Better Tread Than Dead

Can treadmill desks save you and your colleagues from sedentary demise?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Sitting down at work is out because, as we are often told these days, sitting is the new smoking. Now everyone stands at her desk. Or, better yet, pedals, or even wobbles. Office-design firms, spotting a profitable opportunity, have developed all sorts of new ways to work, if not smarter, at least fitter. We at Slate are eager to help combat the sad, daily decay of white-collar America’s health, and so we decided to experiment with one of these newfangled contraptions. Here, writers Alison Griswold and Seth Stevenson discuss what happened when Slate installed a treadmill desk in its New York bureau.

Seth Stevenson: Ali, it has now been a few weeks since we put a LifeSpan treadmill desk in the Slate office—sort of like a science experiment, with our colleagues as the guinea pigs. For readers who aren’t aware, a treadmill desk is exactly what it sounds like: a standing desk, but instead of just standing you’re strolling on a treadmill. You can raise or lower the desk part to different heights. The LifeSpan brochure promises that treading while working can “improve mental clarity, increase creativity, enhance productivity, and bolster the bottom line.”

What do you think? Fair claims?

Alison Griswold: Hey, Seth. Mental clarity, that’s a big marketing claim! But I’ll definitely vouch for the treadmill desk in terms of increasing productivity. Treading is particularly great for combating the dreaded midafternoon lull. It’s significantly harder, if not quite impossible, to doze off while walking on a treadmill than while sitting at your desk.

Stevenson: It’s true, it would take pretty serious napping skills to sleep while treading. And unlike on those days when I slump in a desk chair for nine hours straight, taking breaks to tread seems to prevent the pooling of blood in my feet and the ache-y compression of my spine. Sitting KILLS, Ali!

Griswold: That’s what they keep telling us these days. Though if, as the logic goes, regular exercise doesn’t undo the cumulative harm of sitting, I’m not entirely sure how an hour or so of treading does either.

Stevenson: One article in Nature states, “Active workstations (that is, treadmill desks and pedal desks) in particular represent a potential strategy for mitigating the diminished EE (energy expenditure) inherent to contemporary office-based workplaces, but only if they are scalable.”

I’m not at all sure what most of that means, but it sounds vaguely positive. And generally, people around Slate have been huge fans of treading.

Griswold: I mean, the treadmill might be the most exciting addition to the office since the Solowheel, and much less dangerous. Slatesters have definitely been pro-treading, with a lot of interest coming from women. Any theories on why?

Stevenson: I’m reluctant to make gender-based generalizations, especially in print. But I would say that the women around the Slate office seem, on balance, a little more prone to eating healthy things at lunch. And thus, by extrapolation, perhaps they are more eager to try out a putatively healthier way of working? That’s just a guess. And lest we misinform, I hasten to add that Slate dudes have been using the desk, as well. (I just used it today!)

Griswold: I’m also reluctant to make gender-based generalizations. But I’ve been keeping a log of who signs up, and easily 90 percent of the slots are taken by Sladies in any given week.

Stevenson: What’s your theory?

Griswold: Perhaps Slate women are more health conscious, or maybe we’re just more adventurous!

Stevenson: When we first started looking into the idea of a treadmill desk, I’d thought it would be a desk for one person who would tread on it every day for eight hours a day. But once we realized it was best as a shared amenity for the office, with people from various departments and rungs on the office ladder hopping on for an hour each, maybe a few days a week, I think we collectively decided it was a real benefit to Slate’s workforce.

Griswold: For sure. It’s funny because my understanding is that the various companies who make treadmill desks tend to market them for individual office use. Peter Schenk, president of LifeSpan, says they aim to sell treadmill desks to “companies and individuals in every industry” and to “make them affordable for everyone, with a baseline model costing just $1,300.” Here I have to disagree a bit, because $1,300 per desk doesn’t strike me as cheap, and the model we borrowed actually retails for $1,999. Treadmill desks are also cumbersome. You’d also need a huge office space to fit enough units for each or even most employees to have one. So really, I’d say the treadmill desk doesn’t make much sense for individual use.

As a shared resource, though, it’s great. You can easily cycle half a dozen people through the same treadmill desk on a single day. And it seems like that’s what most people want. They’d much rather be able to tread for an hour or so a few times a week than be expected to use it for multiple hours every day.

Stevenson: We put the desk in our office kitchen, out of sight of the main office area. Would you have felt more self-conscious about treading if you were in plain view of everyone working at their desks?

Griswold: Maybe a bit. I kind of liked having it in the kitchen. It really felt like a break from work, even though you were still working, plus it was close to the water fountain. But it wasn’t like people didn’t see you there—I think more people talked to me while I was on the treadmill in the kitchen than when I’m sitting right next to them in the office.

The treadmill is social! Maybe that’s where we should stick new Slate employees so they get to know people.

Stevenson: It’s true. People would go into the kitchen for coffee or to, like, toast a bagel, and they’d stop to chat as we treaded. Which was a pleasing development. One of our colleagues suggested that all cocktail parties should be conducted while on treadmills. It gives you something to do during awkward conversational pauses, and you feel less bound to make eye contact.

Griswold: Not just a colleague—our editor, Julia! Let’s just quote her directly: “All cocktail parties should be on the treadmill. Makes you feel less restless standing still holding a cup.”

Stevenson: Speaking of restless, at what speed did you tread at?

Griswold: At first I was doing the treadmill in two-hour shifts at a speed of 2.0, or 2 miles per hour. But frankly, I thought that was kind of slow. I run a lot, and walking a 30-minute mile just didn’t cut it. It was like being stuck on that narrow Christopher Street sidewalk in the West Village behind a frustratingly slow walker.

Stevenson: My understanding is that the desk was sent to us with a max speed of 2 mph, but this did not satisfy Ali “Speed-Treader” Griswold, and so you took matters into your own hands …

Griswold: I prefer “treadmill tsar.”

Stevenson: Elaborate, Treadmill Tsar.

Griswold: Well, we had a somewhat extensive back and forth with the press person who was helping us out with this whole thing, but as you’ll recall on this particular point he wasn’t exactly helpful.

Stevenson: He thought that treading faster than 2 mph was a safety concern?

Griswold: He was worried we would film ourselves going “comically fast, for entertainment’s sake.” Treadmill desks, he said, are “walking machines, and if the user can’t type accurately, breaks a sweat, or sounds out of breath, they’re misusing the product.”

Anyway, I argued that for me, going faster would be part of using the product correctly, and that presumably it was in LifeSpan’s interest to help users do that. He wasn’t persuaded, though. So I called up another person at LifeSpan, who very kindly walked me through the process for overriding the 2 mph speed limit. And now it goes up to 4 mph!

Stevenson: Could you actually tread and work at 4 mph? That seems brisk!

Griswold: You can but I wouldn’t recommend it. Four miles per hour is, like, awkwardly between jogging and walking. It’s kind of the worst. But I was a big fan of something like 2.5 or 2.6.

Stevenson: A lot of Slatesters seemed to tread at around 2 mph. Though an advertising operations manager in our office said she varied speed—2 mph for responding to emails, 1.7 when she was using a touchy interface on her computer that required her hands to be steady. For me, anything above 1.2 mph seemed crazy. First of all, I don’t want pit stains at work. You people must be in terrific shape to do an hour in a heated office climate without so much as breaking a sheen. But secondly, it’s just too jouncy. I couldn’t think, let alone type, when I was walking any faster than a slow amble.

Griswold: Hm. I like walking faster because it’s more robotic, and I think the best treading takes the minimal amount of mental effort. But the “sheen” was definitely a factor for a lot of people, and why many steered clear of mornings—they didn’t want to be sweaty and be stuck with it for the rest of the day. I’ll admit though that the one time I was really trying to file on a tight deadline I dropped down to 2.0. Which reminds me, what kind of work did you do on the treadmill desk?

Stevenson: I loved answering emails on it, or reading things on my computer (or, gasp, reading things that I’d printed out). I did my expenses at 1.2 mph and that seemed like a perfect scenario—distracting myself from mindless drudgery while getting some light exercise, to boot. I didn’t attempt to write a story while treading, though. I need pretty deep concentration to write, and even the slowest of treads would jar me out of the mental zone just far enough that I think writing would be tough. Most of the feedback we got suggested that other people felt similarly: Treading is ideal for when you’re cranking out emails or clicking around the Web.

Griswold: Ugh, I need to do my expenses. Maybe I should hop on after we finish this conversation. But actually, I was able to write on it. One day I was treading when Venmo pinged me about a security enhancement they’d made in response to an article I wrote. So I blogged that while treading. It might have been my finest journalistic moment to date.

Stevenson: That’s what makes you Tread Tsar. Another practical question: How high did you like to set the desk? It’s adjustable at the press of a button, and I found people’s preferences varied. Some liked it down low enough that they could type on their laptops with their arms hanging. I liked it up high, so the screen was at my standing eye level. (I’ve never understood posture or ergonomics so probably no one should listen to me.) How about you?

Griswold: I honestly don’t remember where I settled. I remember not being sure what the optimal height/angle was for the desk. But a couple people in the office said they actually thought treading improved their posture! So that’s cool.

Stevenson: Pretty much any standing posture is better than any seated posture, right? Unless you’re me. Which brings me to the padded wrist-rest thing. I loved it but for the wrong reasons. Basically, I settled into a slightly bizarre preferred treading mode: I slowed the machine way down to like 0.5 mph, so I was just putting one foot in front of the other, more trudging than treading. Then I hunched over and put my elbows on the wrist rest. The effect was kind of like I was using a walker. I’m a weirdo and, not coincidentally, my back always hurts. But I found this position and speed very meditative. Like I was walking across a swimming pool with a kickboard under my arms. And I got a lot of reading done like this.

Griswold: It’s not just you. That seems to be a preferred posture (slouch?) for many treadmill desk users. Though those are also the people I do fear may actually nod off and glide right off the back. Guessing none of that falls under “recommended use,” but whatever works, right?

Stevenson: I’ve seen people treading in winter boots, in business shoes, and in Chucks, in jeans and in dresses. Did you put on different attire on days you knew you would be treading? Do you think this would be an important consideration for offices with less, ahem, casual dress policies than Slate maintains?

Griswold: I brought sneakers one day early on, but then decided it was a hassle and stuck with treading in my normal attire. Jeans, dresses, boots, flannel, etc. A couple people advised treading in layers so you could strip down if it got hot. But yeah, I think it’s safe to say that Slate’s version of “business casual” is much more conducive to treading than other interpretations.

Stevenson: Overall, I think we agree that the desk has been a surprisingly delightful edition to our office environment. In the LifeSpan brochure, there are these dystopian photos of empty offices filled with treadmill desks, and I’d envisioned hordes of workers treading their lives away in a Black Mirror-esque tableau.

Black Mirror
Black Mirror.

Screenshot via Channel 4/Netflix

But having one desk, separating it from the main office floor, and letting people use it as much or as little as they wish, seems to work quite well for Slate.

Griswold: Absolutely. I’ll take shared treading any day over that communal gerbil-wheel office.

Stevenson: OK, Ali, my mental clarity is flagging—need to hop back on the desk right now. Feel free to stop by and say hi. I’ll be the guy with the 2 mph glow.