Here’s what happens when you get a treadmill desk

Everyone wants to talk about it, for starters. Walking while working made me a convert—but it’s not for everyone

My colleagues were not convinced. At least, not all of them.

“Instinct tells me that this is stupid,” one of my co-workers informed me after watching my treadmill desk being set up. “I can’t see that you’re going to do anything meaningful or worthwhile on this thing.”

Another colleague chimed in before I could answer: “At the same time, walking can be meditative,” she pointed out. “It must be great for those moments when you want a little of that meditative rhythm for thinking…”

The treadmill-hater wasn’t buying it. “I still think it’s goofy. Why don’t you just go for a run before work? Or a walk. Who can’t find time for a walk?”
Her face tightened. “My kids get up at 5 a.m.”

“Look,” he said, “the only kind of place I see a treadmill desk working is Google or Facebook. I just don’t think it makes sense here.”

Some version of that conversation likely plays out every time a treadmill desk arrives in an office—and these days, more and more are. There are eager adopters (a gaggle from an office down the hall showed up within minutes of my desk arriving, eyeing it with the sort of uninhibited desire that’s usually reserved for Nanaimo bars at the United Way bake sale ) and there are skeptics.

As for me, I was on the fence. Treadmill desks seemed a little faddish, but given the mounting research linking prolonged periods of sitting with health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, I figured they were worth a try. So when I was offered a chance to try a WalkTop—an adjustable desktop, manufactured by a Canadian company called Fitneff, that fits virtually any treadmill—I said yes. Here’s how my experiment with walking and working played out.

Day 1: 3 miles

I have no idea what to expect—will I be able to type accurately on my keyboard? Will I be panting in an executive’s ear if I dare make a phonecall? Will I be sweaty and exhausted by noon? I hit the start button and heads turn as a loud pneumatic whoosh marks the beginning of my trek.

Fitneff founders Ron Bettin and Laurel Walzak have suggested I stick to a speed of between one and two miles an hour: Treadmill desks aren’t designed to replace workouts at the gym and they’re not meant to be used all day. They’re meant to get your blood flowing, boost your energy level and disrupt the effects of long periods of sitting. A speed of 1.5 mp/h feels perfect, and after five minutes or so I’ve forgotten I’m on a treadmill. I fire off a few emails and type some work notes to myself. Fifty minutes later, I’ve walked 1.2 miles, without even thinking about it—until I get an email from an acquaintance down the hall with the subject “Gotta ask”: “Are you going to be working at a treadmill desk all week? If so, I’m very impressed.” Suck it, skeptics.

Day 2: 3.5 miles

But can you be truly productive on a treadmill? Research suggests yes. In fact, you might even be more productive. One recent study showed that overall work performance improves with treadmill use. Memory retention is also higher: Details of a memo read while treading will stick in your mind longer than they would if you glanced at them slumped at a sitting desk. I find I can do just about any sort of work effectively using the WalkTop, though reading small print on my computer is sometimes tricky.

I even take a chance and interview a CEO, who seems completely unaware that I’m logging half a mile during the course of our conversation. And walking proves great for boosting my energy level, especially mid-afternoon when I tend to crash.

The only real threat to my productivity is the steady stream of colleagues dropping by to talk about the treadmill. When you’re the only person standing in a room full of slouchers, and you’re doing it on a platform that’s raised a foot or so above the floor, you’re an easy mark for chatty co-workers.

Day 3: 4 miles

Important discovery; my comfort level tops out at 1.6 miles an hour. Any faster than that and I find myself starting to, well, glisten a little—not something I want to do in an office environment. Also: It may be -21 outside, but when you work at a treadmill desk, long underwear is a bad idea.

Day 4: 1.5 miles

I wake up with a cold, and resist dragging myself over to the WalkTop for most of the day. I’d rather sit hunched in my chair, even though I feel lousy and can sense my shoulders and neck tightening. At 4 p.m. I hear our resident office skeptic comment that enthusiasm for the treadmill seems to be waning. I haul myself up and decide to put in a little time. I do 40 minutes. It’s the best I’ve felt all day.

Day 5: 2 miles

Appointments and interviews break up my day, and I can’t find a decent chunk of time to spend on the treadmill. So I opt for little 10-15 minute spurts, whenever I can find them. I don’t log a lot of miles, but I feel great at the end of the day—less tightly clenched, and way more energetic.

So is this the future of work? Or five years from now, will all these treadmill desks end up piled in a corner, gathering dust alongside unused foosball tables and that plant you never watered? It’s probably too soon to say. The cost of treadmill desks prices them out of the range of many workplaces—they start at about $1,000 and go as high as $5,000 or even more, though the WalkTop, at $479, offers an affordable solution if you already own a treadmill and want to rig it up for work.

My wary colleague believes walking desks won’t last—he can’t get past the freak factor. “You looked like you were enjoying yourself,” he admits, “but I’m sorry, I just kept thinking this is something the Kids in the Hall would spoof. It’s like it’s work as satire.”

But me, I’m on Team Treadmill. Now all I have to do is convince my boss.