Treadmill Desk Backlash

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Treadmill workstations hit the marketplace in 2007, and have made a steady, albeit slow, rise since. The inventor of the walking desk, Dr. James Levine, was featured in my 2008 documentary short Body Job and The Kineticist stands (while walking and typing) staunchly in favor of this revolutionary kinetic innovation to the workplace.

Because of my interest in the treadmill desk (and general ideas for transforming sedentary behaviors into kinetic ones), I’ve been tracking the course of Dr. Levine’s invention in the market and in the media, over the years. By 2014, studies linking increased productivity to treadmill desk use were circulating in the media. Susan Orlean’s valentine in The New Yorker, and this great video piece in The New York Times really boosted exposure in mainstream press. Treadmill desks were having their moment in the sun and seemingly on the verge of tipping.

However, this past spring 2015, I noticed articles coming out detracting from the health and productivity benefits associated with working while walking. This NPR piece sounds the walkstation’s death knell¬†and cites a study in which participants were asked to use the machines, but were not motivated to do so. In the New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds reported on a study in which folks were introduced to the desk, walking at 1.5 m.p.h., then soon after tested unfavorably, compared to sitting workers, on a series of tasks checking manual and mental dexterity. A budding treadmill desk backlash now appears to be underway.

I use a treadmill desk almost everyday while working, and found that it’s massively diminished my neck, upper- and lower-back pain. It creates balance in the flow of the workday, and increased my ability to stay with stuff (AKA concentrate) for longer. I’m not using the walkstation to get a workout, but I am burning calories. More importantly, I’ve replaced 30 minutes – 1 hour of sitting with 30 minutes – 1 hour of moving, repeatedly, throughout the day. That is a win.

There’s a messaging problem going on with the walking desk, and these recent studies are ill-conceived. A walking desk is not a quick ticket to weight loss, and should not be clumped with faddish weight loss products (as seen on TV)! It is neither an Ab Pro Carver nor Belly Burner. It’s an ergonomic work device — just think of it as another type of chair in your office. If walkstations are purchased as faddish toys, then left unused, that comes as no surprise to me. News flash: Americans are (perhaps, sometimes) lazy. Fad-based purchases will ultimately land on the scrap heap of many a New Year’s resolution expenditure. You have to turn it on in order to receive the benefits.

I do also use the walk station as a standing desk, and it’s easy sometimes to get into the habit of standing for long periods. When I notice I’m sinking into my hips or dumping weight into my back, I turn on the walkway belt which immediately rectifies the slump. Walking automatically lifts dead weight out of the legs and pelvis, centering the torso. It’s as simple as pushing a button. But, it’s not for everybody. Having the machine foisted upon you in the workplace is quite different than seeking it out.

The Kineticist at work on the Treadmill Desk

If you are someone who is suffering from chronic injuries from sitting at a screen all day, or who feels physically (and soulfully) deadened by the daily experience of sitting at work, the treadmill desk provides a radical alternative. Machines range in price from $800 – $5,000 and definitely require some workspace re-arrangement. But fundamentally, they are a way to bring movement into your workday.

Instead of compartmentalizing your moving body from your work body, you can satisfyingly integrate physical activity on the job. At my first full-time desk job, I remember feverishly scrolling through gym, yoga, and dance class schedules throughout the workday. I couldn’t wait to bust out of the chair at 5pm. With a treadmill desk, my physical impulse has an outlet; as a result, the layer of neuroses devoted to future physical activity is at rest. The treadmill desk is deeply liberating and when used on balance with a sitting desk, and as a standing desk, creates an even harmony in the workday.

A walkstation takes some time getting used to. Studies showing increased productivity were done over long periods of time, not in the short window immediately following initial usage. 1.5 m.p.h. is way too fast for a first-time user to perform dexterity tests — that’s a huge study blunder. Dr. Levine recommends walking less than a mile an hour. I generally type comfortably at 1.2 m.p.h. When you start using the machine, you figure out what speeds work best for what tasks.

The longer I use a walkstation, the better my capacity for both mental and physical awareness while working. I can change up my gait, activate core muscles, drop shoulders — all while focusing on the work task at hand. The walkstation provides a new opportunity for increasing physical intelligence everyday. Stagnancy inhibits growth–both literally and metaphorically. Change becomes possible on a kinetic platform.

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