Walk While You Work

Washingtonians may have mastered the art of multitasking, but is a treadmill desk—combining work with a workout—going too far? Our writer takes one for a test drive.

How many miles could you log during a conference call? Photograph courtesy of Steelcase

When I first read about the Walkstation—a combination desk and treadmill that lets workers walk while they type—I desperately wanted to try it.

With our fingers regularly tapping out emails on Blackberrys or text messages on cell phones as we walk down the street, Washingtonians have long since proven we’re beyond the old saw about walking and chewing gum. But could we walk and create a PowerPoint presentation? Or update an Excel document? Or, perhaps, walk and write a story about the treadmill desk? Curious, I asked to borrow a Walkstation to test for myself.

Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, jimmy-rigged the first treadmill desk in his office a few years ago while researching activity levels and obesity. Word of his quirky new workstation spawned a mini-industry for multitasking enthusiasts. Web sites offered advice on creating your own treadmill desk; companies developed desktops that would fit over a traditional treadmill; and Dr. Levine collaborated with Steelcase, an office-furniture company, to create the Walkstation.

A height-adjustable desk and low-speed treadmill, the Walkstation was introduced in November 2007. Its $4,200 pricetag and size (about five feet by five feet) mean that it’s usually a shared resource. A company might have a couple that employees can sign up to use for an hour or two, or put several in a conference room so workers can walk while they talk.

The top speed is two miles per hour, so it’s not meant to serve as a cardio workout. You can walk and work without breaking a sweat.

“If you’re a person who is not regularly engaged in exercise, this could serve as your dose of activity, especially in the beginning,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. “Just moving is really the mantra. If you’re already engaged in a fitness program you don’t want to abandon that for this. You need to get your heart rate up beyond what this would do. This would be a supplement.”

As a runner in training for a half marathon, I wasn’t willing to forgo my usual workout. On the day the treadmill desk arrived, I ran and then hopped on the Walkstation and got to work.

The representative from Steelcase recommended starting slowly, with just a half hour to an hour a day. But this wasn’t an option for me, due to a serious miscalculation: I hadn’t considered the size of the Walkstation. Cramming it into my small office required disassembling my desk, which meant I didn’t have anywhere else to work.

So I walked. When I needed a break, I stopped the treadmill and stood at the desk. The first day, I walked for a little over three hours and logged more than six miles.

When I was talking on the phone, I could walk at the maximum speed without getting short of breath or causing anyone to comment about inappropriate heavy breathing. While typing or reading, I needed to go slower—one to one-and-a-half miles an hour—or I would get motion sick. Legible handwriting required a snail’s pace; I eventually gave up and waited until I was standing still. At those speeds, I walked over 45 miles during the course of a week. My longest day clocked in at just over ten miles.

At first, I felt much hungrier. At that pace, the average person burns about 100 calories an hour. I didn’t want to use the extra exercise as an excuse to scarf down more food and end up gaining weight, so I was grateful when the hunger subsided by the third day. I suspect that had I used the Walkstation for a longer period of time, I would have started to lose weight.

I was able to keep running, but my body ached—especially my lower back, feet, and ankles. Yoga proved to be bodily manna. It kept me from getting too tight or stiff. Occasional doses of ibuprofen helped, too.

I was tired. I slept more, crashing earlier than usual. I also slept better, waking up less frequently during the night. And I wasn’t tired during the day. In fact, I felt much more focused. I didn’t need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up; the treadmill desk was better than a shot of espresso.
If it weren’t so large, I would love to lace up my sneakers for work on a regular basis. While I didn’t need to be lured off the sofa for my daily workout, I liked that I was getting a little extra exercise. I like the very idea that I was multi-tasking. But most of all, I loved the mental clarity. I can’t keep the treadmill desk, but when faced with a blank screen, I now take a stroll around the block to clear away the fog.

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