Walking in a winter wonderland

The first snowfall of the year coincided unsurprisingly with an increased interest in ways to move around in the winter months without getting too cold. Treadmill desks have been rolling through the collective consciousness, perhaps outpacing the good old standing desk in news mentions. Remember the fuss last year about how, suddenly, sitting is lethal? The surest antidote for this was standing desks for office and home, in upstanding tradition just like Hemingway and so many others. Perhaps standing is the new sitting, and to further optimize our every moment, we must move more and faster than before, walking instead of merely loafing in place.

“Can you move it and work it on a treadmill desk?” asks Patti Neighmond as she puts one through its paces for the benefit of NPR listeners. She initially assumed that it would be an easy transition, but questions whether it is possible to accomplish thoughtful work on one of these machines.

“I thought I’d simply hop on the treadmill and be off walking all day while working. But it turns out it’s really hard to walk, talk, think and concentrate.

James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic who came up with the idea of the treadmill desk, told me that my experience was pretty typical. “There’s a tendency to want to jump on the treadmill and walk for hours and hours a day,” he says. “Don’t do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, do half-hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day.””

That’s not a very long walk.

Walking is a wonderful pursuit in part because no special equipment is required — no rackets, swimsuits, golf clubs, rollerblades, patch kits for tire tubes, kneepads, goggles. Anyone can do it, lots of it, for free. Yes, shake your nordic walking pole as reproachfully as you like; it’s true. In the case of the treadmill desk, the entire premise is equipment.

So where, other than perceived necessity, did these contraptions come from? Treadmills have been around for centuries, about 4,000 of them, and have been used to pump water, grind grain, or operate machinery. They were an unfortunate feature of prisons through the late nineteenth century. Circumstances began to shift in the 1950s when treadmills were put to greater good as a diagnostic tool for heart and lung disease.

The big breakthrough came in the late 1960s when they were repurposed for home use. William Staub developed the curiously named PaceMaster 600 after reading Aerobics by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who was troubled by the dearth of affordable home treadmills to keep fit the weather-adverse.

How, then, did the treadmill morph from this glamourless beast hulking in the dark corners of basements and storage units, dreaming of a spandex and legwarmers 1980′s resurgence? The treadmill desk has actually been around longer than lore has it. While James Levine, an endocrinologist with the Mayo Clinic, is often cited as developing the first treadmill desk in 2005, the first to put the two together was actually Dr. Seth Roberts, a professor of psychology from University of California Berkeley, who began using one in 1996. Dr. Roberts freely admits that the popularization of treadmill desks is due to Levine’s efforts; he himself stopped walking while he worked after a few years. He wanted to move freely around the room, rather than trudging monotonously along the same path.

Dr. Levine was inspired by his research on non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which he defines as “the energy expenditure associated with all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings.” In 2005 he published a study showing that people who are continually engaging their muscles in activities such as fidgeting, standing, or basically anything other than slumping in a chair all day, burn more calories. He now markets activity consulting services and a $4,000 treadmill desk called the Walkstation, and “works at 0.7 miles an hour.”

Walking on a treadmill differs in essence from walking through a place, either indoor or outdoor, and walking on a treadmill harnessed to a desk even more so. While walking outdoors is frequently cited as a way to induce creative thought, or to clear the mind, it is difficult to imagine the slow plod of feet on the treadmill’s belt as particularly inspiring. Fortunately, companies that have implemented walking desks have found increased productivity and revenues, and Levine credits the setup with greater concentration and reduced fatigue, in addition to numerous health benefits.

In 2008, Celeste Headlee visited a suburban Detroit Starbucks to ask how folks felt about a treadmill workstation in their office. In her article for NPR, she reports that the “general consensus was, are you kidding?” Undeniably, the perception of treadmill desks has not always been kind, from being too challenging and tiring to being too newfangled, espousing an indoor landscape too similar to that of the Jetsons’ living room. As Levine stated earlier this month, “But it’s totally mainstream now. There’s been an explosion of research in this area, because the health care cost implications are so enormous.”

Is the enormity of these implications sufficient to incite latte-laden workers to action? Detroit Area Rambling Network ambled over to the midtown Starbucks to try posing Headlee’s question again, almost five years later. How have fates changed for the treadmill desk?

Favorably, and very, it turns out. Patrons of all ages and pursuits were, if not enthusiastic about treadmill workstations, at least amenable to the concept. “Awesome,” responded the first person when asked how she felt about treadmill desk work. “My friend has a standing desk, and she has one of those kitchen mats under it, so she stands barefoot. I think I’d prefer that, but a treadmill desk would be even better. Standing is good, except for the standing. I think walking would be easier on my body.” She concluded thoughtfully, qualifying, “If I still have to use a desk.”

“Why not?” asked a young woman, poring over her notes for class. “I mean, I read when I’m at the gym. It’s basically the same thing.” It might be good, mused one man taking a break from work on his laptop, “especially for those days when you feel sleepy at work!” Only one person, citing unfamiliarity with the idea, frowned and hedged that he thought he would prefer the usual office setup.

The treadmill desk was perceived as a convenient way to pack some exercise into an otherwise stagnant day. “I guess it would kill two birds with one stone,” one woman reflected. “I would like it, unfortunately,” another said. “There’s not enough time in the day, you know, so if I could get my fat self on the treadmill, you know, while I work…” she said, smiling.

Several people expressed worry over whether they could multitask. “It would be an inconvenience — at first, having to do two things at once, when you are used to just using your brainpower.” She tapped her index finger majestically against her temple. “But after that, it would be a good thing.” Perceived increases in work errors deterred another: “I think I might mess something up so badly… But for other people I think it would be beneficial.”

All the focus these days on indoor walking begs the question, what does walking mean to us? While pacing around a room has long been a fine way to clear the head and stimulate creativity, for whom is marching in place preferable over a stroll in the park? Now there is no reason to even go out and walk the dog, as the dog will be perfectly happy trotting along on a doggie treadmill next to you as you type.

It’s a peculiarly first-world problem, where walking no longer means moving oneself from one place to another, but is merely a means to the end of maintaining the often overlooked physical self. It’s unlikely that treadmill desks will become an acceptable surrogate for the real thing – walking outside for transportation, exploration, fitness, or fun – but they seem well-poised to offer a sound alternative for the worker while at their desk.

With the recent emphasis on constant motion, it’s curiously paradoxical how sleeping eight hours a day is touted as healthy and utterly virtuous. To be lying down, motionless, in perfect repose! One wonders if standing beds will become a thing. Despite the continual praise for a good night’s rest, even the undisturbed sleep period is under siege. Our ancestors divided their sleep into two phases, taking a break in between to get up and stretch, to read, write, socialize, or have sex. Just as relying on a treadmill desk to correct a deficit in daily movement is a modern and likely first-world problem, so is the preoccupation with “sleep hygiene,” the melatonin pills and the compulsion to re-engineer an optimal sleep schedule. While the segmented night seems to have been the norm in the past and may be a welcome alternative for some, fretting about what’s best is likely to unravel some of the intended benefits. With treadmill desks, it’s evident that many benefits can be realized, but they may differ from the ones offered by a traditional walk, like stress relief from the sense of having a break from it all. While laudable for delivering movement to those who need it, they miss some of the fundamental elements that make walking walking.

For more on treadmill desks, check out Wired’s “MacGyvering Your Own Treadmill Desk”, or arguably the cheapest walking workstation out there at $22. For a zanier solution to fitness away from the gym, there is this comprehensive setup.

For a lovelier and less dire discussion of the malicious intents of chairs, read “Chairs, are they killing us?”

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