Standing Desks Are So Yesterday; Try a Treadmill Desk for a Really Energizing Experience

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

Saint Augustine supposedly said Solvitur Ambulando- It is solved by walking. I have been testing his thesis for the last month, while reviewing a new LifeSpan treadmill designed for use at work. LifeSpan has solved a lot of walking issues here; we have shown office treadmill desks before, but they were big and expensive. These are shorter, lower, quieter and cheaper; you can slide it under most any standing desk or there are LifeSpan adjustable desks that go with it.

lifespan benefits

© Lifespan

Lifespan claims eight benefits for their treadmill desks; some are obvious and expected, like burning calories and promoting a healthy body weight, lowering blood pressure, maintaining strong bones, reducing risk of or managing Type 2 diabetes. Others are less obvious:

Increases creativity:

As a writer, this is of particular interest to me. LifeSpan refers to research at Stanford University where they tested volunteers; this was covered also in a New Yorker article a few years ago, describing a test of seventy-six students who had to come up with creative uses for everyday objects or contemplate metaphors. But the article also listed some great thinkers who wrote about the benefits of walking, from Thoreau: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow” to William Wordsworth to Adam Gopnik. Ferris Jabr explains how it works:

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.


Lifespan points to research from the University of Minnesota which followed 40 employees in a financial services company.

After an initial decline as employees learned how to adjust to walking while working on their tasks, productivity went up. Production measures were derived from employee and supervisor surveys of quantity of performance, quality of performance, and quality of interaction with co-workers. An overall performance measure was on a 10-point scale. "For the duration of the study, productivity increased by close to a point," Ben-Ner says. "That’s a substantial increase."

Have I been more creative and productive? A month is probably too soon to tell. My typing speed has taken a serious hit, but it took me a while to get the setup sort of right and it is still not perfect. There are some things that I just cannot do while walking, such as photo cropping and adjusting. Cutting and pasting is harder, which is probably a very good thing for a blogger. The standard measurement of productivity for bloggers like me is to look at the page view numbers, and they are actually down a bit for me during the last month.

But on many other measures it has been a positive experience. My legs are stronger, I have more energy, I am definitely burning calories and feel much better when I am on it.


© LifeSpan

LifeSpan has surveyed 46 higher education professionals using their treadmill desks and the majority (60%) are using them for less than two hours a day, the balance two to five hours. (I am averaging about three). But the survey results also show that the biggest benefit is the increased energy levels. They show a lot more productivity too; perhaps I am in the wrong business or just not at it long enough yet.

Kimmel and Posh

© LifeSpan

I asked LifeSpan president Peter Schenk who was buying these, beside early adopters like Jimmy Kimmel and Victoria Beckham. He said they had expected mostly independent professionals but they are getting a lot of interest from bigger companies interested in the wellness benefits. They are often set up in clusters in separate areas where people go when they want to spend a little time on them; this makes a lot of sense, you probably don’t want someone in the next cubicle treadmilling away when you are at a conventional desk. It is very quiet but not totally silent. “They just grab their notebooks and go.”


© LifeSpan

This creates some real ergonomic issues; standing desks don’t play well with notebooks, and they are worse with treadmill desks. There really has to be an external monitor to plug into, and I think a keyboard too; I find the smaller, flatter keys on my MacBook to be difficult when moving, and bang away at my big mechanical Das Keyboard. But then I have to write a couple of thousand words a day; just reading stuff and talking is easy. I also have a non-adjustable standing desk that I designed around my height, that is very wide and shallow, so I can move laterally between the two screens.

old setup

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I cannot move sideways on the treadmill so I mashed the two really close together, perching the notebook on two big books. This was all really squished and awkward.

desk setup

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Finally last week I realized my error here and now concentrate on the external when I am moving; I move off the treadmill when I want to stand at the notebook or sit with it.

desk setup

© LifeSpan

LifeSpan has developed office setups that let users move between sitting and standing as well with their tandem desk. This is a clever design for people who cannot stand and walk all day.

There are lots of clever safety devices in it; when you start up it counts down from 3 and always starts slow, .4 MPH. I thought this annoying because I pause it a lot; but it makes sense, you don’t want to go flying off the thing. It has no tilt like exercise treadmills that would mess up the ergonomics, and turns itself off if you step off while moving. Its motor is designed for slow speeds; I burned out an exercise treadmill trying to use it as a desk a few years ago, they are designed differently. Because you do go slow; I found that I could not work effectively over 1.1 MPH. A lot of people apparently can handle 2MPH but I never got close.


Part of app/Screen capture

The software and app are useful, counting steps and calories, and linking to my iPhone and my computer. However it doesn’t talk to My Fitness Pal software or my Apple Watch so if I want to track my steps I have to enter it all manually. Peter Schenk explained that there is still a lot of internal battling about standards, and some big companies simply do not want to share the data they are collecting with other apps. He told me also that the LifeSpan app is compatible with Apple HealthKit, but I have not been able to configure them to work together.

Really, outside of the fact that it is eating a bit of electricity to run, and that our downsized accommodations are too small and we keep stubbing our toes on it, this is a totally wonderful way to work. The electricity consumption is an issue, but there is a huge environmental cost to health care and stress. This can reduce both.

And whereas Professor Ben-Ner of the University of Minnesota suggests that young people will be the market for this, saying:

I’m willing to bet my hat and my boots too that millennials will be more open to something like this because they grew up and came of age in a time concerning these types of things. It will be easier than trying to break in someone who is 50 years old and a lifelong sedentary person and get them to start walking.

I suspect that there are a lot of boomers with bad knees who are not running and biking as much anymore, who could comfortably walk for hours at end at 2MPH and get even more benefits. It is a fabulous way to start getting regular and very easy exercise.

LifeSpan president Peter Schenk said that the active office was becoming a very big deal, over $3 billion a year. That’s really good news, that people are getting off their butts and standing and moving while they work. There has been pushback lately on the question of whether sitting is the new smoking, with some interpreting studies to say that standing desks don't do much for your health. But there is no question about the treadmill; you can see right on the screen how many calories you are burning, how many steps you are taking, and you can feel it in your legs.

my office

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have spent a month on this treadmill and really, if it wasn't hanging out into our hall where we trip on it, I would buy it in a second; I feel healthier, stronger and energized. I really cannot recommend it enough. Standing is better than seating, but walking? Let Charles Dickens have the last word; he did most of his thinking while walking, and said "If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish." So might we all.

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