It certainly would be ideal to have a magic pill that would allow one to stay in shape, at the same time as staying productive at work. The advent of the treadmill desk and its increasing popularity is making this magic pill seem a real possibility. Imagine being able to work, talk, research and type, all while walking. Sounds great doesn’t it? It is, but there are limitations. The set up can be awkward, and if you are vertically, or space challenged, there can be limitations with the workspace. If you are a bit of an overachiever, like I have a tendency to be, there can be real limitations to the physicality of the system.
I purchased my first treadmill desk in 2011 in an effort to get up off my seat and ease my aching back. Sitting was causing a whole host of physical issues, not the least of which was an increasingly widening girth and backside. I already owned a good solid treadmill from the days when I was a runner, and trained on this workhorse of a machine. The desk itself was something that could go on top of any treadmill and that was very appealing because it made the set up much less expensive than buying one of the combination treadmill desks that have gained popularity in the marketplace.
This brings me to the first limitation: space! If you have a large scale treadmill then it is not going to have a small footprint. If you are going to be using one of these beasts upwards of four or five hours (or more) per day, then it darn well better be a workhorse or the motor and/or deck and/or belt are going to wear out very quickly. So the big treadmill takes up space, and the desk itself can take up a lot of space as well. The area that contains my treadmill desk takes up eight by seven feet and this doesn’t include any of the office peripherals such as bookshelves, printers, cabinets and so forth. While you may be able to get by with a smaller workspace and treadmill, most people want to have at least two monitors at their disposal, and therefore the larger workspace may be imperative.
Another limitation to the setup is the treadmill itself. Treadmills that are for runners and exercise are not designed to do long hours at slow speeds and the motors can burn out quickly, in particular if you have something like an orthopedic belt to soften your tread. If the treadmill deck is too narrow, or two short, drift may cause you to step on the rails and crash, not a pleasant experience. A good wide deck that is long enough to have your body close to half way back, in order to accommodate the desk, and a treadmill that can take hours of use every day at a low speed, is going to cost a pretty penny. At the same time, if you buy one that is not robust enough to handle the stress, it will burn out far sooner than desired and the expense of purchasing a new one is often cost prohibitive. There are some brands that have both treadmill and desk combined, with a treadmill that is built specifically for the long hours of use at a slow speed, and these, while expensive, are often the best solution.
Limitation number three, at least for me, is height. At 5’2” I am a bit vertically challenged, and my treadmill desk does not go low enough for me to work at a good ergonomic height. As such, I had to purchase a laptop that had a wide and comfortable keyboard that included the integrated touchpad in the center of the computer so I didn’t end up with carpel tunnel from repetitive motions, i.e., no mouse. That and sometimes my shoulders are touching my ears, not a good thing for ergonomic design. The large laptop and a smaller monitor next to it work well though, without me having to look down.
The final, but most limiting of limitations for me was repetitive use and the development of tendinitis in one of my feet. Because I have a tendency to overdo things, I thought that if walking four hours a day felt so good, walking six hours a day would feel even better. At first it did. I lost weight, I felt great, my energy was superb, but within a year of having upped my walking to six, and sometimes seven hours a day, I developed a roaring case of tendinitis that sidelined me from walking for months. Now over a year after taking a couple months off, I cannot walk the way I used to without aggravating my tendinitis, and am happy walking only two or three hours a day, and nowhere near the speed I used to walk. Unfortunately the weight has come back, and with it, the feeling of sluggishness. That said, when I walk, I feel great, and my mind is clearer and I am able to concentrate better.
The limitations that I described above are all just cautionary for those who are thinking of a treadmill desk setup. Four years into using one, I cannot imagine returning to sitting for more than a couple of hours at a time, and hope to be able to use one of these desks until I decide to turn in the keyboard. Limitations that arise are nothing compared to the benefits that are gained in my opinion.
The treadmill desk is a magic pill to a stationary office worker, as long as moderation is used and forethought is exercised in setting up your workstation. Remember a good solid treadmill with a wide and long deck is key, and no orthopedic belts because they will burn out the motor faster. Think how you will use the desk, and make sure you have a place to sit in between periods on the treadmill because most of us cannot spend a full working day walking, without consequences.
Originally published with AppraiserNews in 2015