Here’s what happens when you get a treadmill desk

Everyone wants to talk about it, for starters. Walking while working made me a convert—but it’s not for everyone

 

My colleagues were not convinced. At least, not all of them.

“Instinct tells me that this is stupid,” one of my co-workers informed me after watching my treadmill desk being set up. “I can’t see that you’re going to do anything meaningful or worthwhile on this thing.”

Another colleague chimed in before I could answer: “At the same time, walking can be meditative,” she pointed out. “It must be great for those moments when you want a little of that meditative rhythm for thinking…”

The treadmill-hater wasn’t buying it. “I still think it’s goofy. Why don’t you just go for a run before work? Or a walk. Who can’t find time for a walk?”
Her face tightened. “My kids get up at 5 a.m.”

“Look,” he said, “the only kind of place I see a treadmill desk working is Google or Facebook. I just don’t think it makes sense here.”

Some version of that conversation likely plays out every time a treadmill desk arrives in an office—and these days, more and more are. There are eager adopters (a gaggle from an office down the hall showed up within minutes of my desk arriving, eyeing it with the sort of uninhibited desire that’s usually reserved for Nanaimo bars at the United Way bake sale ) and there are skeptics.

As for me, I was on the fence. Treadmill desks seemed a little faddish, but given the mounting research linking prolonged periods of sitting with health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, I figured they were worth a try. So when I was offered a chance to try a WalkTop—an adjustable desktop, manufactured by a Canadian company called Fitneff, that fits virtually any treadmill—I said yes. Here’s how my experiment with walking and working played out.


Day 1: 3 miles

I have no idea what to expect—will I be able to type accurately on my keyboard? Will I be panting in an executive’s ear if I dare make a phonecall? Will I be sweaty and exhausted by noon? I hit the start button and heads turn as a loud pneumatic whoosh marks the beginning of my trek.

Fitneff founders Ron Bettin and Laurel Walzak have suggested I stick to a speed of between one and two miles an hour: Treadmill desks aren’t designed to replace workouts at the gym and they’re not meant to be used all day. They’re meant to get your blood flowing, boost your energy level and disrupt the effects of long periods of sitting. A speed of 1.5 mp/h feels perfect, and after five minutes or so I’ve forgotten I’m on a treadmill. I fire off a few emails and type some work notes to myself. Fifty minutes later, I’ve walked 1.2 miles, without even thinking about it—until I get an email from an acquaintance down the hall with the subject “Gotta ask”: “Are you going to be working at a treadmill desk all week? If so, I’m very impressed.” Suck it, skeptics.

Day 2: 3.5 miles

But can you be truly productive on a treadmill? Research suggests yes. In fact, you might even be more productive. One recent study showed that overall work performance improves with treadmill use. Memory retention is also higher: Details of a memo read while treading will stick in your mind longer than they would if you glanced at them slumped at a sitting desk. I find I can do just about any sort of work effectively using the WalkTop, though reading small print on my computer is sometimes tricky.

I even take a chance and interview a CEO, who seems completely unaware that I’m logging half a mile during the course of our conversation. And walking proves great for boosting my energy level, especially mid-afternoon when I tend to crash.

The only real threat to my productivity is the steady stream of colleagues dropping by to talk about the treadmill. When you’re the only person standing in a room full of slouchers, and you’re doing it on a platform that’s raised a foot or so above the floor, you’re an easy mark for chatty co-workers.

Day 3: 4 miles

Important discovery; my comfort level tops out at 1.6 miles an hour. Any faster than that and I find myself starting to, well, glisten a little—not something I want to do in an office environment. Also: It may be -21 outside, but when you work at a treadmill desk, long underwear is a bad idea.

Day 4: 1.5 miles

I wake up with a cold, and resist dragging myself over to the WalkTop for most of the day. I’d rather sit hunched in my chair, even though I feel lousy and can sense my shoulders and neck tightening. At 4 p.m. I hear our resident office skeptic comment that enthusiasm for the treadmill seems to be waning. I haul myself up and decide to put in a little time. I do 40 minutes. It’s the best I’ve felt all day.

Day 5: 2 miles

Appointments and interviews break up my day, and I can’t find a decent chunk of time to spend on the treadmill. So I opt for little 10-15 minute spurts, whenever I can find them. I don’t log a lot of miles, but I feel great at the end of the day—less tightly clenched, and way more energetic.


So is this the future of work? Or five years from now, will all these treadmill desks end up piled in a corner, gathering dust alongside unused foosball tables and that plant you never watered? It’s probably too soon to say. The cost of treadmill desks prices them out of the range of many workplaces—they start at about $1,000 and go as high as $5,000 or even more, though the WalkTop, at $479, offers an affordable solution if you already own a treadmill and want to rig it up for work.

My wary colleague believes walking desks won’t last—he can’t get past the freak factor. “You looked like you were enjoying yourself,” he admits, “but I’m sorry, I just kept thinking this is something the Kids in the Hall would spoof. It’s like it’s work as satire.”

But me, I’m on Team Treadmill. Now all I have to do is convince my boss.

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8 comments on “Here’s what happens when you get a treadmill desk

  1. Sorry Carol, I’m on Team No-Treadmill. I run every morning – don’t get it, never will. Who can’t find 45 minutes a day? Honestly.

    • I’d say even if people can find 45 minutes a day, some don’t want to run. I think a lot of people, who are looking to create a healthier lifestyle for themselves, may find that this is a great first step! I know for me that this offers a much more productive use of my time, than say walking to the closest coffee shop. But hey, each to their own!

    • James, I’m haven’t decide whether I find your comment slightly demeaning or not. There are lots of people who have a hard time finding 45 minutes. I’d count myself one of them. I applaud your dedication to exercising every day. I try the best I can, but life ice doesn’t always co-operate. I think there are probably lots of people like me out there.

      Also, I think you may have missed most of the content of the article because it doesn’t claim to be a replacement for exercise. For me, I am tied to my chair all day. I get up, take care of the family, get to work just in time to answer the five phone calls I’ve already missed. 45 minutes at lunch? Honestly? I’m at my desk. 45 minutes after work? Dinner has to get there somehow. I’d love to find the time to go for a walk or a run – trust me!

      My personal office has no room for a treadmill but we have a corporate gym in the building with about a dozen treadmills. Other than first thing in the morning at lunch and after work they just sit there. Maybe if there were a few of these down there the 95% of us that don’t actually ever use the gym at all might at least be able to get away from our desks for more than 10 minutes to grab coffee! I promise to get off the treadmill when you want to run!!

      If we are picking sides James, and seems that you suggest that we are, I guess I’ll have to go Team Treadmill.

  2. We at Mission Geospatial constitute an engineering, survey and technical consulting firm, as such we each spend a great deal of time parked on our assets clicking away on the old keyboard. During the course of an average day our brains get moderately taxing workouts, unfortunately, our bodies do not. Overall we are a reasonably active and healthy bunch, however, 6 – 10 hours a day seated behind a desk is not ideal for the physique or mental acuity.

    In order to give desk-bound staff an opportunity for exercise and a break from the monotony, we decided to get with the ’90’s and put some fitness equipment in our office. We started with a treadmill and stationary bike, and an uber enthusiastic soul added a weight bench. All this equipment was conveniently parked in a workout area (AKA storage room) on the second floor. Thereafter, the equipment was occasionally mentioned during staff meetings but gradually accumulated discouraging strata of dust.

    When Ron and Laurel enthused about the benefits of their Walktop desk I was unconvinced, but what the hell, if it helped to get even one person more active, why not try it. So try it we did. Rather than leave the equipment in the back room, we decided to move it front and centre on our mezzanine when we installed the Walktop desk.

    Despite being engineers and geomatimagicians, our installation of the Walktop went off almost without a hitch. A team was coordinated, consisting of senior management (me), senior engineer (Colin), safety coordinator (Cam), and technical consultant (Jaroslav). A Job Hazard Assessment was conducted and all necessary safety precautions undertaken prior to the installation. After reading the very clear manual and re-installing the Walktop correctly, we were off to the races. It felt very much like Christmas, without the obligatory liquid enhancement of course.

    So there it sits in plain sight, taunting me to get off my lazy behind. Therefore, I do. Truth be told, the Walktop desk does not lend itself to completing many of the tasks fundamental to our business. There is simply not enough room to spread out the plans and material we need to complete our analyses. What it does allow us to do, however, is more of the mundane operational tasks that typically get pushed aside in favour of more engrossing work. Health benefits aside, the Walktop is somewhat of a de-bottlenecking tool, enabling us to deal with tasks that typically stack up.

    An unanticipated benefit, when the individual on the treadmill needs to be consulted the person consulting them will typically occupy the stationary bike and peddle away. Now we just need is a Peddletop desk.

    Overall, we are impressed by the quality and functionality of the Walktop. It is yet to be seen if the treadmill will continue to be used, but we certainly intend to encourage its use. The Walktop is a simple and effective solution for a problem we did not recognize we had.

    Full disclosure: I attended Queen’s University with the founders of Fittneff, consider them friends, and have invested a very modest amount in the company.

    • Team Treadmill Desk!

  3. Exercising while working at your desk sounds great especially office jobs in buildings. Practising being on a treadmill while working will bring a healthy lifestyle in the workplace. While a light walk on the treadmill may attract us to try it, there are many of us still fixated to our chairs for the last decade. Introducing a new lifestyle like this will take time before people adapt to it and it would never be too late to try now.

  4. I think this is a fantastic idea to get moving while working. People don’t realize how bad it is to be sitting all day. Even if you go to the gym every single day, it’s not going to be enough if you’re sitting for eight hours straight. I’ve read from several sources that you should be off your chair every 10- 30 minutes. If you can’t get treadmill desks into your work, start talking to coworkers in person rather than emailing. For more information to get you moving at work, check out gottabemobile.com.