Walking and Working: Treadmill Desk trip report

Back story: My back hurts.

I do a desk job. I work 6.30-3, longer when I can, all at a keyboard. I often fail to move for three hours at a time (and yes, I tried setting a timer to get up, and yes, I just ignored it). I sit alone in a shed so I don’t even have to get up for meetings, looking at photos of other people’s babies, or cake. And although I have a good desk and chair, my back has begun hurting a lot. It hurt when I sat down for dinner, then it started hurting by noon; soon it was hurting half an hour after I sat down, and I was eating meals standing up because sitting was so uncomfortable.

It’s becoming clear that sedentary lifestyles are bad for us. Apparently lack of exercise now kills as many people as smoking. But who has time to do four hours’ exercise a day if you also have a job, a partner, maybe kids? How do you do a desk job while not sitting down all day?

If you can’t chuck it all in and go lie on a beach just yet, one answer is a treadmill desk. This is basically like a running machine but slower, with desk, and you type while walking at a pace that suits you. These are catching on in the US but what seems to be the first dedicated UK store has only just opened and I found it pretty hard to find opinions that weren’t obvious PR based on free loans of machines. Frankly, given the cost of these things, I wanted a real person to talk about them.

Well, I bought one, so the real person is me.

I got the Lifespan 1200 treadmill, which is meant to be used for six hours a day. The cheaper model is recommended for three hours a day, and I was torn about whether to spend the extra money and if I’d really use it that much. Oh my God I’m so glad I did. I have not got off this thing. I have sat down for maybe an hour per working day for the past week. Other than that, I’ve been walking. I drink tea at 2mph. It feels incredible. The treadmill goes up to 4mph if you’re some kind of superhero but I started around 1.2mph and am now very comfortable editing at 2mph, and it’s pretty quiet: the motor is white noise rather than a distraction for me.

My desk, with clutter, blackboard etc

I got the Lifespan desk to go with. It’s manually adjustable so it’s the right height with comfortable wrist supports, and it’s really sturdy and large – accommodates laptop, separate monitor, wireless keyboard, multiple mugs. It also has a console which tracks your time, steps, calories and distance walked. This is really addictive. It tracks you all day and keeps the data during breaks, unless you accidentally yank the safety cord and reset it, which I have only done once so far.

4.18 miles by 9.30am. Not bad, eh?

A lot of people ask if it’s really possible to type while walking. I was worried about this because I am horrifically malcoordinated. I have punched myself in the face more than once. My school made me do a spatial awareness test and my score went off the bottom of the chart. I am totally fumblefingered in the way only a bookish left-hander can be. So I did fear this would be an agonising learning curve.

Hahaha no. It took about an hour to adjust, if that. My crappy four-fingered typing is every bit as fast and accurate as while sitting, i.e. not very, but the walking makes zero difference. And it doesn’t impede my concentration. This week I have written a story and a chunk of book, edited two MSS and knocked out five blog posts, all on foot.

Walking all day did prove hard on the muscles at first, which is only to be expected given I was so sedentary before. The machine is comfortable, my dodgy knee is fine, but I really felt it in the bits that attach my legs to my hips. This is wearing off, and probably wouldn’t have happened if I had started slower or got off the machine occasionally, but I won’t and you can’t make me. You could build up, and intersperse sitting and standing to get the muscles going more gently, but I honestly have not wanted to sit down at all. This isn’t ‘tiresome exercise that must be done’: I have a desk and chair behind me and I don’t want to use them.

Tell you what else: core muscles. I went to the gym for the first time in six weeks and did 75 sit ups. Walking all day strengthens your back and stomach muscles more than slumping over Twitter. Who knew.

The treadmill is comfortably wide, which is good, because so am I.

This isn’t meant as a weight loss device. I expect if you kept up the exercise you were doing before as well, and didn’t increase your calorie intake, you’d lose weight. But you’re walking slowly, and that isn’t going to make the weight drop off. That said, even standing burns a lot more calories than sitting, and your leg and arse muscles are huge calorie munchers. I kind of hope to lose a few pounds over the course of a few months. Mostly, though, I’m thinking of this as a ‘not going to die from sitting’ machine.

And a ‘no back pain’ device. Because my back doesn’t hurt. It stopped hurting as soon as I stopped sitting all day. When I do sit, it’s fine. The kitchen chairs that had begun to seem torture devices are just chairs. I did four hours’ work then sat through my daughter’s ukulele concert with no more discomfort than you normally get from listening to 60 seven-year-olds on the ukulele (i.e. it was hell, but my back had nothing to do with that). I feel the need to sit in the evening much less, too. Standing just feels better. I am more awake, I am sleeping really well, which is unusual. Being on my feet, being active while I work, feels good.

These are undeniably expensive things. I paid a painful £1500 for mid-range treadmill, desk and installation. (The £ cost seems to be equivalent to the $ cost, presumably because of bigger US demand.) You could bodge up your own desk, I guess, if you were competent and didn’t mind not having the data. They are also big: the set-up takes up a good third of my writing shed. So there’s no denying that you need room and cash to make this happen at home. If you work in an office, get to HR right now and see if they will cough up for a few machines for people to share. (You can get standing desks, which are obviously much cheaper; I can’t stand up for very long without discomfort so that wasn’t an option for me.)

So, yes, it’s a lot of money, no question. But. I have had two trapped nerves because of my crappy deskbound life, giving me weeks of agony, costing me hundreds of pounds in physio bills, and losing me days of work because I couldn’t sit at a desk. I’m now freelance: days off are lost money and deadline disasters. I calculated that if this machine means I avoid another two trapped nerves it will have paid for itself as well as saving me a lot of pain. Plus, I have one spine, which no amount of money will replace when it breaks down, and very, very limited time to exercise any other way. For me, this desk has so far been worth every penny.

This is a completely unbiased report: I paid for this desk with my own (total bonus audio rights sale) money and nobody’s giving me anything. And my conclusion is that I love this machine; I love the concept of a treadmill desk; it really works. The book I’m currently writing while walking is called A Gentleman’s Position. Mate, that position is upright, and that goes for ladies too.

This blog post was written in 2.3 miles.