The Treadmill Desk Might Really Be Worth It

The Treadmill Desk Might Really Be Worth It

Experts have long known that extended inactivity can be bad for your body, increasing your risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and other illnesses. As the saying goes, “sitting is the new smoking.” At the same time, decades of studies have shown that walking — even just 4,000 steps a day — is good for the mind and body.

Treadmill desks — a setup involving a standing desk with a treadmill beneath it — seem like an ingenious antidote to sedentary office life, and a way to get in a few more healthy steps. But are they worth the investment?

As treadmill desks have become more mainstream, researchers have begun to ask how effective they are. A growing body of studies, though often limited, suggests they do help keep people moving, adding perhaps an average of two extra miles of walking per day.

What’s more, one small 2023 study suggested regular use of treadmill desks increased peoples’ energy, improved their moods and, in some cases, even made them more productive at their jobs.

“Having the ability to add in little bits of activity over the course of a day can add up,” said Akinkunle Oye-Somefun, a doctoral candidate at York University in Toronto and the lead author of a recent meta-analysis of treadmill-desk research. However, he noted, “walking on a treadmill desk is an add on, not something meant to replace your regular exercise routine.”

The key to getting the most health benefits out of a treadmill desk, and avoiding boredom or frustration, is to go in with the right expectations and strategy.

While desk treadmills — or smaller, more portable walking pads — can get you to move more, they do come with some drawbacks you may need to work around.

First, there’s the noise, which is often loud, especially if you use a standard running treadmill. The motor combined with your footsteps can make concentration difficult for you or your co-workers. And unfortunately, the quietest models tend to be the most expensive.

Meg Treat, the owner of a California-based public relations firm who has owned a treadmill desk for about a year, said noise was not the only distraction to consider. During meetings, “I need to be on camera, and I noticed that I was bobbing around,” she said.

Fine motor skills like typing may be compromised too, according to Jenna Scisco, the lead author of the 2023 study and an associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. Another small study suggested typing becomes markedly more difficult (but still noted the “health benefits” outweighed that negative).

Ms. Treat limits the typing she does on her treadmill desk to morning emails and compiling notes for meetings. She said she avoids writing longer documents, where she needs better dexterity. Additionally, “I walk at a slow pace,” she explained.

Cost is another factor. While treadmills and walking pads begin around $200, some can cost more than $1,000.

Before buying a treadmill, think about your ideal set up. Because it will raise you off the ground, you may need to adjust your desk height. “I planned out my space and made sure the walking pad would work with my eye line,” said Ms. Treat. “I found a wireless keyboard and mouse were important because you have to adjust where your arms are when using the treadmill.”

To get the most out of your treadmill, schedule regular times to walk.

“Your best bet is to build a routine with it,” said Gary Giumetti, a professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University who has studied work treadmills. “Start your day with 30 minutes, for instance, and then add in more throughout the day as you get used to it.”

The main goal — especially for those who exercise regularly outside of work — is to break up your stretches of sitting, said Mr. Oye-Somefun. “Start small, maybe while taking a call, so that you’re infusing small bouts of activity into your day,” he said. “When you get tired, take a break.”

Dr. Scisco recommended setting a daily step goal using your smartwatch or the treadmill itself. “Some of our study participants set up walking competitions with their co-workers, which is a good strategy if you’re a competitive person,” she added.

If you work in an office that has a professional dress code, keep a pair of walking shoes and socks on hand, as Ms. Wade does. “I also plan my outfit for the day,” she said. “If I’m meeting with the C.E.O. and I need to wear a dress, I put bike shorts on underneath to walk more comfortably.”

Of course, if a treadmill desk doesn’t work for your life, or if the cost is beyond your budget, there’s always old-fashioned walking. Even with a treadmill, Ms. Wade still walks early in the morning.

Despite making adjustments to her treadmill desk usage, Ms. Wade has never second-guessed her decision. “My goal was to feel better by the end of the day, and I do,” she said.

Amanda Loudin is a freelance writer covering health and science.

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