How to Walk 10,000 Steps a Day If You're a Desk Jockey | Chris Kresser
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How to Walk 10,000 Steps a Day If You’re a Desk Jockey

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walk 10,000 steps
Taking regular walking breaks can help you log more steps in your day.

treadmill deskEverybody 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.

Find out how to stay fit and healthy if you work at a desk. Tweet This

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.

20000 steps

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.

  1. I have been working standing up for four years or so. I am fidgety so I move a lot just the same. Phone calls are msotly conducted walking around my office, except in summer I walk outside. All made possible when laptops replaced desktops, and wi-fi made it even better. I work from my home, which fosters experimentation.

    Most days I do not sit down at all, except at lunch. I have nice places to sit, but it does not cross my mind.

    When I shifted to working standing up, at the same time as cutting out most wheat from my diet, I lost 20 lbs of weight, only the first five of which I was wishing away. I weight what I did as a 10th grader (31 years ago), BMI 22.5. Not solely due to working standing up, but that was a big factor. I never have counted calories and weight is very stable.

  2. Chris, I love your work and the good you do for many people including myself. However, I must play devils advocate here because I think we need to be vigilant about the scientific method and how we derive truth.

    Both inferences for sitting or standing being detrimental are epidemialogical and do not show whether they are causative or a trigger for an existing underlying pathology.

    Would not walking all day on a treadmill desk not be disimilar to a nurse or waitress? Could walking all day be catabolic in the same way long distance running is?

    Rules of posture really annoy me and I cannot see any evolutionary basis to support angles for posture. Instead, these seem most likely the most comfortable positions for people that are broken than for healthy people who can work in all ranges of motion.

    I support the following hypotheses:
    1. Circulation is important
    2. Activity stimulates circulation
    3. Extended postural placement can reduce circulation

    However, from there I think you make the leap infereing that diabetes or heart disease rates increase as such. Could not the sitting be caused by being so broken and overweight that you can no longer gather enough energy to move more frequently? 

    I think diet, sleep and stress play a larger role and I think we need to be as critical on circulatory studies as we are on studies correlating dietary fat with heart disease. I can’t see how walking all day could be better than moving whenever you feel uncomfortable, which would be the evolutionary mechanism for this feeling.

    Anecdotally, I have always sat of the floor japanese style in some pretty uncomfortable positions for other people. I’m not over weight and don’t have blood sugar problems. Just an anecdote, I know, but none the less metabolically I eat more than everyone around me, gain no weight and always have more energy than my peers mostly from diet and sleep being dialled in. No back pains, joints pains or anything that other people complain about and I did use to have these problems 15 years ago when I was overtraining and eating the wrong food.

    When I hear people at work try to relieve back pain by changing the screen position etcetera I call BS and coming from a background of severe back pain as a child to now being able to sit in any position I want all day long I fail to see how postural theories will hold up over time.

    Bit of a rant, I know, and apologies in advance. Keep up the great work, you really are helping a lot of people and we really appreciate everything!

    • CinC, I agree that it is very possible that long sitting may be a marker of people who are already ill–rather than vice versa.

      Sadly that has been my experience over the past 9 years or so. There have been way too many days that I was grateful to be able to drive to work and sit in a chair in front of a computer, as that was the very most I was capable of.

      The bottom line is that chronically ill people–whether or not overweight–may only be able to prop themselves upright to function. Permanent standing/walking is not an option. It is horrifying to contemplate so very, very many people feeling so unwell in our society but it seems consistent with observed trends.

  3. You don’t need a special keyboard tray to get a negative angle on your keyboard. Microsoft’s Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 does this all on it’s own. It includes a special stand that can be clipped to the front of the keyboard and provides the negative tilt. I’ve been using this keyboard at work for a couple years now with my normal office desk. After I got it, my coworkers liked it enough that they all got one too.

  4. I also have a TreadDesk and I love it. I was really worried about the noise too because I live in an apartment and didn’t want to disturb my neighbors. It is really quiet, my husband can’t even tell I’m using it unless he walks into the room I’m in.

    I find I can do a lot of typing and other things while walking but reading is sometimes a problem, I’m still trying to figure out how to make walking and reading work for me. I’m a grad student so reading is something I do a lot of and I find that walking and reading often makes me dizzy or feel like I have motion sickness. I’m still playing with the speed and position of my reading material to see if I can find a solution. What I do now is I just hop off and stand while reading and hop back on to type or surf the internet/do research. Also, I don’t mean reading websites on the internet, that doesn’t bother me, I mean intense reading of books and articles that take a lot of concentration.

    *Chris, have you found reading books to be a problem for you? If not, what do you do that works? I’d love some suggestions.*

    My other note is that if you’ve never used a treadmill desk before you might have to ease into it. I found that the first couple of days I felt great but then started feeling a bit tired. So I realized like anything you need to ease into it. So I started taking breaks and doing some standing or sitting and then slowly reduced the amount of time I had to sit or stand and increased the amount of time I was walking. Seems like common sense but you know, I was excited! 😉

  5. Chris, you might be interested to know that the downside of using a treadmill for walking is that it interferes with the use of the posterior leg muscles which are a necessary component of optimal gait. As a result of the belt moving forward, we have no standing ground to push off of to engage our glutes and hamstrings. Instead, we end up flexing the knees and hips more and then engage in a falling forward pattern of walking which ends up putting more wear and tear on knees and hips over time. This is the gait pattern that the vast majority of people have, treadmill or no treadmill. You might be interested in biomechanic scientist Katy Bowman’s article on walking http://www.alignedandwell.com/katysays/walk-this-way/. Unfortunately, the treadmill is not a good substitute for walking.

    • Thanks for the link – I’ll check it out. I’ve never been a fan of treadmills for exercise in general for this reason (and because I much prefer to be outdoors).

      That said, many of us are dealing with choosing the lesser of evils in this situation. In a perfect world, I could do the work I do while walking barefoot on a trail in the woods or on the beach. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to make that work yet. So, my options are: sit at a desk, stand, or walk on a treadmill. I end up doing all three during the course of a day, but I’m pretty sure that walking on a treadmill and standing along with sitting is better than sitting all day.

      • Hey Chris,

        Would a manual treadmill be a better option to simulate the normal activity of walking without experiencing the possible drawbacks that Lisa referred to regarding powered treadmills.

        • The issue is not the power or the aerobic activity etc. The issue is the reverse gait pattern that walking on either a manual or powered treadmill causes. It prevents the ability of pushing off the back foot and propelling yourself forward, which causes incorrect muscle patterns that are necessary for actual walking. Unfortunately there is no quick fix but fortunately the fix is easy. Check out Katy says. The concept is simple and there is no equipment required! Also, it is easy to think that you need to live in an ideal world but honestly that is what the problem can sometimes be, waiting for world to change, assuming that you can’t work and be aligned and well. Change your mindset, get your priorities in line with your goals and you will be able to do it. Good luck!

    • Would a manual/non-motorised/self-powered treadmill fix that problem? They would probably also be cheaper and quieter.

  6. I have shifted to a standing desk at work, and feel much better standing rather than sitting. My current set up is using a copy paper boxes on top of my current work surface to raise my laptop to the correct height. I also have a large yoga ball that I use as my “chair” when I sit down. I recently got a fitbit as well, and it helps me make sure I’m moving throughout the day. I use the restroom on other floors of my office building and take the long way when going to pick something up from the printer, refill my water bottle, etc. I have also built a walk break into my day where I try to get outside and at least do a lap or two around the parking lot to get a little outside sunshine and just move more. I just did a post with some ideas on moving more and converting to a standing desk, http://www.laurapappashealth.com/2012/12/you-may-want-to-stand-up-for-this/
    maybe my next project will be an at home treadmill desk!

  7. Great article, thank you for the pictures and advice!

    Question – Does anyone have recommendations for college students who are sitting in class for several hours a day? I have thought of asking the professor if I can stand at the back of the class so I don’t have to sit the whole time, but don’t necessarily want to be “that guy.” I do a significant amount of walking throughout the day as I move between classes, but this often doesn’t feel like enough seeing that I am in class for sometimes an hour and a half at a time sitting down.

    Much appreciated,
    Ryan

    • That was exactly my thought: ask the professor if you can stand in the back. Be that guy. Your health is a lot more important than what your professor or other students think. If it makes it easier for you, maybe you can tell them you have a bad back or something.

      • Wear rollerblades! I did all through graduate school. You need a little practice so as to not create a scene when you arrive in an auditorium and try to sit down, but in between classes you can get in a quick sprint or just clear your head. Works.

  8. I have been using this desk mount at work for a couple years now and I love it. It is affordable and adaptable to most work environments. It is best discussed during the job interview so there are no suprises. I developed low back pain from 10 hours of sitting a day (including drive to work). It improved my pain by 90% after two weeks. Ergotron has other good options too.

    Also, check out the Gokhale Method of posture for sitting, standing, sleeping and walking. She uses traditional cultures as a model. There is a google video of her presentation on the web.

    Here is the Standing Desk Mount
    http://www.ergotron.com/ProductsDetails/tabid/65/PRDID/561/language/en-US/Default.aspx

  9. The ‘cadillac’ of treadmill desks is this one from Steelcase — they developed it with an endocrinologist from the Mayo Clinic. It’s more of a corporate version — more often seen in corporate offices rather than homes.

    http://www.steelcase.com/en/products/category/tables/walkstation/walkstation/pages/overview.aspx

    Great overview of it when it was featured on the Today Show (link to the video is in the right hand column): http://details-worktools.com/products/walkstation/

    One of the nice features: there’s a ‘sit to stand’ option available so you can sit, stand, or walk at different times throughout the day . . . all at the exact same desk.

    • We have two of the steel case treadmill desks at my corporate office, right now I only go there a few times a month but with this additional information I’m going to set up on the tread desk instead of the sit to stand one going forward!

  10. I’m wondering what, if anything, research says about effects of traditional ground-based resting or working postures, e.g., squatting, sitting on heels or toes, or on crossed or extended leg(s)?

    • Check out the Gokhale Method of posture for sitting, standing, sleeping and walking. She uses traditional cultures as a model. There is a google video of her presentation on the web.

  11. My current set up: at least ~15 inches of space on desk in front of keyboard and an ultra-flat keyboard – totally got rid of the servere RSI wrist/arm pains I had had previously. I would be very worried a set up like that – with zero arm support – would cause RSI problems…

  12. Oh, and it’s worth noting that one should be careful when stacking things onto desks – my husband’s coworker had stacked small tables on his desk and one day they all came crashing down. Could be expensive/dangerous.

    @ Denise – I recently saw some black barefoot style Merrells – I am thinking about trying those for work.

  13. I found a spare desk, spare monitor, and spare keyboard around my office, then put the monitor on the desk’s hutch, put the keyboard on a box to get it at right height, and plugged in my laptop to the monitor (which is at eye level when standing). It’s right next to my seated desk, so i can switch back and forth easily. It’s definitely possible to cobble together a cheap DIY standing desk, too — some good examples here: http://lifehacker.com/5934906/standing-desks-on-the-cheap-the-ikea-guide.

  14. I created a stand up work station for myself in a corporate setting just three weeks ago, and I LOVE IT! I took a box of paper, used the reams to elevate my monitor, keyboard, and mouse to ergonomically comfortable levels, then setup the box itself as my “standing height” work area. While I think it is completely awesome and feel so much better by the end of the day (at home), my legs do get tired by 3:30pm or so. Trying to remind myself to work in some calf raises, which seems to help. Also some full squats on occasion to get my legs moving, as well as sitting at lunchtime.

    I broke one of my metatarsals in my left foot last year and then injured it again about four months ago: since changing over the the standing desk, my foot has gotten so much stronger–am able to hold tree pose for a much longer period now!

    My desk is large enough that I do have a section where I can sit if I need to be on a long conference call or to take a rest, but I’m trying to stand for most of the day. Now if only Vibram would make some office appropriate shoes!

  15. I am a homemaker, so my schedule is more flexible than most people. For a couple of years now, I’ve been using a timer. Twenty minutes sitting, then one hour up and about. If I have a lot of computer work to do, my kitchen counter is the perfect height for me, so I just move my laptop there. I’ve heard other’s say their dresser is the right height. The keyboard ergonomics are not perfect there, but fine for me since this only happens occasionally. When I’m up and about, I have a variety of tasks, from sprinting and yard work to laundry and cooking. It has really helped me to use the timer. Time flies at the computer and it’s very easy to sit for too long.

  16. Thanks for your post, Chris. I’m looking forward to making the transition to a standing or treadmill desk as soon as I can afford it. The info in your post will be very useful in helping me to decide which way to go. In the meantime, I try to remember to get up and move frequently, and when I’m at my regular sitting desk, I usually stand when I’m reading emails or blog posts, or watching videos, etc., on my iMac (the iMac monitor tilts upward, which makes it much easier to read when standing at a regular desk).

  17. Hey Chris – would love to see a video of you using this. Personally, anytime I use my laptop without the stand and my head is in flexion for any amount of time I get nauseous and headaches. I should try this. My office assistant has a standing desk which was built for space saving reasons – she was a bit anxious about switching but now that she is using it she claims she would never go back. When I considered the same option for me I figured it would create back pain standing in one place for an extended period of time. The treadmill would solve that problem. The one potential drawback I see is if the ergonomics are not set up exceptionally well. All those proprioceptive signals from walking could be really damaging if your posture/ergonomics promote an anterior head carriage. Pretty likely when the arms and shoulders are forward for typing. Keep your head pulled back! I will try this.

  18. I made my own standing desk about a year ago and love it. It is perfect, ergonomically, when I am standing, but there is no option for me to sit. I try to move around a lot during the day, but I do notice that some days I get so wrapped up in work that I forget to walk around. I have long wanted a treadmill desk, but even $1,000 is out of the question at this point. Looks like I need to get creative and see what I can come up with on my own! Thanks for the post!

  19. I have been using the stand up desk at work for several years now. I alternate between it and sitting on a stability ball. I also have a folding chair which I use also, specially after workouts. In an eight hour day I estimate my time in the ball approx 4, standing 3, folding chair 1

    • This is my strategy as well. I alternate between standing and sitting on a stability ball. I find that having the ability to sit at times really helped me in the transition phase when I first began using a standing desk. Having the stability ball allowed me to sit down every once in a while until I got used to standing for so long. Now, I don’t use the ball very much, but it’s still nice to have around because I do notice that when I use it I get a nice little core workout!

  20. Hi Chris

    I’m a long time user of standing desks, but I’m fascinated by the treadmill, especially if you find it so much better even than the standing desks.

    One question – what is the noise level like? In a shared office I can see that being a problem.

    Cheers

    Roger

    • The TreadDesk I bought is very quiet. Not one person I’ve spoken to on the phone or Skype while using it has been able to hear it. It’s quiet enough that I don’t think it would bother others in a shared office, provided the room is large enough.

      • I purchased a TreadDesk at the end of 2008. I think I got one of their first versions and mine is actually fairly loud. Good to hear that they’ve been able to make it quieter.

        I’ve been lazy about actually using it for the last couple of years, but hearing you talk about yours has given me motivation to start using it more again. Thanks 🙂

    • I would recommend the LifeSpan TR800-DT3. Much quieter than the Treaddesk and much nicer control panel that sits on your desk. Well designed, and excellent functionality. Find it at TreadmillDesk.com