My life with a treadmill desk -- e-mail and browsing at 2 mph

Can you really work and walk at the same time? Columnist Danny Sullivan had his doubts. But time with a treadmill desk has made him a convert.

Walking and working with a treadmill desk

About a year ago, a friend of mine was raving about his standing desk. "Sitting is death," he proclaimed. Me, I couldn't see that I'd want to stand all day working. But now I've gone to the other extreme. Not only am I standing while I work, but I also walk -- and I'm loving it.

I've been using a treadmill desk for about two months now. I'm writing this even as I walk at 2 miles per hour. In a typical day, I'll walk anywhere from 4 to 7 hours, burning an estimated 500 to 1,000 calories. For the step-counters, I usually do around 15,000 to 25,000 steps per day.

I've been using a LifeSpan desk, specifically the TR1200-DT7, which the company loaned to me when it suggested this test. I'll talk about what this particular model is like, but my main goal is to share what the transition from a sitting desk to a walking one has been like.

Yes, you really can work while walking
I didn't think I'd be able to work standing up, much less while walking. I figured that for any serious work, where I might need to concentrate to write a story, deal with spreadsheets, or other "heavy lifting" tasks, I'd use my regular desk. The treadmill, I thought, would be something I'd use when getting through the morning e-mail, for an hour or two.

Treadmill desk, looking forward while walking.

Fortunately, I went all in. Rather than putting a spare computer on the treadmill desk, I moved everything over. That's my setup above, where I work off a laptop running three external monitors. This particular model had plenty of room on the desk to accommodate all that. Everything on my regular desk fit.

Since I had all I needed to work as usual, that's what happened. I used the desk for everything. And it was fine. E-mail, reading, writing a breaking news story -- I've been able to do it all without hitting the pause button to stop or heading to my regular desk as some type of a safety net.

About the only exception has been when I've needed to do bills. The treadmill desk doesn't allow me enough room to also have the correspondence holder I normally keep on a sidedesk, nor is it that great for putting out a piece of paper to reference. If I did this often, I'd probably move things around to better accommodate that task. But I do it so little that on those rare occasions, I go between desks.

Getting some exercise
For the first week, I found myself toward the end of the day wanting to lean on the front of the desk for extra support, if I was just reading something and not typing. That's terrible posture, and when I grew aware of doing it, I stopped. I also quickly got used to being on my feet all day, which made me less likely to lean.

After a day of work, I feel both great and tired. I feel great because rather than sit all day, I know I've gotten some beneficial exercise. I've multitasked! And for once, it's multitasking that really did do two things well at once.

I'm also tired because, let's face it, you get tired walking all day. But it's not a bad tired. I don't ache. I don't just want to sit and not walk any more. It's a good tired, one that tells me I've been active.

One thing I was hoping is that the desk would help me lose a little weight. I have lost 3 or 4 pounds over the period. I expected to lose more. But after a day of walking, I sometimes overindulge, feeling like I've earned it. But the trend is positive -- I'm hoping I'll drop some more.

By the way, the treadmill I'm using is similar to those I've used in gyms, in that it doesn't just immediately start at the speed you've selected. It ramps up slowly. I've never felt unsafe using it. But for the super safety-conscious, there's an emergency-off tab you can pull.

Dressing for success
I work from home, so I have an advantage in being able to wear whatever I want. Normally, I wear a pair of cargo shorts and a T-shirt. I found that shifting to loose running shorts was more comfortable with all the walking. I also found close-fitting, supportive underwear was important, to avoid chafing.

Footwear was another issue. I tried barefoot, but in the end, the tread just made my feet feel uncomfortable. I have a pair of running shoes that were fine. At the moment, I'm wearing a pair of those Vibram shoes that are like gloves for your feet. Those work pretty well. One surprise, though. All the walking wears on your soles, and the dust gets deposited neatly at the end of the treadmill belt. Expect to do some occasional sweep-up.

Do you get sweaty? It depends on how fast you want to walk. If I'm at a low speed, around 1.4 miles per hour, not much. At higher speeds, yes, I can definitely work up a sweat -- and wouldn't want to go out to meet with someone if I didn't have a shower first.

That's something to consider for those who are in office environments. You might not just be adjusting to walking. You might need different clothes and the ability to change or shower.

Standing versus walking
Of course, you don't have to walk all the time. Just because a treadmill desk has a treadmill, you can turn it off and just use it as a standing desk, if need be.

Personally, I found myself craving the walk. A few times I'd be at the desk with it off, say if I needed to do something briefly on the weekend. If I wasn't moving, I just felt weird.

Want one? Things to consider
If you like the idea of a treadmill desk, the obvious next question is, "Which to buy?" I can't answer that. My experience with treadmill desks is limited to exactly one -- the one I've been using. But as I'm now wanting to buy one, I'll share more about what has seemed important as I've considered this as a shopper, plus some general buying strategies to consider.

Cost and type: You'll find prices for treadmill desks all over the place. The company that made the one I'm using, LifeSpan, has models that range from $800 to $3,000. Steelcase makes two models in the $4,000 range. TreadDesk has various models for around $2,100.

TrekDesk Treadmill Desk -- bring your own treadmill!

TrekDesk comes in at $479. Why so cheap, compared with the others? Because you're not buying a treadmill. You're just buying a standing desk that's designed to work with a treadmill.

That's one of the key things to keep in mind. Are you buying a treadmill desk that comes with an actual treadmill or not? If you already have a standing desk, LifeSpan and other companies have treadmill-only units that may work with it. If you already have a treadmill, you can get standing desks designed to work with them from several companies.

Height control: How adjustable is the desk? Ideally, you'd like to move it to the precise height you want. LifeSpan has some desks with motorized height control that allow this; the manual ones are cheaper but only allow adjustment within 1-inch increments. Other companies may have desks that allow for more precise height settings without needing a motor.

Usage: How long will you be walking per day on your unit? That wasn't something that occurred to me until I started looking more closely at some of the LifeSpan units, which are all rated for different hours of daily usage. They cost more as you go up. How serious is it, if you buy a 3-hour-per-day unit but use it for 4? In the case of LifeSpan, it said usage is estimated across a full week. So a 3-hour-per-day unit gives you 21 hours of weekly usage. If you only use it for five days a week, then you can use it for more hours on those days.

Warranty and maintenance: The higher-end LifeSpan models require no belt lubrication, something you might find worth it with those models or ones from other companies, if spraying your belt every three months with silicon is too much an inconvenience. Warranty should also be considered. Treadmill desks are expensive and are going to get a lot of wear and tear. How long are you covered for? Do others have problems with the units? (Personally, I like checking Amazon's treadmill listings for reviews.)

Display on LifeSpan desk.

Readouts: The LifeSpan model I'm using has a display that shows time walked, steps taken, calories estimated to have been burned, and distance walked. If you're into tracking your daily exercise, such niceties are useful. That's especially so if you're into counting steps and use a wrist-based tracker. My Fitbit Flex couldn't register my walking on the treadmill, because my arms aren't swinging when I use it. But my Fitbit One, clipped to my waist, did do the job. The Flex also worked when I put it in my pocket.

Connectivity: A huge disappointment with the LifeSpan's readout is that none of that data currently exports well. LifeSpan has a companion app that's supposed to receive your walking data via Bluetooth. The first downside is that this only transmits to the company's Lifespan Fitness Club -- which you have to pay for -- not to third-party apps. The second downside is that for the Mac, the app simply doesn't work, something LifeSpan acknowledges. If you like tracking data, and the treadmill offers this, you'll want to ensure it can be exported. Otherwise, use a separate fitness tracker in conjunction with this one.

Learning more
As I said, I can't answer which is the best treadmill desk out there. There are simply too many, and it's not an easy thing to test them all. However, Consumer Reports recently pitted two against each other, and that article is worth a read, not just for the model that won (which was a LifeSpan) but also for another take on things to consider when purchasing and using one. Over at ReadWrite, Owen Thomas is doing his own test of life with a treadmill desk that's also worth checking out. And The New York Times has a nice overview article of the health benefits seen with both standing and treadmill desks.

As for me, I'm converted. I'll be buying my own desk for regular use and looking forward to continuing to walk while I work.

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