I don’t love my treadmill desk.
I wanted to love my treadmill desk. I’ve been working at a sit/stand desk for more than 10 years, and I stand about 80 percent of the time; it makes me feel more alert, energetic and creative. So when I saw a used treadmill desk for sale, cheap, I grabbed it. Walking at my desk seemed like an even better way to boost my productivity and energy levels when deadlines keep me chained to my workstation.
But what made the treadmill desk most appealing was the growing pile of studies revealing the dangers of time spent stationary. As an avid runner, cyclist and skier, I get plenty of exercise, but the research shows that a five-mile run at the end of the day won’t erase the health risks — such as an increased risk of diabetes, hypertension and obesity — wrought by eight hours of sedentary time, says Mayo Clinic physician and researcher James Levine, popularizer of the treadmill desk.
On my first day of desk walking, I set the treadmill to 2.5 mph (or 24 minutes per mile), a rather leisurely pace. Typing and mousing were easy with my adjustable monitor and keyboard tray. The more I raised the speed, the more satisfying the walking felt, but the more distracted I became from details on the screen.
After a day of walking faster and faster, I tried turning the treadmill down to 1.5 mph, which made the walking less distracting — except for my constant runner’s urge to go faster. I kept experimenting, and I even tried the lowest setting, 0.5 mph, to see if I’d have better luck thinking of this as fidgeting rather than exercise. But that pace felt so annoyingly slow that I soon quit in frustration.
Eventually, I settled on 1.8 to 2.4 mph as my ideal pace, and found that desk walking could keep me sane and alert on days when I’m so slammed with deadlines that it’s my only opportunity for exercise. But for me, walking on the desk treadmill is about as satisfying as eating a meal in front of the TV: I’d much rather go out for a run.
I’ve now had the desk treadmill for more than a year, and I sometimes go weeks without turning it on. Yet when my writing buddy Paolo Bacigalupi, a prolific novelist, began using one, he fell in love with his in exactly the way I had expected to love mine.
“I find that I look forward to starting to work in the morning, partly because it’s now the moment when I start moving physically,” he says. Bacigalupi has always enjoyed being active and hated that doing good creative work meant becoming inert, “So the treadmill desk feels like a big win.” I’d long ago sold him on the virtues of a standup desk, but he now prefers the walking one. Even with the standing desk, Bacigalupi tended to freeze into stationary positions, but the treadmill ensures that he’s never static and the back problems that once plagued him have vanished.
What about productivity? A small 2011 study found that transcriptionists’ accuracy did not differ when they switched from sitting to working at a treadmill desk, but their speed dropped by 16 percent. (They also burned 100 more calories per hour.) A year-long study of workers at a financial services company found that treadmill desks increased both physical activity and productivity. “This is a pragmatic approach that can work for almost everybody,” says study author Avner Ben-Ner, a professor of human resources and labor studies at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.
Given how many ideas come to me while I’m walking, biking or running outside, I’d thought the treadmill would increase my creative output, but instead I’ve found that some tasks, such as editing and taking notes on scientific papers, feel more difficult.
“One thing that’s known about walking and cognition is that it needs to be at a comfortable, self-selected pace to be helpful,” says Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education at the Stanford School of Education, whose research has shown that walking boosts certain types of creativity. “If you’re forced to go too fast or too slow, its going to siphon off cognitive resources.”
Bacigalupi says he’s more productive now. “I waste less time,” he says. “I tend to focus in and just get to work, instead of malingering on Facebook and Twitter.” He walks two to four hours per day at 1.8 to 2.6 mph, and he feels energized. “It’s sort of pleasant to finish my day’s writing work and have a feeling of my body being a little tired.”
As for me, I remain ambivalent. After Bacigalupi showed me his setup, I went home and walked nine miles at my desk. I also developed a blister from walking barefoot, and felt tired enough at the end of the day that I skipped the higher-quality run I would have otherwise done.
I harbor a gnawing suspicion that treadmill desks are the wrong solution to an important problem: too much time at desks and in front of glowing screens. The treadmill desk robs office workers of a legitimate reason to leave their workstations once in a while. Sure, walking at your desk is better than not walking at all, but I wish those weren’t the only two choices.