Working and thinking on your feet: How standing and treadmill desks can change your life

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Over the past year I’ve seen more and more people using standing desks. And not just people with bad backs. I’m talking fit, strong and healthy people with no physical aches and pains.

For example, a few months ago I met a young lawyer who had recently purchased a standing desk and treadmill for her office. She enjoyed thinking on her feet and having walking meetings. She was often asked by her colleagues “Why don’t you just go for a walk outside?”. Her response: “Because I know I wouldn’t do that”.

51ZmSMjfDLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the book “Happiness by Design” Professor Paul Dolan argues that the key to good health and happiness is to set up your environment so you are nudged towards engaging in the right behaviours.

This lawyer had done just that. She had set up her workspace to nudge her towards moving more. The idea of going for a walk outside required too much mental effort. But having the treadmill right there in her office called her into action.

So as I was meeting all these healthy looking people who were using standing desks, I kept hearing about the dangers of sitting for long periods of time.

A study at the University of Sydney recently found that men and women who sat for 11 hours or more a day had a 40% greater risk of premature death than those who sat for less than 4 hours.

Then I saw a Catalyst episode called ‘Sitting is Deadly’. It was all about how sitting for long periods of time can shorten our lifespan. Researchers were telling us to get up every 20 minutes and go for a 2-minute walk.

This sitting thing was starting to really bother me. So I decided to do something about it. I got my hands on a varidesk.


Out of all the standing desks that are available, the varidesk is one of the cheaper options out there (besides building your own). It sits on your desk and can be easily adjusted to a sitting and standing position.

I knew having the chair in my office would be too tempting. You see, once I sit down I find it really hard to get up! So I wheeled it out of my office and into the storage room.

I find the varidesk super easy to use. The handles on the side allow you to lower and raise the desk, so you can switch back to sitting when you get tired and then switch back in an instant to thinking and working on your feet.

But like anything, standing can get boring after awhile. And too much standing isn’t exactly good for you either. So what do you do?

You can ramp things up with a treadmill desk.

So that’s what I did. A few months ago I built myself this:

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“That must have cost you thousands of dollars?” one person said. Well, actually no. It didn’t cost me anything.

My good friend had purchased a treadmill a few years ago but after 6 months, it had served its purpose. She had reached her target weight and she was ready to start jogging in the park. Her treadmill was sitting there in the backyard, collecting dust and taking up space so she was happy for me to borrow it.

With the help of my dad and some recycled materials, we added a little desk to it (an area big enough to place my laptop and some pens and paper).

Some people work at their treadmill desks all day, clocking up 6 hours of walking activity while at work. I’ll admit, I don’t work as intensely as this.

Here’s how I use my treadmill desk:

I wake up, jump on the treadmill and brainstorm what I need to do for the day. At first I started by using pen and paper, but now I use my laptop because I find it easier to type and walk.

Then once my brain has warmed up, I will delve into more complex work. Writing and editing parts of my thesis. Reviewing journal articles.

I’ve also decluttered on the treadmill: reviewing papers and tossing them into the recycling bin if no longer relevant.

I get to a point where I do get tired and find it hard to concentrate at the treadmill desk. So that’s when I hit the stop button. If I’m really into my work I will just stand on my treadmill and keep typing. Or I’ll return to using my standing desk.

But I’m sure as my fitness improves, I will be able to work and walk for longer (at first I could only walk and work for 30 minutes at a time. Now I can walk and work for 60 minutes).

The benefits of using a treadmill desk

After working at the treadmill desk for a couple of months now, here’s what I’ve noticed:

1. I feel more alert
2. My posture has improved (I used to be bent like a banana!)
3. I have more creative ideas

My energy and fitness levels have also improved so much that I now participate in high intensity group fitness classes.

My power naps have also decreased. I used to power nap daily after lunch. Now I only need to power nap 1 – 2 times per week. I feel alert and energised between 2pm and 5pm, whereas before this time was usually wasted as I felt too tired to do anything.

Tips for setting up your treadmill desk space

Once you’re on the treadmill and in the zone, you don’t want to be hopping off it to get things. You see, once you step off that treadmill there’s a real risk you won’t get back on. For this reason, set yourself up properly right from the start. I have found the following items make a big difference:

1) A fan: You can work up quite a sweat walking and working, which can make the experience a little unpleasant. To avoid sweating like crazy, I position a fan nearby on a little box.

2) Water: Just as if you’d go to the gym, have a water bottle within arms reach to stay hydrated.

3) Pens, paper and post-it notes: You may be working at your laptop, but sometimes you’ll just want to scribble something down. Don’t let the idea escape you just because you weren’t properly setup.

Another tip: I set my treadmill desk up with the things I need the night before (e.g. I put my laptop on it). The less things I need to do when I am bleary eyed and tired, the easier it is for me to get going on the treadmill and start my work!

Will my treadmill desk replace going to the gym?

No. I’m afraid not.

While walking certainly brings many benefits, it won’t bring the same sort of benefits as strength training and high intensity cardio exercise.

But I look at like this: it’s extra movement that I wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s less sitting in my day. And it all adds up.

If you’re unsure about using a treadmill desk, I would recommend trying a standing desk first and see if it works for you.

Is this a form of multi-tasking? Is it bad to walk and work?

Now I’m not an advocate of the way most of us multi-task – rapidly switching from one task to another – but walking and working in this way is different.

The key is to find the right walking speed. If you’re walking too slow or fast, your attention is on your walking rather than on your writing.

Once you discover the right speed (I walk at a speed of 4km per hour), the walking becomes automatic and requires very little of your conscious attention. It’s like driving a car and listening to the radio. The driving becomes automatic and partially unconscious behaviour, which frees you up to listen to the radio.

What type of treadmill should you use for a treadmill desk?

movealittleIn the book “Move a little, Lose a lot: New NEAT science reveals how to be thinner, happier and smarter” Dr James Levine says you should use a treadmill with a 3HP motor with a good running belt (20 wide and 55 long). He said avoid 14”, 16” and 18” wide belts. The wider and longer the belt is, the better.

The console should be narrow, elevated and out of the way to allow you to build a large desk surface on top of the arms. He recommends getting a treadmill that has straight arms. The one I borrowed from a friend has arms on a slight angle but this wasn’t a problem. There are ways you can still make it work.

You want your treadmill to be quite heavy and sturdy so it doesn’t shake as you walk.

To sum up

All in all, I have to say life is much better using a standing desk and treadmill desk. I can start the day with an hour of walking and working and clock up 7,000 steps on my pedometer by 8am. This is a fantastic way to build more activity into your lifestyle.

Obviously, nothing can beat a walk outside in nature, but I figure, if you have to work you might as well do it while walking or standing.