I Tried It: Treadmill Desk

By Erin Meanley, 34, Carmel Valley

“Sitting has become the smoking of our generation,” says speaker Nilofer Merchant in a video entitled “Got a meeting? Take a walk” (Google it). We watched it at a recent TedXSanDiego Salon luncheon at the University Club downtown. In the three-minute video, Merchant put things into perspective. “Nowadays people are sitting 9.3 hours a day, which is more than we’re sleeping, at 7.7 hours.”

I decided to walk back to my office.

If you’re not obese, you probably don’t worry about “sitting risks.” But even fit people who go to the gym regularly are guilty of “extended sitting” and can suffer the consequences, which include increased blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as a higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease and cancer. James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic and co-director of the Mayo Clinic/Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative, explains that when you stand or walk, your muscles set in motion processes that break down fats and sugars, but when you sit, your body hits the pause button.

Erin Meanley working at her treadmill desk

The Surgeon General recommends taking 10,000 steps a day. But who has the time?

Enter the Lifespan Treadmill Desk TR 1200 DT ($1,499). After a few coworkers set it up for me, I climbed on and set it at 2.0 speed—just two miles an hour, about the pace of a woman walking by the window of a Prada boutique. The slow speed is necessary if you want to be able to type with accuracy.

The first day, everyone was curious. One coworker thought it was funny to hand me a donut, snap a pic, and tweet it. At one point, I dropped some papers. They went underfoot and stopped at the end of the treadmill. I left them. The phone rang. I hadn’t set up the Bluetooth and I didn’t hop off to see who was calling. Oh, well.

You Try It

START SLOW. Find out where your baseline is and add about 500 steps every one to two weeks, says Bryant.

GET CUSTOM INSERTS. Invest a few hundred dollars to avoid ripple-effect injuries. John Nunn, a 35-year-old Olympic race-walker living in Bonsall, recommends having orthotics made. “Regular running shoes are generic. Everyone’s physical body is different and will land differently.”

START A CLUB. If your company can’t buy a treadmill desk, start a lunchtime walking group. See acefitness.org for tips.

As much as I didn’t want to, I still had to pause and jump off a lot—to use the restroom, to get a snack, to rest. But when I did get off the treadmill, I noticed I stood a lot more. A moving body stays in motion, after all.

A few bummers: On the treadmill, sipping a hot cup of morning coffee doesn’t offer the same pleasure, and writing a note on a small Post-it is downright challenging.

After just an hour on the ’mill, I had completed 5,790 steps—more than half a day’s requirement. In fact, I reached 10,000 after one hour and 42 minutes. Ten thousand steps is about three and a half miles and, for someone like me, about 300 calories burned.

I kept going until 3 p.m., when I reached 20,450 steps, for a distance of over 7 miles. I stood for an hour at the desk. And yes, you can stand while working and forget you’re standing.

My posture improved. I wasn’t snacking at my desk or staring out the window idly. And this is the argument that, more than saving on health costs and absenteeism, will get employers—it’s the productivity! Spacing out is easy when you’re slumping in a chair. But when your body is in motion, your hands and mind naturally have to keep up.

On day two, I did 13,675 steps. On day three, I was really tired by 2 p.m. “Like, REALLY tired,” I wrote in my notes. I managed 12,000 steps. Day four, I decreased still more, to 10,620 steps. Blessedly, the weekend came.

The next week varied, but by Wednesday I had to skip the Taste of Little Italy walk because I had to save up my reserves for a walking tour of the renovated La Valencia an hour later.

On day 10, a Monday, I did exactly 10,000 steps, then stopped. The bunion on my left foot and my left heel hurt. I called a podiatrist and made an appointment.

On Tuesday, I did not walk at all. I wheeled in a small desk next to my treadmill. The following morning, I was sitting by the treadmill eating Oreos for breakfast. Next day, the treadmill was now a very expensive magazine rack.

A month passed. I saw the podiatrist and learned I had plantar fascitis, and also that my bunion (fun fact!) is not an injury—it’s a deformity. I bought bigger shoes and inserts, started stretching my calves, and took a break from exercising. The pain subsided and I slowly worked my way back to walking on the treadmill.

Meantime, we had moved the machine out of my office and into a vacant room (so others could use it, too—and a few coworkers began regular walking sessions). Having moved it out of my sight made the act of hopping on the treadmill feel like I was taking a vacation from my office, and I found that I liked to take vacations once every morning and once every afternoon.

It doesn’t always happen, but it’s a good goal. “We were designed to be hunters and gatherers,” says Barbara Tourtellott, a certified ergonomic specialist at Fit to Work in Point Loma. “We are meant to move and use our large muscles for work. However, our jobs today require workers to sit with large muscles frozen in one position for long periods of time and use small muscles.”

Last June, the American Medical Association adopted a policy recognizing the “potential risks of prolonged sitting” on the same day they voted to recognize obesity as a disease. They asked employers to make standing workstations and isometric balls available to employees.

The irony is even if you do manage to log 10,000 steps, you can still sit more than six hours in a day (which increases mortality in women by 37 percent compared to women who sit less than three, according to a 2010 American Cancer Society study). I’ve recently begun measuring my sitting times. On one workday, I did 10,000 steps on the treadmill but still had time to sit nine and a half hours (four of those were at work—the rest were in the car, at dinner, watching TV, etc.).

And in case you’re wondering, no I have not lost weight. I called up Cedric Bryant, chief science officer
at the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in Kearny Mesa, and asked him why the heck not. He said it depends on the person. “The further you are from your genetic potential, any small dose of exercise will produce a pretty nice response. But for someone like you who’s closer to your true physical capabilities, it’s going to take a greater dose to bring about changes.”

I still need to be mindful of my activity or inactivity. Now I pace when I’m on the phone, I’ll watch TV standing up (sometimes with weights in my hands), and I cook more often instead of microwaving. And I’m always working on getting in those 10,000 steps.


What Else We Tried:

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