How to Walk While Working: Tips for Using a Under Desk Treadmill


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Sep 14, 2023

How to Walk While Working: Tips for Using a Under Desk Treadmill

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Because you need to move more throughout the day—not just on a run.

Fitness trends come and go and ideas about the healthiest habits constantly fluctuate. But when it comes to sitting all day, the popular consensus among health experts is pretty unshakable: It's bad for you.

Research links sedentary behavior with a myriad of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and various cancers. And research shows that we’re sitting more than ever before. A nationwide survey found that the average adult in the United States clocks around 9.5 hours of sedentary time a day, and more than half of that happens on the job. But, what do you do when work requires you to sit at a desk?

You make it a walking desk.

Adding an under desk treadmill or walking pad to your workspace can help you get off your seat and add additional physical activity to your day. And if you are going to invest your money in new equipment, you want a solid plan for how to use it—and how to use it often.

We talked to a few experts and asked for their tips on setting up, acclimating to, and maximizing a walking desk. Here's everything you need to know about how to walk while working.

For runners and other athletes, the evidence that walking can improve health outcomes can feel irrelevant. After all, training regularly means you cover your bases, right?

Not always. The problem occurs when your sweat sessions are flanked by hours of inactivity. Chicago-based personal trainer Wesley Showalter, C.S.C.S., sees this all too often in his clientele. "There are a lot of people who exercise or train, meaning they have a program or do classes, but they don't do a ton of physical activity. They do an hour-long class and burn a bunch of calories, but then they sit all day," he says. "I would almost prefer somebody be more physically active and move more than do one hour of super intense exercise."

Walking while working can help solve this problem, says Jordan Duncan, doctor of chiropractic and owner of Silverdale Sport and Spine in Silverdale, Washington, especially for people who already struggle to find that one hour a day to hit the gym. "A walking desk is an efficient way to exercise during the day. This is important, as there never seems to be enough time to do everything we want," he says.

You may also find that working at a walking desk puts you in a better headspace when you’re on the clock. One study published by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology compared the psychological and performance outcomes of employees working in different workstations, including standing, sitting, and walking. According to the study, "participants in the walking condition had higher satisfaction and arousal and experienced less boredom and stress than those in the passive conditions."

While there's no evidence that links walking desks to fewer injuries or faster splits, the experts we spoke to agree that replacing sitting with more walking throughout the day can only benefit runners.

"The less runners sit, the better," says Mary Beth Rockwell, founding trainer and walking instructor for The Next Fitness Thing app. "Working upright helps reinforce better posture that's integral to proper running form and optimal oxygen intake. Getting up off your seat can also contribute to more relaxed hip flexors—a common tight spot for runners—and that can translate to greater flexibility and mobility, as well as decreased risk of back pain," she says.

"Motion is the lotion," Showalter says. "Motion is how you promote things like synovial fluids of the joints and blood to the tissues. And walking can help with that."

Also, runners tend to forget that walking is an effective form of exercise in its own right. "Using a walking desk would be considered low-intensity cardiovascular training. This form of exercise benefits the capillaries, the tiny blood vessels between arteries and veins that allow for oxygen distribution to tissues," Duncan says. "Capillary density is high in type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers, which are extremely important in distance running. Low-intensity cardiovascular training increases the number of capillary networks, resulting in a greater supply of oxygen to muscles and better running performance."

First, get the setup right. You’ll need a standing desk (or desk topper) that elevates your work surface and has adequate space underneath for your under desk treadmill or walking pad. Unless you have enough room for both a treadmill desk and a regular desk, you’ll be swapping your walking pad for a chair or standing mat throughout the day, so keep that in mind when arranging your workspace and choosing equipment. (A lightweight or foldable walking pad can make these transitions a lot less cumbersome.)

Remember that just because you’re not sitting in a swivel chair, office ergonomics still apply. Position your monitor on the desk so it's about arm's length away from you. Whether you’re walking, standing, or sitting at your desk, your eyes should be level with the top of the screen.

"Looking down while working can place your neck in a disadvantageous position and add undue strain to muscles, ligaments, and other tissues," says Duncan. "Therefore, orienting your workstation at a height where you are looking straight ahead should play an important role in the prevention of neck pain." Keep your wrists in a neutral position and your elbows bent at an angle of 90 degrees or greater.

If you’ve never used a walking desk before, Showalter recommends doing a trial run during off hours to get acclimated to moving while you work. "Get practice reps," he says. "Try to do something that is multitasking but doesn't require as much cognition." For example, build a new Spotify playlist, answer some personal emails, or Zoom with a couple of friends. Stay mindful of your posture and form, and take note of what speed feels manageable and sustainable.

If you’re new to the treadmill or walking pad entirely, start with just walking versus walking and multitasking, says Duncan. "Walking on a treadmill while not working can get people comfortable with the apparatus, as well as help them determine the optimal speed for a walking desk. This can vary from person to person, depending on their height, stride length, and overall fitness level," he says. "Once walking on a treadmill becomes second nature, you are ready for a walking desk."

You can certainly wing it and hop on the treadmill when the mood strikes—any additional movement is good, and those extra steps will add up. But if you want to maximize the time you spend at your walking desk, it helps to have a game plan. Here's how to build one:

Showalter recommends reverse-engineering your desired step count for the day. "Let's say 10,000 steps take you an hour and a half. Block it out," he says. "You could do three 30-minute chunks. [Multiple] 20- and ten-minute chunks, 45 and 45—however you want to do it." Knowing roughly how long it will take you to accumulate your steps and proactively scheduling walking sessions into your day ensures that you won't come up short.

Habits begin with intentional actions, so look at your schedule and identify tasks, meetings, and breaks during which you can walk. "If you know every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m. you have a meeting, start to make it a habit loop and a trigger. So you know, ‘Every time I have my 10 a.m. meeting, I’m going to go for a walk,’" Showalter says.

It may take some trial and error, but you’ll likely discover that not every item on your to-do list was made to be mobile. If a project requires deep focus or high attention to detail, or if you’re leading a meeting or giving a presentation, you may want to stand still or take a seat.

It's perfectly fine to pick a sustainable pace and stick with it. But periodically upping the speed or incline can stave off boredom and keep you engaged. "While this can vary from person to person, the afternoon is often a time where concentration and energy decrease," Duncan says. "Bumping up the speed during this time may have a revitalizing effect during the second half of the work day." Here are a few other ideas:

On days when you don't have a run programmed, it makes sense to bump up your target step count. But what about the days when you’ve got a run scheduled and you know you’ll surpass your daily steps?

Don't ditch your walking desk altogether. (Remember: there's a difference between exercise and physical activity, and you need both.) Instead, keep moving but scale back a little. Showalter suggests walking about 25 percent of your run for those added steps. So, if your run will get you to 10,000 steps, walk an additional 2,500.

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