How to Help Flatten the Curve Without Becoming an Atrophied Couch Potato, Part Two: The Pros, Cons, and How-to’s of Using Treadmill Desks While Working from Home

Coming on the heels on what seems to have been an article viewed by perhaps no more than five humans, I give to you the little-anticipated second installment of the ongoing “How to Help Flatten the Curve Without Becoming an Atrophied Couch Potato” series.

I’ve heard from many friends that they have become extremely sedentary in the past month, to the point that I’m legitimately concerned that at least one of them may develop pressure ulcers. There may be a multitude of remedies for the slothfulness often induced by sheltering in place, including blood flow restriction training (see the previous post), though in this post I want to focus on the utility of treadmill desks while also addressing potential concerns.

To cut to the chase, I have found treadmill desks to be a huge boon for the last several years, both for my physical and mental wellbeing as well as for my productivity. Though there can be a bit of an upfront financial cost (approximately $175 in my case), the return on the investment has been well worth it for me, especially during the last couple months. If you, like so many people, are stuck at home, then having a treadmill desk can be a tremendously helpful way to increase your physical activity, even while you work. Case in point, I’ve walked several miles today at a treadmill desk and am doing so as I write these words!

Subjectively, one of the biggest benefits I’ve found from using treadmill desks is that I feel more energized and focused while I work. In addition, I’m able to maintain a high degree of focus for longer on a treadmill than when I’m working while seated. When seated, it’s usually not long before I feel stiff and fidgety, which can be quite distracting. On the other hand, I am usually comfortable working for multiple hours consecutively on a treadmill desk.

The research on treadmill desks, though perhaps somewhat limited to date, has shown some respectable results, including improved blood sugar control, blood pressure, HDL cholesterol, and body composition.[1],[2],[3] And though the saying “sitting is the new smoking” may contain a heaping of theatrical flair, it’s not entirely misguided, either. That said, I’m not aware of long-term interventional studies comparing sitting to standing or treadmill desks, so I don’t want to focus on that topic in this post.

There are at least a couple potential concerns about using treadmill desks, however, and I don’t know if they’re significant enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I hope I can provide a lucid exposition of the pros and cons so that you can make an informed decision for yourself. Anyway, one argument is that a treadmill promotes deleterious gait patterns, since the tread moves for the user, rather than the user having to push the ground (as they would do when walking on the ground). Consequently, this line of reasoning claims, the user will engage their swing phase musculature (e.g., hip flexors) to a greater extent and engage their stance phase musculature (e.g., hamstrings and glutes) to a lesser extent. This pattern of movement, especially if done for hours a day, may contribute to potentially problematic movement patterns, postural imbalances, suboptimal respiratory function, etc.—all topics covered in the articles Peter and I’ve written about the Postural Restoration Institute. This line of reasoning makes sense to me, though I don’t know the extent to which it is deleterious for the general population or any one person. (In case you’re wondering, I haven’t done a thorough PRI assessment before and after using the treadmill.) For what it’s worth, it might be possible to mitigate some of these issues to an extent by walking at a moderate incline. In addition, doing some “corrective” exercises after using the treadmill desk may be helpful as well. Anecdotally, I have noticed this pattern in myself, though only to a slight degree and not to the extent that I’ve stopped using the treadmill.

Another concern that some folks in the PRI community might raise is that using a treadmill desk is problematic because of the visual demands of focusing on a screen while walking. To potentially overly simplify this concept, the reasoning goes treadmill desks promote focal vision while walking, which can cause a cascade of movement and respiratory changes that you may not want to have for several hours a day. The visual focus on a small screen impairs the person’s ability to use their peripheral vision—and engaging peripheral vision can cause its own cascade of movement and respiratory function. I can quite quickly experience eye strain and tension in my neck and face while staring at screens, even while seated—I’m a little hyperopic—though I’ve dramatically reduced the extent to which I experience those symptoms by wearing inexpensive plus-lens glasses while doing screen work. (I can’t tell you if that intervention will work for you, however.) I’ve also used an extra monitor to reduce the focal vision demands.

In sum, using treadmill desks may have deleterious effects on movement, posture, and breathing due to the biomechanics and vision demands treadmills encourage. The magnitude of these issues may vary from person to person, and it’s still unclear to me if these concerns outweigh the potential benefits of using a treadmill desk versus working while seated. For me, the benefits seem to greatly outweigh the downsides, so I’m quite happy to continue to use treadmill desks. That said, I’m also open to changing my mind in light of new arguments, and I doubt I’ve definitively explored this topic. For anyone reading this article, my advice would be to think about how relevant these concerns are for you. Do you experience significant eye strain with screens? Do you have injuries that may be aggravated by walking on a treadmill for hours a day? If so, then maybe it’s worthwhile to try to resolve those issues before getting a treadmill desk. If neither of those concerns seems terribly relevant to you, however, then getting a treadmill desk might be worth it.

If you’re still reading this article, then maybe you’ve developed an interest in getting a treadmill desk. Now what? I recommend you peruse the various treadmill desks on the market as well as DIY approaches so that you can find at least one option that seems to be a good fit for your physical environment, aesthetic sensibilities, and financial constraints. I’ve used a few different treadmill desk setups since I started using treadmill desks in 2014: I’ve used an inexpensive treadmill bought on Amazon (link) with a crudely assembled standing desk; I’ve used the same treadmill with a desk that could change heights (link); and I’ve used a relatively high-end treadmill with a crudely rigged platform on which to place a laptop. All of these options have worked well for me, though the first option is the least expensive, the second option has been my favorite, and the third is the most expensive and likely won’t work in a standard workroom given the size of the treadmill. In the end, you’ve got to figure out what arrangement seems best for you. Of note, it can’t a day or two to habituate to using a computer while walking on a treadmill. It may feel awkward at first to coordinate walking and typing or walking and reading, though from the limited sample size I’ve observed, people adjust within a day or two and subsequently don’t notice negative changes in performance.

To sum up, treadmill desks seem to be a boon to people’s health, especially when we’re as sedentary as ever. Though they do have potential downsides, it may be possible to reduce the potential harms. Whether or not a treadmill desk is appropriate for you isn’t always a straightforward question, though I’m quite glad I’ve used them for the past several years and I expect I will continue to use them for a long while. If you have questions or comments or experiences using treadmill desks, then please don’t hesitate to share them in the comment section below.

[1] Champion, R. B., Smith, L. R., Smith, J., Hirlav, B., Maylor, B. D., White, S. L., & Bailey, D. P. (2018). Reducing prolonged sedentary time using a treadmill desk acutely improves cardiometabolic risk markers in male and female adults. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(21), 2484–2491.

[2]MacEwen, B. T., MacDonald, D. J., & Burr, J. F. (2015, January 1). A systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace. Preventive Medicine. Academic Press Inc.

[3] Thompson, W. G., Koepp, G. A., & Levine, J. A. (2014). Increasing physician activity with treadmill desks. Work (Reading, Mass.), 48(1), 47–51.

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