Photo: Michael Conroy/AP Photo/CP Photo: Michael Conroy/AP Photo/CP

Over the past couple years, sightings stand-up and treadmill desks at the office have risen sharply, especially at technology firms and start-ups. Proponents tout the benefits of standing and getting exercise—sitting is the new smoking.

I’ve used a treadmill desk for about a year, and have been keeping detailed records of my activity. Here’s what I learned about integrating a treadmill desk into my workflow and office.

Why do you want one?

I got my treadmill desk because I have a severe chronic back problem. I got to the point a year ago when I ended up in the hospital and subsequently couldn’t sit for months. I got a standing desk, but still found myself with bad posture or aching from standing in one position for too long. The treadmill desk did wonders for me. Walking forces me to keep perfect balance and posture while I concentrate on my screen or talk on the phone. Treadmill desks makes sense for anyone who has problems sitting for long periods of time, but of course consult your physician first.

The treadmill I have tracks time, steps, calories, distance and speed, and my Nike Fuelband tracks my total daily activity. The data is enlightening: I have some heavy meeting days when I spend less time at my treadmill desk, but my average time per regular workday is about 4–5 hours. Some days I log as many as 34,000 steps!

All this activity leads to dramatic weight loss, right? Sorry folks—that is not happening. I have not lost any weight at all. Staying at walking speed is unlikely to build too much muscle or burn enough calories for significant weight loss. You also need to be careful not to eat the extra cookie or snack thinking you’re getting enough exercise to burn it off!

My theory is that to sustain any weight loss you have to be setting the walking speed to at least a minimum of two miles per hour. I found the default starting speed—0.4 miles per hour—way too slow to be comfortable. I average around 1.6–2.5 miles per hour. Remember that the faster you go, the harder it is to manipulate your mouse or talk on the phone.

How will it affect your productivity?

There are conflicting results from studies trying to determine whether treadmill desks increase productivity. One yearlong study with 40 participants found an early decline in productivity but a slight overall long-term increase. A previous study from 2009 of 20 participants found treadmill walking caused a 6–11% decrease in fine motor skills and math problem-solving compared to sitting, while not affecting selective attention, processing speed or reading comprehension.

Another study concluded that use of a treadmill desk can improve attention and memory after the user has stopped walking and increased self-perceived attention.

Does your office know how to use it safely?

Make sure the treadmill is placed in a space that is not easy to trip over. While the treadmill fits under a desk, it is still 70.5” in length. Make sure people who are using the desk are well trained on safety features. Business owners may wish to look into their insurance to ensure their staff are covered in the event injury does occur.

Are you distracting colleagues?

The Lifespan treadmill I use is relatively quiet, but it’s noisier than someone sitting still next to you. There’s an audible safety alert that beeps whenever the treadmill starts, or when you increase or decrease the speed, which starts to get very annoying in an office setting after a short time.

Are you dressed properly?

I have a pair of runners that I put on when I use the treadmill. If you are wearing a dress or suit to work, you will need to decide whether you need a change of clothes. Unless you are setting the speed over two miles per hour, it is unlikely you will break a sweat. Make sure the treadmill is in a cool, preferably air conditioned-space since walking does get your blood pumping even if you are going slowly.

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Ease into it. It took me about three days to get used to typing and reading while walking. Start slow while you learn to coordinate various tasks at the same time. I can now do almost any work related task while on the treadmill including deep concentrated work, signing cheques, reading, talking on the phone and typing—the only thing can’t is sign my signature digitally using my mouse!

Cybele Negris is president and co-founder of Vancouver-based Webnames.ca Inc., Canada’s original .ca registrar and one of the country’s leading providers of web hosting and other Internet solutions. She is a veteran of the PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs.

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Do you use a treadmill desk? Has it made you more productive or healthier? Share your experiences using the comments section below.

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