If sitting idle at a desk all day long is really bad for our health, why not walk while we work? That is one of the driving schools of thought behind treadmill desks. We need to move to not be in pain from sitting in the same position for hours at a time, and we need to get the blood flowing. Exercise might also help sharpen our focus. We could meet those criteria and keep working if we set up a treadmill with a flat surface desk at elbow height.
Do Treadmill Desks Work?
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to try a treadmill desk and write about it. My big takeaway was that it was only viable to walk while working for just a handful of specific tasks. I couldn’t really write. I couldn’t prepare documents that required any fine motor skills for artistic or design reasons. I was able to watch a live stream of a press event, but I still found it hard to take notes. There was very little I could do successfully while walking, and I found I was useless if I walked any faster than 2.5 miles per hour.
Defenders of treadmill desks disagreed with me, although they were either in the business of selling the product or had just spent a few thousand dollars on one and probably had convinced themselves of more positive outcomes to justify the expense.
Research from last year on treadmill desks, however, aligns pretty tightly with my own experience. Larson et al. (2015) had 75 subjects complete a series of test while either sitting or walking on a treadmill at 1.5mph (slower than my own pace). The walkers did moderately but statistically significant worse on cognition tests, as well as typing speed and accuracy. They did just as well as the sitters on short- and long-term memory recall, though.
So while treadmill desks may decrease the amount of time we spend sitting and increase activity more than just a plain old sit-stand desk, they seem to make it really difficult for people to be productive and efficient.
With one possible exception.
The Case for Obese Workers
When hashing out their results, Larson et al. allude to the fact that obese workers are the real people who might benefit from treadmill desks. Sure, their productivity on typing speed and cognition may drop a little bit now, but in the long term, if they can get out of the obesity category and into the “overweight” category, the productivity benefits could far outweigh the little loss that comes with working while on a treadmill.
As I’ve noted in a previous post, Ricci and Chen (2005) estimated that obese workers cost $42.29 billion in both lost days of work and lost time at work for health-related reasons. Two-thirds of that figure is attributable to being less productive at work rather than missing work entirely. The per-person cost, according to their data, is $1,627 on average per obese worker per year.
The classification for “obese” matters a great deal in this context. Workers who are overweight but not obese don’t lose nearly as much productive time due to being sick or not feeling well while they’re at work. Their per-person cost was estimated at only $1,250. Normal weight people were estimated at losing $1,201 per person per year, which is very close to the overweight group. Note that the figure for an obese person about 35 percent higher.
Larson et al. cite a few sources that indicate even very small increases in movement can help people curb their weight gain or reduce the risk of obesity—although they don’t seem to have any specific evidence to support the idea that treadmill desks could help obese people get out of the obesity category, which would be the clincher.
Larson, M. J., Le Cheminant, J. D, Hill, K., et al. (2015). Cognitive and Typing Outcomes Measured Simultaneously with Slow Treadmill Walking or Sitting: Implications for Treadmill Desks. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0121309. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0121309
Ricci, J. A., and Chen, E. (2005). Lost productive time associated with excess weight in the U.S. workforce. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 47(12): 1227-34.
Wolf, A. M., & Colditz G. A. (1998). Current estimates of the economic cost of obesity in the United States. Obesity Research, 6, 97–106.