Are Treadmill Desks a Good Way to Keep Fit? I Tried One to Find Out

Here's what walking away the work day is really like.
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Here's what walking away the work day is really like.

If you haven’t heard, sitting may be the new smoking. Research shows that sitting for long periods of time—more than half your waking hours—is linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

This is bad news for someone like me. Like many people, I spend the whopping majority of my day sitting. I’m either sitting at my desk, in my car, at a meeting, or on my couch. When I first started my career, I felt so restless from always sitting. Every lunch, I took the opportunity to walk and go outside every couple hours. But I was accountable for every hour I put on my timesheet, so I learned to deal with the restlessness in order to get work done at my desk.

Now, my job focuses more on raw results than clocked hours sitting at my desk. I’m at ease to take breaks. But years of sitting have changed me; it takes an active fight with myself just to get up and walk to the coffee area, let alone down the street.

While there are many ways to cope with sitting at a desk job all day, none is as straightforward as simply refusing to sit at all. I see you, standing desk—and I raise you a treadmill.

Curiosity got the better of me, so I tried this treadmill desk phenomenon thinking surely it would prove ridiculous. But I am surprised to say it kicked my behind. I wouldn’t say that I’m in top physical condition, but I’m not exactly out of shape. I’m a “runner” (OK, a jogger), and I enjoy yoga on a weekly basis. When I go on vacation, I can jump into half-day hiking adventures without much of a problem. But the day I spent working from a treadmill wore me out to the point where I was actually sore the next day.

The particular model I used is the Uplift LifeSpan. It records your calories, distance, steps, time, speed, and weight. It can also transition to a sitting desk. Costing upward of $1,899, this piece of workout furniture isn’t exactly a healthy bargain. But is it worth it? Here’s what my day at the treadmill desk looked (and felt) like.

8:57 a.m.

Because I was told to go at a snail’s pace, I didn’t feel the need to have a towel with me. But I did have water by my side at all times. As of right now, I’ve endured exactly 2:08 minutes of constant slow movement. I mean super slow. The owner of this desk told me to start at 1.75 mph and go from there. But 1.75 mph is terribly boring. Desk Owner has obviously underestimated me. I am going to increase the speed to a daring 3 mph. Let’s see how I fare.

9:46 a.m.

Feeling good! So good, in fact, that I’m shedding layers. I’m always cold in offices. But come summer, I’m positively freezing because of the air-conditioning blasting ice crystals into my face. Ask my coworkers. It’s not unusual to find me cuddled up in a sweater this time of year. But not today. My sweater has been gone for twenty minutes now, and my hair has gone up in a ponytail. I’m thanking myself for choosing a skirt this morning. The breeze from the fan feels nice.

10:55 a.m.

I’m on a conference call. The person on the other line asks, “What are you doing, and why is it making you breathe so hard? Are you OK?

I’m not out of breath, per se, but you can hear my breathing on the phone. I’m heaving enough that it evokes concern for my health. But I won’t let that little detail me slow me down. It’s only been two hours, after all. At this point, I’ve walked more than five miles while getting my work done—and I’ve only taken one bathroom break. Look at me go!

11:36 a.m.

I want another break, but I must march on—quite literally. I’m going to slow down a little. I have another call coming soon, and I don’t want people thinking I’m in cardiac arrest again. Also, I might be kind of tired. Is it lunchtime yet?

12:35 p.m.

Success! Slowing the pace down to the recommended snail speed of 1.75 mph made for no awkward heavy breathing during the call. Plus, after walking while working for almost four hours, typing has gotten exponentially easier. Not that it was ever particularly difficult. But coordinating being on a moving surface while typing took some getting used to. I don’t see how someone who needs a steady hand (say, a designer or architect) would fare well with this kind of desk.

Walking is becoming less easy, though. Not the walking itself, but my feet feel sore. I should have put more consideration into my footwear. I’m wearing what I thought were super-comfy flats. And they’re from the Maria Sharapova line, so I assumed that they’d be both professional and somewhat athletic. But no. They hurt! Maria Sharapova has let me down, and my dogs are barking.

1:33 p.m.

Met up with a friend for lunch. Never have I felt less guilty about getting chips with my sandwich. Also, sitting felt oddly refreshing. I underestimated how much I would miss that. Lunch actually rejuvenates me. My feet no longer hurt. I gulp down some water.

2:20 p.m.

Time for a remote video call. My head is bobbing the entire time. I feel quite professional.

Also: Has anyone else struggled with drinking water on a treadmill? I manage to spill it all over the front of my shirt. Luckily for me, the video call is over by then.

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The author on a treadmill desk several days later in Austin . . . still hadn’t learned the shoe lesson.

3:01 p.m.

My feet have gotten sore again. I’m so tempted to take these shoes off and go barefoot. Is that gross? Probably. Moreover, it might not be office-appropriate, even in my casual workspace. I really wish I brought some legit walking shoes instead of these sparkly red flats.

On the other hand, I don’t feel my typical afternoon slump. I keep expecting to feel wiped out, but I don’t. I just feel a mild afternoon soreness. But it’s the good kind of soreness, you know? Bring it on, 1.75 mph!

4:06 p.m.

Man, I’m thirsty! Water break again. I think I’ve taken a good five or six of them by this point. Quite the uptick from normal days, as usually I only take one or two. Working out and drinking more water? Am I conquering the world here?

4:40 p.m.

And then there was sound. Eight hours in I realize that music makes this a lot easier. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? Currently, I’m the only person in the entire office. It’s taking all my self-control not to hop off and start dancing. Taylor Swift, here we go . . .

5:22 p.m.

It’s time to head home. If it weren’t for my throbbing feet, I think I could go longer—and faster. I’m feeling much more energized than I would at the end of a non–treadmill desk workday. I receive a call from my husband, who mentions that I seem “chipper.” He’s never used that word to describe me . . . ever. So I’m guessing that it’s a result of today’s perpetual light exercise.

The Consensus

So, should I invest in a treadmill desk? It would certainly leave a considerable dent in my savings. But it would be an investment for my health—as well as my time. I mean, I’d be killing two birds with one stone. I’ve walked about twelve miles over the course of a day, and I haven’t even done my regular workout yet. Moreover, as a professional sitter, I can’t think of anything more psychologically invigorating than coming out of my job a bit more energized and guilt-free. Could this mean “Goodbye, sedentary lifestyle!” and “Hello, fit new me!” I wonder?

On the other hand, it is an expensive purchase. And while my office would allow it, there’s not exactly room for it in my current work environment. So, someday—maybe soon? One thing’s for sure, when that day comes, you can bet I’ll be wearing a more comfortable pair of shoes.