Ultimate Multitasking: My Take on the Walking Desk

by Jesse Lahey on July 1, 2015

IMG_3184I have used a standing desk since 2008. This week, I added a small treadmill to my setup, thus stepping up to a walking desk.

I first began seriously considering a walking desk (also known as a treadmill desk) in 2013 after reading EAT MOVE SLEEP and interviewing the author, Tom Rath. In the summer of 2014, during an onsite client project, I had my first experience using a walking desk at the headquarters of Kraft Foods. This year, I interviewed Rath again for his latest book, Are You Fully Charged?, and I learned he still uses his walking desk all day long and swears by it. I decided it was time for me to take the next step in my own office.

7 Reasons to Step Up to a Walking Desk

Here are the top seven reasons I decided to try a walking desk (and why you should consider it too).

  • Manage weight. Walking is great physical activity, but it does more than simply burn calories. It also boosts metabolism, improves digestion, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. On a recent 3-week vacation in Europe, I worried I might gain weight from such a long period of richer eating and missed workouts. But when I returned, I found my waist size stayed the same and my weight actually dropped a couple of pounds. Perhaps the biggest reason was that I walked over 10,000 steps (which is about five miles) on an average day during the trip, which experts say is a good target for overall activity.
  • Increase energy and improve mood. Walking increases energy levels by about 150%, according to Rath’s books. Further, researchers have found that people have much better mood following exercise, and the improved mood typically endures for 12 hours. Rath says that his step count at the end of each day has become his single best gauge for whether he had a good day versus a sluggish and stressful day.
  • Manage stress. For the past few years, I’ve heard several times that walking 20 – 60 minutes each day is perhaps the greatest stress reliever. I had tried it on many occasions and found it to make a real difference. With my walking desk, this stress reliever is now a natural part of a normal workday.
  • Prevent “sitting disease.” Too much sitting is linked to heart attack, heart disease death, overall death, and death from cancer. Even if you do an hour of strenuous exercise, the harm of sitting for six hours will cancel out the beneficial effect of the exercise. As they say, sitting is the new smoking.
  • Save time. After recognizing the benefits of walking a couple years ago, I tried to work more walking into my daily routine. A walk in the evening is a great way to unwind. A short walk at lunchtime prepares for a productive afternoon. But I failed to be consistent, because whenever I get really busy it feels like one more “to-do” to squeeze into the day. “Walking while working,” said a client when I told her about my walking desk, “that’s the ultimate in multitasking!”
  • Feel more comfortable than sitting. The human body is built for moving, not sitting. When I sit at a desk, my back starts to ache and my brain fogs. Back pain was a key reason why I switched to a standing desk in 2008. However, I was soon surprised to find that it was also uncomfortable to stand still for long periods. With my walking desk, I feel fine all day long.
  • Get reminders to take breaks. My particular treadmill automatically stops after 30 minutes. While some might find it annoying to need to restart it, so far it’s been a good thing for me. When the treadmill stops, I take a break to stretch, have a face-to-face interaction with someone, or otherwise refresh my mind. Regular breaks from mental task have been shown to increase both creativity and productivity, according to Rath.

Top 8 Questions About Walking Desks

Here are my responses to the eight most common questions people have asked me.

  • Is it hard to work on a computer while walking? The first time I used it, the treadmill was distracting for the first 30 minutes or so. After that, I generally forget that I’m walking. Curiously, so far there are some moments when I’m surprised to find that I’ve stepped off the treadmill in order to complete certain activities that apparently require more of my grey matter — such as dialing my phone or explaining a complex topic to a caller.
  • How fast do you walk? To be able to type and use a mouse, I walk only 1.5 – 2.0 miles per hour. That’s only half as fast as my typical walking pace of 3.0 – 4.0 miles per hour. At first it felt unnatural, but I quickly got used to it.
  • How far do you walk? Based on my iPhone 6 built-in pedometer, on a typical workday I will walk over 30,000 steps, or 14-15 miles. That’s like walking more than a half-marathon, while accomplishing a full day’s productivity!
  • Is it safe to walk on the treadmill while working? I think so. Because the treadmill is at such a slow setting, it is very easy to step on and off. Yesterday I experienced my first (slight) stumble, while on a Skype video call; I recovered easily by moving a hand to my desk. Certainly there is a small risk of actually falling down and banging my head on the desk, but I don’t think it is any more risky than walking up steps, which everyone does on a daily basis.
  • Does the noise bother other people? While on the phone with people, I have been asking them if they can hear my treadmill, and so far everyone has said, “No.” My treadmill is pretty quiet, though I’ll bet there are quieter models on the market. It’s possible that if someone were in a cubicle next to me, it might be annoying for them.
  • How much does it cost? A complete “walking desk” that includes both the taller desk and a treadmill can easily cost a few thousand dollars. I already had a taller desk for several years, so I simply needed a walking treadmill that would fit under the desk. Since I wasn’t sure I’d be using it forever, I decided to start with an entry-level option that had good reviews – the Confidence Power Plus walking treadmill. It was only $200 (including shipping) on Amazon, but I had to do about an hour of DIY to remove the handle so it would fit under my desk. I followed these instructions, except I did not tamper with the beeper or the 30-minute timer, because so far they don’t bother me.
  • Can you move the treadmill out of the way when needed? Yes, it is very light. However, although I had assumed I would be moving it so I could sit on my tall stool for a portion of each day, so far my preference has been to keep walking.
  • Where did you get the cool standing desk? My standing desk was customized seven years ago by a local shop that sells kitchen cabinets. I first hired a workstation designer to draw up the plan based on my needs. (The designer worked I found this person online and sent her photos and measurements of my office; if you’d like her contact info, please drop me a comment and I will search for it in my archives). The stand holding the monitor and laptop was purchased several years ago at an office supply store (their product has since been updated with a sturdier/thicker base).

I don’t think a walking desk is for everyone. But so far, the health and productivity benefits seem well worth the investment for organizations to provide for their workforce and for individuals to install in home offices.

What’s your experience been with walking desks? Does your company allow employees to have a standing or walking desk?

Jesse Lahey, SPHR, is the host of the podcasts Engaging Leader and Workforce Health Engagement, and he is CEO (chief engagement officer) of Aspendale Communications. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. If you know anyone who would benefit from this information, please share it!

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