Treadmill Desks Can Boost Productivity (If We Use Them the Right Way)

Treadmill desks have been touted as the answer to everything from inactivity-induced heart disease and diabetes to late-afternoon productivity dips. But is it really possible to exercise and do high-quality work at the same time?

treadmill desk 

(Photo Credit: drothamel/Flickr)

A study from the University of Tennessee found that “6 percent to 11 percent decrease in measures of fine motor skills and math problem solving, but did not affect selective attention and processing speed or reading comprehension.” Another study from the University of Miami found that treadmill walking adversely affected typing accuracy, but that slower speeds induced fewer errors.

Lydia Dishman at Fast Company recently spoke with several high-profile users of treadmill desks, including New Yorker writer Susan Orlean and Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles. What she discovered was that treadmill desks can be good for both whittling the waistline and improving productivity — provided users either adapt the speed of the treadmill to the work or the type of work to the treadmill.

Coles, for example, plows through trade magazines or has walking meetings while walking at a brisk 3.5 miles per hour; Orlean, on the other hand, was able to write an entire report on treadmill desks while walking at 2.1 miles per hour.

Orlean says walking while writing allays anxiety and helps her concentrate.

“I get very tense from sitting there,” says Orlean. “That is the surprise [on the treadmill desk]. You just feel more relaxed. Your body is busy walking and your brain can be busy being a brain.”

There’s little doubt treadmill desks are better for physical fitness than traditional workstations. Owen Thomas, editor-in-chief of ReadWrite, tells Dishman he’s lost 13 pounds since starting to use his treadmill desk, and regularly logs 10 miles a day.

“Even walking at 1 mile an hour has very substantial benefits” including doubling metabolic rate and improving blood sugar levels, says James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, in an interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Although you don’t sweat, your body moving is sort of purring along.”

For most of us, fitting an hour of exercise into our schedules every day is a tough squeeze; if we can find a way to multitask work and exercise by being selective about what kinds of work we do while walking, so much the better.

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