In Defense of Treadmill Desks

I know, I know.

What's next? A hula hoop desk? A trampoline desk?

I was just as skeptical as anyone when we decided to start carrying treadmill desks. It seemed too gimmicky to be a real solution for incorporating movement into the work day. We all have plenty of distractions, on-screen and in the office, without the added physical risk of tripping over our own feet.

If simply to tear down the hype machine around them, I took the bait and gave the office treadmill a shot. Here's my 100% honest review of walking while working:

jrv-tr1.001 Actual photo of my actual desk

It's awesome.

Not only awesome, but actually totally natural.

Let's back up.

I love my sit-stand desk. It allows me to vary my position throughout the day which absolutely has led to better productivity and increased comfort at work. I have plenty of coworkers who split the day 50/50 sitting/standing, and quite a number who simply stand all day. I'm more of a stand-for-thirty-minutes-a-few-times-per-day type than my colleagues are. I'm also not particularly active outside of work. I'm more a fan of Netflix and tacos than of run groups and climbing gyms.

I'd read the articles--how could I miss them? Everyone from Forbes to Fast Company to NPR were touting the benefits of knocking out 10k steps per day at work. But as someone who loves her routine and comfort, getting my heart rate up and adding that much movement to my day felt like too big of a step. Pun totally intended.

As far as I was concerned, I was not the target audience for a treadmill desk. The people who are fanatics about their walking desks tend to be fit, easy going, and not easily distracted. I am not really any of those things.

So I repeat: I was skeptical.

At first I couldn't get into it. It felt too distracting to get any real work done. Not just the distraction of trying not to fall off a treadmill while sending an email, but the information displayed on the LED panel felt like overkill. I lasted about 15 minutes my first day before worrying I would get too behind if I kept it up.

But, I did keep it up. Like with anything, you figure out what works for you and what doesn't. After a few days the novelty of walking on a treadmill in my office wore off, and I was able to successfully integrate walking into my day.

Just like with our adjustable height desks--some folks choose to stand all day while others add just a few minutes of standing to their routines--what works for each individual depends on multiple factors. Here are the top three things I tell people when starting out with a treadmill desk:

Set a goal. You can pick something easy to track like minutes per day or steps per day to get you started. I went with minutes: 30 minutes, twice a day. A colleague shoots for 10k steps per day (about five miles!) which takes him about half a day.

Take it slow. Literally. Office treadmill desks typically only speed up to 4mph. The fact is that it's nearly impossible for me to get any work done going much faster than 2mph. My sweet spot is about 1.8mph--most consoles will let you control it to a tenth of a mile per hour. So as mentioned above, I try to put in about 60 minutes of walking per day, this adds up to about 3,500 steps per day. Not bad.

Pick the right kind of work. Typing while walking takes a little too much effort for me. Reading while walking or conference calls while walking are perfect. Again, this is just for me. For example, this post was written while sitting and standing, not walking. Fortunately, both reading and conferencing are part of my job each day.

After a week of adding walking to my workday, it hit me: This is how I felt about my standing desk.

We sat in classrooms 30 hours/week for 16 years. We watch The Office, The Newsroom, and Mad Men and assume doing office work means sitting at a desk all day long. But times are changing. Out with the liquor cart (actually, let's think about bringing that back) and in with the standing and treadmill desks.

Just because you haven't done it before doesn't make it impossible.

So for your next Mad Men-inspired office cocktail, consider toasting to the treadmill desk: a healthier office tradition.