Are Treadmill Desks the Cure for America's Sitting Epidemic?

U.S. News Health & Wellness tries out walking while working.

U.S. News treadmill desk

The LifeSpan TR1200-DT7 treadmill desk at the U.S. News offices in Washington, D.C.

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It all started with a tweet. Yes, a tweet.

The senior U.S. News Health & Wellness editor and I jokingly tweeted that we needed to try a bike desk that generates electricity for your computer when you pedal. The next thing I knew, an email landed in my inbox from a LifeSpan publicist, saying she saw our tweets and wanted to know if we'd like to test a treadmill desk.

My interest was piqued.

As an editor, I'm typically tied to my desk eight hours straight and only get up for the occasional meeting a short walk away. By the end of the day, my legs are stiff and shoulders tense from my hunched typing posture. But there's not much I can do. In the fast-paced news world time is precious, and I can't hold up stories to take strolling breaks along the Potomac.

But if a treadmill desk allowed me to work and walk, then maybe I could leave the newsroom without feeling stiff every day (and though I may sound like I'm 80, I'm actually in my 20s). So I recruited the health editor to join my mission, and #OperationTreadmillDesk began.

Our desk, a TR1200-DT7, arrived shortly after Thanksgiving. The LifeSpan delivery man, Bobby, carted the box in, and within 20 minutes we were ready to walk. Bobby instructed us that 1.2 to 1.9 mph was an optimum walking speed – a screen shows your speed, number of steps and calories burned – and to adjust the table height to keep elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. We hooked up a laptop (though Lifespan recommends installing monitors at eye level to prevent neck strain), and that was it.

Stephanie Steinberg on the U.S. News treadmill desk
Stephanie Steinberg uses the U.S. News treadmill desk.

A bit apprehensive, I stepped on in my heels, making a mental note to bring tennis shoes to work, and logged in as the conveyer belt sputtered to life. Now, walking on a treadmill is no different from walking down the street, but add in typing an email, editing a story or tweeting (which I did), and it feels a little disorienting – on the first attempt.

A few weeks later I talked to James Levine, the director of Obesity Solutions at Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University and a leading expert on treadmill desks – he built his own with a secondhand Sears treadmill and patient bed table in 1999. Levine explained people tend to feel an increase in anxiety when they start to integrate walking into their workday. "It takes a couple weeks [to adjust], but after their first two weeks, stress levels progressively start to decline," he says. "Once people have the hang of it they're good to go."

[Read: How to Sit Less and Move More.]

This appeared to be the case among the treadmill deskers I chatted with across the country, some while using their treadmill desks. As LifeSpan President Peter Schenk warns, rookies shouldn't start too aggressively. "We definitely have a lot of people who go, "Gosh, I'm just going to start walking 8 hours throughout the day," he says. Instead, you should begin with short chunks of time, like making 15-minute phone calls, and work your way up. As for walking several hours a day, Levine says he's not aware of any risks, and he's never heard of anyone suffering injuries.

Anecdotally, treadmill desk users say they feel more energized throughout the workday – Schenk says customers report "they're not getting the doldrums after lunch." Another positive impact: Treadmill desks can alleviate postural problems pertaining to the back, neck and shoulders.

But the most promising aspect comes in the form of long-term benefits, as advocates say treadmill desks help people kick their sedentary lifestyles and could be one way to tackle America's growing obesity problem.

In the last few years, studies have shown that obesity is associated with simply sitting too much. Levine's research with the Mayo Clinic, for example, found that obese people tend to sit 2 hours and 15 minutes more every day than lean people. Besides weight problems, he points out that excessive sitting is associated with heightened risk of cancer, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease as well as an increase in mental health issues like depression.

And here comes the real frightening part: These risks pertain to physically active people, too.

"Even if you're lean and healthy and a nonsmoker and you even go to the gym Monday-Wednesday-Friday, you are still being harmed by sitting too much," Levine explains, and puts it in evolutionary perspective: "We were never designed to sit behind desks all day. We were really designed to be either out hunting or doing agriculture or building shelters. We were built to do stuff, not to sit down."

[Read: Overweight? It's Not Your Desk's Fault.]

So is a treadmill desk a solution? Ron Wiener, CEO of workwhilewalking.com thinks so. Wiener started using a treadmill desk about five years ago when he was prediabetic and overweight. For a time, he says the desk made him feel better and he lost a few pounds, but he stopped using it when traveling internationally for his job. The calorie-rich meals combined with sitting all day in meetings tacked on pounds, and he developed diabetes. So he cut the traveling and readopted the treadmill desk, vowing to walk three to five hours a day.

"I dropped weight, my triglycerides, blood pressure and cholesterol levels all came back in line. Within two or three months, I was back below the threshold on everything," he says, adding that he sleeps better and is a happier person when he uses his desk.

Wiener, 49, now heads workwhilewalking.com – a treadmill desk advocacy group that reviews and sells the machines. With only 300,000 to 500,000 treadmill desks in the U.S., he says, most people don't know someone who owns one to try. So the organization opened the first treadmill desk trial center in Bellevue, Wash., in the fall and plans to open 28 more around the country.

Wiener still hits the gym every morning and cautions customers that a treadmill desk is not a substitute for exercise – you still need the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. "It's not one of those crash diets or crash exercise programs," he says. "It's a change in lifestyle, and it's a change in the way you work."

More companies are catching on to that concept. Schenk notes that when LifeSpan started selling treadmill desks in December 2011, it expected the majority of customers would be people who work from home. Yet, today, 75 percent of clients include corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Nike and Motorola.

However, there are the clients who telecommute, like Kim Kreis, 47, a business analyst in San Francisco who calls the treadmill desk in her living room a "godsend." Struggling with her weight, she decided to invest in her health by undergoing bariatric surgery and buying a treadmill desk (they range from $1,000 to $3,000), which she uses at least 10 minutes each hour during the workday. A year later, she's 130 pounds lighter.

[See: Best Diets Success Stories.]

While some walkers experience weight loss – Schenk says he burns 400 calories a day, which translates to about 3 pounds a month – many users feel a boost in productivity. Kimberly Castro, the U.S. News managing editor who housed the desk in her office, says walking while working made her more focused. "I found myself extremely zoned in while checking email or editing a story. There's a meditative quality to walking that helped me stay relaxed and centered," she says. "I also felt the time go by very quickly. An hour on the treadmill felt like a mere 20 minutes."

Levine says this is normal, and his forthcoming research shows productivity improves about 10 percent. When people get up and move, more oxygen flows to the brain, sparking creativity, he explains.

Author Susan Orlean can attest. She began using a treadmill desk last spring and wrote about her ambulating experience in The New Yorker. On a call from Los Angeles, she explained she walks about five or six hours at a time – while writing her next novel – and finds it helps get the creative juices flowing. What's interesting, she says, is no one suspects she's on it when making phone calls. "I've never had anyone say, 'What's that funny noise?'"

[Read: 2014 Fitness Trends: What's In, What's Out.]

Now a treadmill desk convert, Orlean has convinced a few friends to buy one, too. "So far, everyone's happy," she says.

As for me, I wasn't so stiff when 5 o'clock rolled around if I edited while walking earlier in the day. My next experiment might just have to be that bike desk.