The evidence that sitting for too long is terrible for us is clear — so clear, in fact, the World Health Organization recently changed their guidance on exercise to explicitly account for that fact. As a result, many desk workers are turning to the very thing that (more likely than not) also keeps them glued to it — technology — to help them stay active on the job.
One of the most elaborate (and costly) of these solutions to our sedentary lifestyles is the treadmill desk.
Treadmill desks sound great on the surface. You can walk while you input data into Excel, or have a little jog while sitting in on yet another exhausting Zoom conference call (camera off, of course). Using a treadmill while you're working undoubtedly adds more physical activity to the work day — but is it practical or worth the investment? Can you even concentrate?
Here at Inverse, we took a Gonzo approach to answering this question. I built a treadmill desk in my own apartment to see how it changed my working day. And reader, let me tell you — I am not disappointed. Taking a look at the science, it is easy to see why.
From the research into treadmill desks, three major health benefits float to the top:
- Improved memory and cognitive skills
- Lower risk of neck and back pain
- Lower risk of early death
How much does a treadmill desk cost?
OK. Let's start with the reality of this solution: It is expensive to buy a treadmill. It is also expensive to buy a treadmill desk.
Costs of treadmill desk vary widely by type, brand, and model, but they can run a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. You can also buy desk attachments for a treadmill you already own. These range from less than one hundred to a few hundred bucks.
I took a DIY route. I cut, sanded, and stained a piece of oak plywood I had laying around and then drilled holes in it, so I could secure it to my treadmill with velcro straps. That's where my mouse and keyboard go. I then set up a steel-frame shelving unit in front of my treadmill, placing my computer monitor at eye level on the top shelf.
If you're also feeling crafty, a quick Google search yields tons of DIY set-ups. Or you can watch this delightfully lo-fi Youtube video for tips:
What are the benefits of a treadmill desk?
The major benefit is also the most obvious: It’s a way to avoid sitting for too long.
Cindy Lin is the associate director of Clinical Innovation at The Sports Institute at University of Washington Medicine. She tells Inverse the negative affects of sitting too long during the day may be so bad, they're killing you.
“There's good evidence that sitting over six hours a day is associated with an increased risk of early death,” Lin tells Inverse.
Lin says it’s important to find ways to be more active at work, and treadmill desks are one of the options. In addition to burning calories and keeping you in motion, a treadmill desk could potentially help you avoid developing neck and back pain, she says.
“Just from prolonged sitting and computer use, you can get some back strain or neck muscle strain,” Lin says.
Her advice jibes with other research into the benefits of treadmill desks. One study, for example, found using treadmill desks improved short term memory and attention in people placed in a simulated office situation. Study participants were told to imagine they had to report back to their boss about the contents of a text message and a series of emails in 40 minutes. They read the text message while emails were being sent to them, and they had to decide which emails to open and summarize for their boss. One group completed this task at a traditional desk, and another did it while walking on a treadmill at 1.4 miles per hour.
At the end of 40 minutes, the participants answered true or false questions about the contents of the text and emails they had received. The treadmill desk users were almost 35 percent more likely to answer questions correctly.
The researchers then performed brain scans to look at the electrical activity in the participants' brains. The scans showed the treadmill desk users had more alpha brain-wave activity than the sitting group, and the sitting group had more theta brain-wave activity than the treadmill group. "Previous studies had shown that good memory performance is correlated with a decrease in theta power and an increase in alpha power," the researchers say in the study. In other words, the treadmill desks appeared to boost the study participants' memory skills, even after a short period of use.
What is the right way to use a treadmill desk?
Before you start walking, take these three tips into account:
- Make sure the desk itself is stable and secure and your work materials won’t easily fall off.
- Walk at safe speed.
- Make sure you have enough space on the treadmill so you don’t fall off the back of it (this is particularly relevant for DIY set-ups).
Can a treadmill desk boost productivity?
When it comes to productivity, the science is a little mixed. There's some evidence to suggest a treadmill desk might affect your typing speed, but the boosts to cognitive skills and memory might outweigh these affects.
In one study, 30 office workers completed the same computer tasks under different work station conditions. These included sitting, standing, walking at two different speeds, and cycling at two different speeds. The researchers found productivity was lower when walking and cycling, but undiminished when standing. Mouse use was more impacted than typing by walking desks, so if you need to click around, perhaps treadmill desks aren't the solution for you.
But another study found that participants could avoid typing issues if they used a treadmill desk under the right conditions.
The researchers in this study tested people's working ability — measured by typing speed — while they walked at 0.8 miles per hour, 1.4 miles per hour, 2 miles per hour, and while they sat still.
Typing speeds while walking were slightly lower than sitting for the 0.8 mph and 2 mph test groups. But walking at 1.4 mph was comparable to sitting in terms of performance, the study found.
The authors write their findings “support the potential of active workstations to increase physical activity without compromising important secondary tasks.”
What are other ways of staying active at work?
One thing is clear, whether or not a treadmill desk is right for you, getting moving throughout your day is key.
“Any way that somebody can build in more physical activity into their workday can be beneficial,” Lin says.
Of course, standing desks have become very common, as has the exercise-ball chair. A stationary bike is also an alternative to the treadmill desk. People who are unable to walk, stand, or cycle may choose hand cycles, or resistance bands to get the blood flowing.
Lin says, in addition to these sorts of gadgets, workplace culture and habits need to shift toward more active practices.
“Ways we could be more active would be, for instance, trying to end the meeting 10 minutes early, so you can take a movement break,” Lin says.
She also suggests Zoom call participants could meet without video, freeing them to move around the house or outside. In-person meetings could follow suit. As long as there’s not something the team needs to be looking at, colleagues can stroll and talk, instead of meeting at a table.
“I think it takes a cultural shift,” Lin says. “Whether that's managers or the team saying, ‘Hey, let's make it…socially acceptable to allow people to move around."