Everybody knows how important physical activity is to health. But recent research has indicated that sitting too much is harmful on its own – even if you’re getting adequate exercise when you’re not sitting. One meta-analysis involving 18 studies and over 800,000 subjects found that those who sat the most had a 2-fold higher risk of diabetes, a 2.5-fold higher risk of heart disease, a 90% higher risk of death from heart disease and a 50% higher risk of death from all causes when compared to those that sat the least. (1) Other studies have shown that sitting for too long shuts down the circulation of lipase, a fat absorbing enzyme. (2)
One way of avoiding the perils of sitting too long if you work at a desk is to use a standing desk, or an adjustable desk that can be moved back and forth between sitting and standing configurations. There’s a lot of research suggesting that standing is an improvement over sitting, particularly in the realm of fat-burning. However, standing for too long may also pose risks. Standing for prolonged periods has been linked to an increase in hypertension, chronic heart and circulatory disorders and lower limb problems. (3) This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: just as it wasn’t natural for our ancestors to sit for prolonged periods, it wasn’t natural for them to stand for long periods either.
If both sitting and standing for too long are harmful, what’s the solution?
One possibility is a treadmill desk. (I’m writing this blog post on one right now!) This is superior to both standing and sitting desks because walking at a slow pace for relatively long distances is something we are genetically and physiologically adapted to. Studies of healthy traditional populations have shown they averaged about 10,000 steps a day (4), and observational studies of contemporary populations suggest that healthy adults take between 7,000 – 13,000 steps a day. (5) These studies also emphasized the importance of distributing this activity throughout the day; taking 10,000 steps before work and then sitting for 8 hours straight will not have the same benefits as taking 10,000 steps throughout the course of a day.
How I set up a treadmill desk
There are many ways to do this. I’ll show you how I did it, and link to a few other possibilities. I’m hoping those of you who have used other methods can leave a comment, and I’ll continue to update the post so it becomes the “definitive” treadmill desk post. Note that I had a standing desk for a while before I bought the treadmill; had I started from scratch, I may have done things differently.
I started with a Safco standing desk, which I bought from Amazon. This desk was the right height for me and is one of the few standing desks that had a slide-out keyboard tray, which is very important ergonomically. You want the keyboard to be at roughly elbow level or a few inches below, but the monitors should be at eye level. That isn’t possible with a desk that has a single surface.
Then I bought a treadmill from TreadDesk. I was hoping it would fit underneath my desk, but unfortunately it is about a half inch too wide. Also, since the treadmill is about 4.5 inches off the ground, that changed the ergonomics of the standing desk. The keyboard tray was now too low, and the monitors were below eye level. I solved the monitor problem by propping them up with 4″ thick medical textbooks (knew they would come in handy!). I was already using the mStand for my Macbook Pro, but I had to put a textbook under that one as well.
The next step was to figure out the keyboard tray. I did some research and discovered the 3M Knob-Adjust Keyboard Tray. This is a crucial part of the set-up for two reasons. First, it attaches to the underside of the desk and extends out about 12-14 inches. Because the treadmill doesn’t fit under the desk, it’s necessary to have a keyboard tray that extends out to where I’m walking on the treadmill. Second, for optimal ergonomics keyboard trays should be tilted at a negative angle (i.e. slightly down and away from you). This allows a nice parallel/horizontal line between your forearms and wrists, rather than extending your wrists continually which is what most people do when they type and is partially responsible for repetitive stress injuries. I can’t tell you how much more comfortable it is to type with a negative tilt keyboard. This keyboard also comes with a tray you can attach to either the right or left side with a built-in mousepad.
The final bill including the treadmill, keyboard tray and standing desk was a little over $1,000.
So how’s it working? I’ve only had it for a few days, but I can say it’s had the single biggest impact on my sense of well-being than any other change I’ve made in years. I feel so much better at the end of a workday. Standing was certainly better than sitting, but I prefer walking to standing by a mile (ah, hem). Speaking of miles, yesterday I wrote about 3,000 words on my book and did some phone consulting with patients – and logged about 10 miles (20,000 steps; see my FitBit read-out in the picture at right) in the process! I walk at about 1.5 mph on the treadmill, so I was on my treadmill desk for a little over 6 miles. I spent a couple hours at my sitting desk as well.
Other options for treadmill desks
There are many other options out there for treadmill desks, depending on your set-up.
The Kangaroo is a good option for those of you who have limited space and don’t want to have a separate standing and sitting desk. It integrates with your existing desktop. All you’d need after that is a treadmill to put under your desk. One thing I’m not sure of is whether the keyboard tray can be tilted at a negative angle. From the picture it doesn’t look like it, but maybe someone that has one can let us know. Ergo Desktop, the company that makes the Kangaroo, has several other similar options on their site.
Another option along these same lines is an adjustable desk, such as the Geek Desk. They have electric motors that move the desk up and down depending on whether you’re sitting or standing. The downside of adjustable desks is they tend to be much more expensive than fixed height desks.
If you already have a treadmill, and just need a desk to go with it, the TrekDesk is a good option. It fits around your treadmill and provides a large work surface. Note: this appears to have only a single work surface, which isn’t optimal ergonomically. I’m not sure if you can attach a keyboard tray or not, because the desk is plastic.
If you’re starting from scratch, and you want to have separate sitting and standing workstations, LifeSpan makes an “all-in-one” treadmill desk that gets good reviews on Amazon.
Finally, if you want a desk where the treadmill actually fits under it, and you don’t need it to be adjustable, TreadDesk sells a them in different heights.
What if a treadmill desk isn’t an option?
Of course not everyone will be able to use a treadmill desk. Many companies probably wouldn’t allow them (not yet, at least), and their significant cost is another barrier.
The best approach if you can’t use a treadmill desk is simply to take frequent breaks to move your body throughout the day. Set a timer for 20-30 minutes when you’re sitting at your desk. When it goes off, stand up and take a short walk around. If possible, walk a couple flights of stairs, do some stretching or better yet, some more intense activity like jumping rope or running in place. 2-3 minutes of this kind of activity is enough to mitigate the negative effects of prolonged sitting. Then set the timer again when you sit back down.