couldn't figure out a way to get a 'headless' treadmill. You don't have to walk fast, so no sweat, but yes you do still burn calories and gain a variety of other health benefits, but no it doesn't give you an aerobic workout; this isn't meant to be a replacement for exercise - it's meant to get our bodies moving again like they were meant to! Judging from the whining on this page, liability is going to be the big stumbling block (pun intended). I thought tech geeks were supposed to be agents of change; sure doesn't sound like it from this group.

RealGem
RealGem

This sort of thing is just another way to distract people from the fact that they eat badly and they eat too frigging much. Sure, they're supposed to exercise more. How many calories can you burn by walking slowly at your desk? And, the first time someone spills their coffee into it and shorts the treadmill out, the experiment will be over. I recommend consuming *less* than 3000 calories per day, people. That will help the obesity. 2000 calories is all you need unless you're an athlete. Eat right, get a little exercise, and obesity won't be a problem. And forget the expensive gimmicks; there is no silver bullet!

jon4t2
jon4t2

I'm a big fan of stand-while-you-work/compute. Last year, I had to set up a work station in a laboratory and there was no desk to sit at. The bench height of 36 inches turned out to be perfect for long stints at the keyboard. At the end of the day I didn't have to uncoil my spine in order to get home. Back in my office, I put my computer desk "up on blocks" to achieve the same 36 inch height. (The half-length cinder-blocks I found at Lowe's were only 99 cents each. Aesthetics were not a concern since I was working in a college science department.) I still sat down to read and mark up hard copy and books. (Some habits are harder to break than others.)

cutting
cutting

I have what is called "Post Polio Syndrome" in my feet and legs, which is similar to Neuropothy. Walking any distance at all is somewhat quite painful and work would not be accomplished. So... I sit and get fat.

Brian G
Brian G

Very Simple; Stop stuffing your face with processed crappy food.

jspicker
jspicker

I've been walking 5 miles outside pretty much every day for years and I have NEVER, even with severely restricted food intake, lost 2-3 pounds even in 1 week, let alone every week. This is a seriously exaggerated claim!

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

Instead of having a powered treadmill, why not hook a small generator to the treadmill and use it to power the computer? That would save electricity, and give everyone an incentive to exercise -- when you quit walking, your computer loses power. This is the first step to the Matrix.

Ajax4Hire
Ajax4Hire

I treadmill at home when I play PS2 or watch DVDs. I usually must walk while playing PS2/3 but I bump up the speed to a run on the cut-screens. Watching DVDs while walk/running has made a trip to the theater odd now. I feel like I should be moving during the movie.

Gaah
Gaah

when you think when you are a very fast typist.

ms
ms

I don't think I could type or read very accurately while walking on a treadmill, unless it was really slow which would defeat the purpose. An exercise bike would at least keep you stable, in a chair, and there's significantly less chance of injury.

tresgonzalez
tresgonzalez

Change your vision focus and doing some light exercise every some minutes, maybe 10 or 20 minutes, maybe some pushups against a wall or situps. This should be enough to exercise and relax your eyes.

KAPR
KAPR

"Damnit, Jim, I'm a doctor--not a hamster!"

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

"I already walk while I work." In my work, I already spend most of the time not driving between calls on my feet, either walking or standing. If I was chained to a desk, though, yes, I'd give it a try.

itstechnical
itstechnical

I don't comment too often but this 'offering' commands attention (thank you Jason). People...get a life! and people...get your life back! A walking workstation may help you to loose weight, but how much of your life are you willing to sacrifice to work? This is comical, something I would expect to see in a Terry Giliam movie (remember 'Brazil' for those of you who go that far back). Here's the deal...pretend you are a cigarette smoker and need to "take a break' every hour or so. Instead of smoking or sitting on your butt drinking coffee, walk around. Climb some stairs. Take care of yourself. It's not the companies job to keep you fit.

guy.rowson
guy.rowson

Hi peoples, I have been doing this for a while now. I have an arrangement where I attach my laptop to the treadmill and walk about about 5-6km/hour (about 3.x m/hr) whilst either: a) sorting my follow ups and activities for the day, and/or b) watching webcasts/demos for professional development I'd get one but the only thing is I am in Australia so I am sure the shipping costs would be a killer. Cheers.

djones
djones

So are companies going to be willing to pony up for the insurance rate increases due to lower back problems caused by extended walking in dress shoes or am I supposed to wear sneakers with my business attire?

djones
djones

My company recently instituted a pedometer program where you were supposed to walk 10000 steps per day. The only real "issue" I have with the story is that it incorrectly states that most people don't sweat while doing this. Unfortunatley to get the health benefits mentioned you must be doing aerobic walking not just slow walking. The 10000 steps is cool but the health benefits come not from the steps but from the workout. To be counted as aerobic steps they must equal 2 steps per second for a minimum of 10 minutes. It's not hard, but if you do it for three hours you will certainly be sweating. Unless of course your are in good shape, in which case why do you need to do it.

fgranier
fgranier

Bye Bye Green IT. Unless the treak desk is powered by human motion and is completely silent.

Trekdesk
Trekdesk

Walking on a treadmill (manual) generates about enough power for a low watt light bulb, don't worry about the grid. However you should be concerned of spending time in office chairs it is literally robbing you of your health one day at a time.

Trekdesk
Trekdesk

It is possible to burn between 800-1600 calories per day walking with a TrekDesk, depends upon speed, incline, your weight, duration etc. Diet is very important but movement is critical to health.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

People spill coffee on their computers and people are still allowed to drink coffee at their work stations. Bill

Trekdesk
Trekdesk

Brian has half of the equation. The other half is move. Studies have shown that overweight individuals are healthier than skinnier counterparts if they don't move enough.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

I have seen people that modify their food intake and put in a little light exercise and loose this kind of weight for weeks at a time. My wife even increase her food intake (not sure if calories went up or not, but quantity did) and she lost about 80 pounds in less than a year. People have the wrong idea that weight loss is always about eating less food. Eating the proper foods through out the day so your body doesn't go into a calorie saving mode is also extremely important. Bill

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

I think that walking could supplement the power, but I think it would take a lot of exercise to actually fully power a computer. Bill

Trekdesk
Trekdesk

Sounds logical on the surface and the TrekDesk folks experimented with the bike desk first but did not pursue it for a few reasons. 1. Sitting is very bad on your spine. 2. Many beneficial bodily processes occur when you are upright and walking, sitting shuts them off.

george.hickey
george.hickey

while I agree that there is far less chance of injury (and I think that our Health & Safety office would have a stroke), walking has benefits other than pure cardiovasculor. The body is designed to walk - it is a natural state, far more natural than sitting for long periods of time. As well as strengthening heart & lungs and leg muscles, it stimulates the digestive & lymphatic systems and extended periods of walking strengthen the tendons and ligaments around the load bearing joints (ankles, knees, hips) without the jarring or impact associated with running for example. Having said that, I think a bicycle chair probably would be a lot easier to get past our Health & Safety people than the treadmill desk but I for one would like to give it a go!

mattato
mattato

I 2nd the best comment nomination

codepoke
codepoke

The "best comment" award

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

It's one of the reasons I voted "No". In my job, I already spend the majority of my work day on my feet. Most days. On those work days when I am chained to a desk, I don't think that the treadmill idea would work for me. At such times I'm either writing or debugging programs, drawing wiring diagrams, or writing formal Owner's Manuals or other technical documentation. Any of which pretty much demand my full attention and focus. And speed. Since the work I do is mostly contracted, fixed bid price. One does not dally around getting things done if you're wanting to actually make a profit on the deal. Even on the jobs that are T&M, you try to keep the total number of hours billed down to avoid "sticker shock" when the customer sees the final bill. But beyond that; and forgetting the practical issues such as how much floor space does one of those gadgets take up, the cost, etc; I'd probably still not be interested. When my workload is such that I am spending significant time at a desk, I prefer to occasionally take a break from it, move around to get the blood flowing again, and at the same time give my brain a break. I find such mental breaks help. If at work, our office building, we have an employee exercise room. I'll go hit that and work up a good sweat. Or switch to appropriate attire and go take a speed walk of a few miles if its a nice day outside. I just make up the lost work time later in the day. The folks I work for are flexible about that. If doing desk work at home, I go down into the basement where I have an exer-bike, rowing machine, etc. Go at it non-stop and hard for 30 minutes. Shower, get back to work. Besides getting my system pumped up and the blood flowing well. I find the mental break helps me focus better and think better in the last half of the day. Many a time I've been mentally stumped. Took one of those breaks. And then came back to the problem and solved it in short order.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

Breaks are not long enough to get the amount of walking time in a day that you need (unless you are taking 2 to 3 hours of breaks a day). Bill

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

I was wondering if there was somebody who actually does it. 5-6km/hr seems like a respectable pace to me. Does walking affect your typing ability? Do you spend a significant part of your work time walking? How many miles do you average per day? BTW: I don't see a reason to purchase this, when you can use a regular treadmill, set up some stands and adjustable tables to customize your own.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Wear good quality walking shoes/cross-trainers on the treadmill, then put on the Bostonians or Bruno Magnis to make that sales call. Women have been doing it for years: flats in the office, heels on the road. Afterthought: For that matter, find a pair of good work shoes. (They [u]do[/u] come in 'dressy.') They are intended to both be comfortable and look good. I wore a pair of commercial work shoes for four years in one military assignment. Why? Because combat boots were not allowed and these were the most comfortable shoes I had found at the time. As a bonus, they could be made to meet military appearance requirements with minimal additional effort.

Zahra B.
Zahra B.

You *do* know that there are nice-looking shoes that are also made to walk in, as opposed to strictly made for looks, right? Personally, the most comfortable dress shoes I've ever worn are dance shoes (yeah, those salsa high heels). They're made to walk (dance) in for hours without hurting your feet, they're made so that they look good and they have more size varieties than you can imagine (customizable width, heel height, straps style, even fabric color for each and every model, of which there are many, many more than I care to count), what's not to like? And, anyway, let me repeat, dress shoes everyday? Sounds like torture to me. On topic: I'd love to try it, but I'm not buying it without trying it for a few weeks.

djones
djones

Just to clarify, the company does not require you meet the 10K steps per day and there is no "penalty" for not meeting it.

roda235
roda235

Appears only the negative side has time or courage to reply in the comments but that most people would welcome it. My health is important to me. I'm looking for a way to walk and play WoW to keep it up.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

Your Trekdesk probably wouldn't work for me, personally. To begin with, I spend little time at my "office" at work. Just a cubical, actually. One problem would be the lack of room that a threadmill would require. And when I am there the type work I'm doing requires pretty much my full concentration on the task at hand. Its detail work which also requires speed. I can't picture myself trying to do detailed CAD work while walking. Or speed typing. That said, I can see that the product would be a viable option for some folks. The product does bring to mind something I've seen at a building owned by one of my customers (I do contract work). The business has an exercise room for employees. With a pretty good layout and selection of equipment. One day I was walking past that exercise room and noticed one of the facilities maintenance guys working away at a project building what looked like some platform to surround a threadmill. I stopped and asked and he told me that someone had suggested to the company's Employee Welfare and Rec Committee that an idea similar to yours could benefit at least some employees. The Committee had thought it a good idea. And had ordered the in-house maintenance staff to make it happen. The idea, of course, being to enable person to get a workout, while still being able to get some work done, check email, catch up on some reading, or do some lookups/browsing. So he was building said "desk" surfaces around some of the threadmills, and around some exerbikes. The company planned to mount laptops at each station, and provide wireless APs. On later visits I saw the project was completed and the special setups were in fact seeing plenty of use. They appear to be popular. In fact they had to set up a system for folks to reserve time on the units. I'm pretty sure it cost em more to have that guy custom make the platforms than it would have cost to buy something like the Trekdesk. I am pleased that when you quoted the "possible" calories burnt per day using your product that you did not make exaggerated claims. Of course, most folks won't walk a threadmill continuously for 8 hours a day. But if you did, even at a slow walk, 800 calories a day would be in the ball park. Or if you did a more brisk pace, steeper incline, etc for fewer hours, 800 calories is still doable. More if one is really ambitious. Of course, one's eating habits have a great deal of effect. You'd need to burn off that 800 calories just to counter one Big Mac with cheese. More or less, its close. Somewhere around 300 calories for a regular size Snickers bar, or 1 cup of some of those Starbucks coffee drinks. Chuckle, I'm not knocking a Snickers bar. I am myself not much of an eater of sweets. But occasionally I get the urge, and when I do I like a Snickers bar. A friend of mine and I had that conversation. My friend is a construction electrician, a good one. And his job is such that he most definitely gets plenty of exercise. In fact his doctor has repeatedly declared his health to be excellent. However my friend probably carries around an extra 50 pounds of fat. His trouble being that he has a large appetite, and a taste for things that are high in calorie count. His doctor has warned him that while his health is outstanding now, he is getting close to retirement age, and if he stops getting the sort of exercise he now gets at work, it is almost certain his health will go downhill VERY fast. The Doc has seen this time and time again. So my friend and I were discussing this. He grumbling that he should probably start now to lose those extra pounds of fat. But mentioning, "You know me, I like my food." LOL .. I told him that liking food was fine. Liking a Snickers bar was fine. That wasn't the problem. It was the 3 to 5 Snickers bars a day. Add his usual 12 pack of regular Mountain Dew. A habit of eating a whole "Family" sized bag of chips at one sitting. And the man is addicted to Big Macs ... with cheese. To him, not a meal. Just a little snack between meals to tide him over. So we, his family and I have been working on helping him change his eating habits. He is making progress and starting to slim up. Not that he'll ever be slim. He's a big fellow, big boned, and very heavily muscled. But he's gotten to the point now where he can see his toes without bending over. I am personally convinced that if he'd held down a desk job, he'd have either died or been hospitalized long ago. But being over weight is just one side of things. One can definitely be fashionably slim and still be in poor overall health as a result of sitting your a** too much. I know several folks like that. One is a guy at work. One of our full time programmers. Its all he does. Has been doing it for years. About a year and a half ago he had a heart attack. A nasty one. And previous to that he was always complaining about how easily his back became sore, how easily his legs gave out if he had to use the stairs, etc. This guy is on the slender side. But frankly his overall muscle tone and condition sucked. After he recovered from the heart attack and got back to work, a couple of the gals in our office who make a routine of it, started encouraging him to walk with them. Company policy does allow for things like the taking of a 1 hour lunch break instead of the usual half hour. IF ... one wants to get some exercise (we have a company provided gym and other facilities) and you make up the lost time at the end of the day. At first they had to virtually drag him away from his desk. And they took it easy on him at first, slow walks. But once he got into the groove of it, and got over the initial complaints from long unused muscles and joints ... he now says he feels a lot better. And the back pains have seriously diminished, his legs feel better, etc. As a side note, having nothing to do with walking. Folks should consider trying regular stretching exercises. Where I work we have a mandatory stretching program. Since it was implemented the incident rate for back problems, joint problems, etc have plummeted.

RodNichols5
RodNichols5

The poll is running about 86% positive when I checked and yet we are hearing from the 14% that are against this. It seems we always hear the most from the negative people.