If sitting is the new smoking, as one researcher recently put it, what can we do about it? Very few of us can afford to quit work, where we sit eight or 10 hours a day, cold turkey. And there is no patch to slap on our expanding midsections in the hope of gradually reducing our dependence on chairs. Many experts believe the problem must be addressed in the workplace, and a number of entrepreneurs are marketing devices designed to foster movement at the office. Don’t expect them to replace your cubicle anytime soon, but they could start popping up as more people become familiar with the dangers of sitting all day.
LifeSpan, one of the bigger names in exercise and medical equipment, is among the companies with a device that allows you to walk slowly on a treadmill while working. The sturdy 31-by-461 / 2-inch desktop on the model I tested at a Tysons Corner Leisure Fitness equipment store had ample room for a computer monitor, a keyboard and a phone. The treadmill, whose top speed is just 4 mph, was soft and quiet.
Because the two parts aren’t physically connected, vibrations from the treadmill did not shake the desk. The only problem I found was that raising and lowering the heavy desk was a two-man job.
More to the point, in 15 minutes of walking on the treadmill at various speeds, I burned 56 calories and covered .42 miles in 1,185 steps, well on my way to the 10,000 steps per day that have become an informal fitness milestone.
LifeSpan CEO Peter Schenk told me the company decided to develop the device after reading blogs and seeing photos posted online by people who had created their own treadmill desks.
“I do think there has been a . . . growing awareness that even if I exercise 30 minutes a day, because I’m sitting six, eight or 10 hours a day . . . I’m really not getting the health benefits I need,” he said.
The product is aimed at lawyers, executives, doctors and others who have their own offices and want a break from sitting, Schenk said. It is designed to be used as much as six hours a day, and the company estimates that an average person walking at 1.75 mph will cover 10,000 steps and burn 500 calories in a little under three hours. That effort can be spread over an entire workday.
LifeSpan’s suggested price is $1,299.
“Comfort is key,” said Leisure Fitness store manager Chip Labbe. “If it’s not comfortable , you’re not going to use it.”
At the other end of the price spectrum is the $230 FitDesk invented by Steve Ferrusi, an engineer and entrepreneur who at first wasn’t thinking about how to counteract excessive sitting in the workplace. An avid cyclist, Ferrusi was looking for a way to log more miles as he trained for a long bike fundraising ride.
He cut a desktop from heavy foam, attached it to his bike, anchored the bike in a training roller and pedaled slowly as he worked. Believing he had stumbled on a valuable training tool, he tried marketing his idea to cyclists. They hated it. But fortunately for Ferrusi, others did not. “The truth is, that market has not warmed up to it as fast as everyone else,” Ferrusi told me. “The cyclist crowd, they’re self-motivated. This is a product for people who are not.”
The FitDesk is more beach cruiser than racing bike; it is built for slow pedaling while you tap away at a laptop, talk on the phone or play video games. The foam desktop has just enough room for a laptop. Other appliances fit in small pockets around the edges.
The one I tested was comfortable and easy to use while working. Better yet, it folds simply like an ironing board and can be rolled away and put in a closet. It’s also easy to assemble.
Ferrusi said he envisions people using it for perhaps an hour or two during the workday, burning about 250 calories per hour. Unlike the treadmill desk, it is suitable for both private offices and cubicle land; online retailer Amazon.com has purchased some for workers in its cubicles, he said.
Ferrusi won’t release sales figures but says he currently cannot keep up with demand and turned down an offer to pitch his device to potential backers on the television show “Shark Tank.”
The standing desk was my least favorite option, but not for the reason you’d suspect.
“How’s the weather up there?” one colleague asked after I set up my workstation. “As long as you’re up, can you get us some coffee?,” another inquired. A third sent around a Gawker post with this headline: “Sit at Your Desk and Die or Stand and Look Stupid: The Ultimate Office Dilemma.” It’s not easy being a visionary.
My desk in a cubicle cluster at work is equipped with lifts, though after years of disuse, they wouldn’t raise the surface high enough. I put my dual monitors on platforms, my keyboard on a thick stack of newspapers and my mouse on a pile of books. Even so, I never found a comfortable angle for the typing I do all day.
There are so many standing desks on the market that I bet you can overcome this problem. A high stool would have helped, too.
After a few hours of working standing up, my feet and back began to ache, so I took some sitting breaks. Remember, as I wrote last summer, the goal isn’t to prove you’re an ironman who can stand all day. It’s to keep your larger muscles active and burning calories.