Save Your Money—Treadmill Desk Imperfect Solution for Writers

Filed in The Healthy Writer, Tools to Write Pain-Free by on September 29, 2015 • views: 2517

Treadmill Desk B 2Sitting is the new smoking, as they say.

Of all the things that wear away at our health, sitting for hours is one of the big ones. I covered this in a previous post. (You can read more about the dangers of sitting here.)

Briefly, recent studies have found that the more we sit, the higher our risk of premature death. In 2010,  researchers with the American Cancer Society looked at sitting time and health results in over 53,000 men and nearly 70,000 women. Results showed that time spent sitting was associated with mortality.

More specifically, women who reported sitting more than six hours per day were 37 percent more likely to die during the study period than those who sat fewer than three hours a day—men were 18 percent more likely to die.

Writers sit to work most all the time. We now know the danger of doing that for hours a day. But what’s the solution?

The treadmill desk remains on many writers’ wish lists because of its promise to help us stay active while getting all of our work done. But is it really the answer we think it is?

Some Writers Rave About the Benefits of Treadmill Desks

It’s not hard to find writers who are fans of treadmill desks.

Blogger Merissa Myer got one and. After eight months, she says it remains one of her favorite purchases ever. She adds that though the walking she does while working doesn’t replace regular exercise, it’s a good way to counteract the health damage that comes from all that sitting.

Blogger Shanna Germain agrees, saying she’s on her second treadmill desk and that she loves it. Writer Helen Kara says she “can’t imagine going back to sitting all day. I love my treadmill desk!”

There are studies supporting the benefits. In 2007, researchers reported that if obese workers could replace time spent sitting at the computer with walking computer time for two-to-three hours a day, they could lose significant weight in one year.

A 2011 study found that transcriptionists working while walking on a treadmill burned 100 calories more than when they worked while sitting. A 2013 study also found that obese participants lost as much as eight pounds a year when using treadmill desks.

A 2014 study found similar results—those who used a treadmill desk increased their daily steps and physical activity, and decreased sedentary time.

A more recent 2015 study found that treadmill desks may even improve our state of mind. Researchers assigned 180 people to one of four workstations:

  1. seated desk
  2. standing desk
  3. treadmill desk
  4. cycling desk

Results showed that those using the treadmill desk were less bored, less stressed, and more satisfied than those at any of the other workstations.

“What I can tell you is that I’m feeling infinitely more cheerful and energised, the latter, I suspect, because my body is not crunched up all day,” says blogger Renata Harper. “As someone prone to cabin fever, I’m also really enjoying switching between my treadmill desk and my regular desk.”

There are more studies. Most all show that working while walking burns more calories and is better for our overall health.

But what about productivity? Can we really focus as well while walking as we can while sitting?

The Drawbacks of Treadmill Desks—Not for Focused Writing?

Personally, I know that when I’m writing fiction, I get really absorbed in the other world I’m in and most any distraction can jerk me out of that world pretty easily. That’s why I prefer total quiet and a comfortable chair.

I’ve often wondered if a treadmill desk would feel distracting. In checking out the research, I found that some studies reported it was, and that treadmill desks actually decreased productivity and focus.

In 2009, for example, researchers had eleven men and 9 women complete a series of tests while working sitting down and while walking on a treadmill desk. Tests evaluated their typing speed, mouse clicking/drag-and-drop speed, selective attention and processing speed, and math and reading comprehension.

Results showed that treadmill walking caused a 6 to 11 percent decrease in fine motor skills and math problem solving, though it didn’t affect selective attention and processing speed or reading comprehension.

“The downside is that your level of productivity does suffer at the treadmill desk,” says writer Alyson Shontell. “I normally write a few posts per day, take phone calls and out of office meetings. But I was glued to the treadmill desk, struggling to write coherent thoughts while fighting through the treadmill pain. Your concentration is split between the physical activity, muscle pains and mental grind of actual work. While sitting, two of those are eliminated.”

A more recent 2015 study reports even more discouraging findings. Researchers randomly assigned 75 participants to either a treadmill walking group or a sitting group, and then had them complete a series of tests measuring attention, learning, and concentration.

Results showed that participants in the walking group performed significantly worse on most types of tests, and on measurements of typing. They were not able to concentrate or remember as well as those who had been seated, and they scored lower on cognitive skills. They also typed slower and made more typing errors.

Michael Larson, who led the study, noted that it wasn’t surprising the partcipants didn’t do as well typing, since typing while walking is like “typing while rowing.” The walking also seemed to take up some of the participants cognitive power, as part of their brains had to focus on keeping themselves on the treadmill rather than on their work.

The authors of the study concluded that the treadmill desk “may result in a modest difference in total learning and typing outcomes relative to sitting,” but that those declines “may not outweigh the benefit of the physical activity gains of walking on a treadmill.”

Then there’s the study from Oregon State University.

Study Questions Benefits of Treadmill Desks

This one was published in 2014. Researchers tracked 43 employees for a year, with half getting a treadmill desk during the first two months of the study and the other half seven months into the study.

Results showed that quality of work, quantity of work, and quality of exchanges with colleagues all steadily improved. Productivity was also said to increase by 0.69.

But there’s more to the story. Participants didn’t lose weight, and researchers found that employees used the treadmills only about half the time they were asked to, averaging about 45 minutes a day.

On top of that, the authors pointed out that treadmill desks are expensive and difficult to fit into the standard workplace setting.

“These treadmills do get some employees to increase their light physical activity levels,” said lead researcher John Schuna Jr. “But they can be pricey, they require physical space, and they don’t really promote the kind of sweating and shortness of breath that would come from intense activity, because it’s just not feasible to do that while working.”

Schuna also reminded users that these machines are not a replacement for regular exercise, as they don’t require enough exertion (most studies had participants walking at the 1-2 setting). Those who use them still need to stick with their regular daily workouts.

Bottom Line Recommendation for Writers

With the research we have so far, here’s my thinking. These things are expensive—usually around $1,500 or more. If you can swing it, you may find that a treadmill desk helps improve your health and well being if you use it for certain projects, like making phone calls, answering emails, posting to social media, organizing your projects, etc.

But don’t expect this machine to be the answer to your writing-related health issues. You’ll still need to fit in time to workout, and most likely, you’ll still need considerable hours sitting to focus on your “real” writing (the kind that needs your full concentration).

That means you’ll also need to continue to monitor your sitting time, and keep doing things like getting up every 20-30 minutes, maybe jumping some rope or walking around, and lifting some hand weights or doing some push-ups during your 5-10 minute breaks.

“If I had used the desk like most people do, at a slower pace for a shorter length of time, I’d think it was a brilliant contraption,” says Shontell. “And if my bosses would allow it, I’d gladly be a little less productive for a few hours per day if it meant staying in better shape.”

The treadmill desk may be a useful tool for you, something to fit into your office and use during part of your day. As for me, I’m going to stick with my regular treadmill for now, my trusty jump rope, and my playlist of dance tunes.

What do you think of the treadmill desk? Do you want to get one? If you have one, what do you use it for? How often do you use it? Please share your experience with our readers.


Susan Adams, “New Study: Treadmill Desks Boost Productivity,” Forbes, March 11, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/03/11/new-study-treadmill-desks-boost-productivity/.

Avner Ben-Ner, et al., “Treadmill Work Stations: The Effects of Walking While Working on Physical Activity and Work Performance,” PLoS One, February 20, 2014; 9(2): e88620, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088620.

J. A. Levine, Jennifer M. Miller, “The energy expenditure of using a ‘walk-and-work’ desk for office workers with obesity,” Br J Sports Med., 2007; 41:558-561, http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/41/9/558.full?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=vertical+desk&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&resourcetype=HWCIT.

Thompson WG, Levine JA, “Productivity of transcriptionists using a treadmill desk,” Work, 2011; 40(4):473-7, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22130064.

Sliter, Michael; Yuan, Zhenyu; “Workout at work: Laboratory test of psychological and performance outcomes of active workstations,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, April 2015; 20(2):259-271, http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2014-44475-001/.

Schuna, John M., et al., “Evaluation of a Workplace Treadmill Desk Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, December 2014; 56(12):1266-1276, http://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/2014/12000/Evaluation_of_a_Workplace_Treadmill_Desk.7.aspx.

John D, et al., “Effect of using a treadmill workstation on performance of simulated office work tasks,” J Phys Act Health, September 2009; 6(5):617-24, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19953838.

Gabriel A. Koepp, et al., “Treadmill desks: A 1-year prospective trial,” Obesity, April 2013; 21(4):705-711, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.20121/full.

Larson MJ, et al., “Cognitive and typing outcomes measured simultaneously with slow treadmill walking or sitting: implications for treadmill desks,” PLoS One, April 2015; 10(4):e0121309, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25874910.

Gretchen Reynolds, “The Downside of Treadmill Desks,” New York Times, June 10, 2015; http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/10/the-downside-of-treadmill-desks/?_r=0.

“Treadmill desks offer limited benefits, pose challenges in the workplace, study shows,” Oregon State University, [Press Release], February 9, 2015, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/osu-tdo020915.php.

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Comments (14)

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  1. I guess I am REALLY low-tech. I was a trainer, I’m a cancer survivor, and a writer. Although I think a treadmill desk would be fun, I don’t have one. I sit on a ball. A great big exercise ball, bright green, is my desk “chair.” Sometimes, I take a break and lie over the ball and stretch, sometimes I bounce around between projects. Still, it alleviates pressure on my spine, forces me to use my core muscles more to stay balances, and (best of all) doesn’t disrupt my writing when I am “in the zone.”
    I spent $20 for this ball, and I’ve spent the past 10 years telling everyone to throw out the traditional chair and sit on a ball.
    🙂 There’s my goofy, low-tech solution. Also, way less than $1500!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Caroline! I’ve wondered how those work. Glad to hear there are some inexpensive tools out there that help.

  2. Inspired by this blog post, I just installed a foot/leg exerciser under the desk where I spend a lot of time online. I won’t use it while I’m writing, but it should be great for times when I’m browsing online!

  3. Renata says:

    Hi Colleen. Interesting read – and thanks for the mention! I wrote that when I was starting out on my treadmill desk so here’s an update: My TMD has been one of the best investments I’ve made. I use it for about half the working day (at intervals) and especially when I need a boost of creativity. I’m also more toned and my weight has stabilised after many years of ups and downs. I suspect that has something to do with the level of activity and my blood sugar as I no longer get cravings or afternoon slumps. The only task I struggle with is proofreading, which I use my normal desk for.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks for the input, Renata! Interesting your comment on using it at intervals and for a boost of creativity. I’m glad it’s working for you. Might work for others in a similar way so it’s good to hear both sides.

  4. EC Murray says:

    Thanks, Colleen! Your article addresses what I’ve been wondering! I’m I’d lose my focus but, I sure can be a sloth. I need to just get out and exercise!

    • Colleen says:

      Ha ha. I doubt you’re a “sloth” Elizabeth! But happy if the article saved you some money. :L) Good luck working the exercise in another way.

  5. Chere Hagopian says:

    I’m not a great multitasker, so I have never even considered a treadmill desk. That would be courting disaster for me, unless my goal was to get on America’s Funniest Home Videos. But I’m glad they work out for some infinitely more coordinated people!

  6. Kate says:

    Great piece Colleen. I wondered about treadmill chairs and productivity. I knew I couldn’t do it. The act of standing up and sitting down is healthy – the movement – not just the standing or the sitting. The only thing I’ve come up with in my world is taking breaks and going for that walk around the block. It helps clear the mind at the same time. 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Kate. I’d wondered about it, too, thus the post. Have a client who got one and was all excited about it, major health nut, and within a few months it was relegated to the back room, hardly used. I’m with you on the walks! :O)

  7. Appreciate all the detail! We’ve been discussing this. For now, I take breaks standing with my laptop on our entryway kneewall – it’s the perfect height. I can stand for two hours and feel much less “scrunched” than being in my chair all day. I also love sitting on my exercise ball.

    I wondered if a treadmill desk would be the ultimate solution. I can see how it could affect productivity/creativity, especially with detailed work or when deep in a piece of fiction. Will pass for now. Thanks for the info!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Suzanne. Your “standing desk” sounds smart—a way to stand up for a bit without spending a lot of money. Seems to me that changing positions helps, but it’s good to sit when you really need to focus. Thanks for your insights!