Treadmill Desking: One Cure for 'Sitting Disease'

Treadmill desks are becoming a valuable commodity in corporate wellness programs, which generally tend to benefit healthy individuals even more than those in greatest need, such as the overweight or obese.
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Most of us do too much sitting -- at work and at home -- and even the vigorous exercise we do may not be enough to counteract an insufficient level of overall physical activity. The end result could be what is now termed "sitting disease," which predisposes us to chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Two other consequences of sitting all day -- particularly if not attentive to posture and body mechanics -- are neck or back pain. One trending solution is treadmill desking.

The treadmill desk is not designed to provide an outlet for moderate or intense exercise but is instead a great tool to encourage us to move more throughout the day. Incorporating a multifunctional integrated ergonomic workstation, the treadmill desk enables us to work effectively while walking -- as well as while standing or sitting -- so we can mix it up, ideally in 90-minute intervals.

A number of recent studies -- like this one or this one on adults, and another on adolescents -- have pointed to the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. There are many simple things we can do to incorporate more physical activity into our daily routines, such as taking the stairs instead of the escalator, walking rather than taking transportation (when time and distance permits), eschewing food deliveries in favor of walking to pick up a bite, drinking the recommended amount of water -- a side benefit of which is that we'll get up more frequently for bathroom breaks, and spending less time in front of the TV or computer. But bottom line, most of us still sit too much.

Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic is known as the father of treadmill desking. He developed the idea as a part of his research into Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT), the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. Though the devices have been around since the '90s, treadmill desks continue to be improved upon. The trick is, though adjustable, they aren't necessarily one size fits all. Such factors as the expected volume of use/number of users, weight of the heaviest users, available space, budget and degree of desire to minimize maintenance all play a role in deciding on the appropriate model.

The newest advance in the marketplace is the U.S.'s first brick and mortar treadmill desk store, which opened this week in Bellevue, Wash., a Seattle suburb (with a plan to roll out more locations). Now those thinking about a treadmill desk can try out various models or even rent time on them to acclimate before deciding on a purchase. Work While Walking, still the leading online outlet for treadmill desking, began primarily as a site to provide editor and consumer reviews of all brands in the treadmill desk arena. The company carries most brands -- online or in the store -- and offers great insight as to how to decide on a model that will meet your needs. They can also bundle workstation components, pairing the specialized treadmills with various desks, keyboard trays and monitor arms -- all of which are adjustable -- to accommodate the user regardless of whether sitting, standing or walking. Because's editorial staff has experience across all brands, their product reviews are even more meaningful than those of consumers (though they also provide these) who often don't have the benefit of a basis for comparison.

Treadmill desks are becoming a valuable commodity in corporate wellness programs, which generally tend to benefit healthy individuals even more than those in greatest need, such as the overweight or obese. Whether at individual workstations or in designated areas, the desks offer both populations a welcome alternative for activity and can boost employee morale, retention and productivity as well as general health. The workstations are also becoming popular for home use.

Though the concept may seem simple, there are some rules to follow when walking while working:

• Walk at a speed of no more than 1-2 miles per hour, beginning at a pace that is comfortable for you and perhaps ramping it up within that range as you adjust. Avoid exerting so much that you sweat! Your focus and productivity will suffer if you go too fast -- this is not a substitute for the gym.

• Limit individual bouts on the treadmill desk -- up to two hours is suggested -- though you can use it several times each day. Begin with a much shorter duration and increase gradually as you acclimate. Switching positions throughout the day is one key to wellbeing -- too much, even of a good thing, can result in aches and pains.

• The height of your desk and height and angle of your keyboard should be adjusted to allow for upright posture rather than slouching, with relaxed shoulders and a neutral (or slightly negative/downward) position at the wrists if you are using a mouse or keyboarding.

• Set your monitors -- they should be on adjustable arms -- such that your line of vision is toward the top of the screen and you can scan downward with your eyes rather than having to bend your neck.

• Stand close enough to the desk to avoid excessive reaching.

• Most of us, especially in Manhattan, walk rather quickly. Expect your stride length to be shorter than is normally the case when you stroll at the recommended pace on a treadmill desk.

• The repetitive stride of walking for a considerable duration at a slow speed on a treadmill can cause more muscle strain than walking at a variable pace on changeable terrain outdoors. Consider incorporating brief breaks for alternative dynamic movements (or stretching if you prefer) during your session and when it is completed.

• Organize your day such that you avoid focusing on task heavy activities, such as keyboarding, while tethered to your treadmill desk. This will prevent muscle strain and repetitive stress injury. A hand-held mouse allows for greater ease of use if you are simply consuming content rather than keyboarding.

• Using a headset while on the phone -- great for prevention of neck pain with heavy phone use when seated or standing -- also makes for a productive treadmill session, offering the ability to swing your arms freely as you walk.

• Keep a clean pair of walking shoes handy just for use with your treadmill desk. Doing so will ensure that you always have appropriate footwear, and will minimize the dust and residue that otherwise collects in the mechanism requiring more frequent maintenance.

• If you are a do-it-yourselfer and plan to devise your own set-up, take note that walking slowly and often on a standard treadmill will burn out the machine. Treadmill desks utilize specialized equipment that cap out at 4 mph, though 1-2 mph remains advisable if working while walking.

For more advice and tips on treadmill desking consult You may also have an interest in a previous piece on setting up an integrated workstation: Nine Work Fixes To Improve Your Health, this one on How To Keep Work From Being A Literal Pain In The Neck, or this post on Ten Tips For Safer Exercise.

For more by Abby Sims, click here.

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