How to Use a Treadmill Desk

I’ve come a long way since I got a treadmill desk a year ago: Maybe 250 miles while working at my computer.

I‘ve burned about 25,000 calories, lost about an inch around the waist and dropped eight pounds.  In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to use a treadmill desk.

I’ve liked the experience so much that it’s hard to imagine going back. But I’ve also occasionally run into some metaphorical bumps in my path. A lot of people have asked me about the experience. So here is my guide on how to use a treadmill desk.

Should You Get a Treadmill Desk?

By now you’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” That’s probably an exaggeration, but last week a study showed that inactivity is worse than obesity for your health.  And just today a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that every day spent sitting shortens your life. (The exercise does help, the researchers found, it just can’t negate the ills caused by sitting.)

The benefits of walking are undisputed. I’m convinced that moving more has improved the pain in my knee. And other research suggests that people working on treadmills are actually more productive than those who sit. Most people find typing while walking at a speed of one or two miles per hour is pretty easy, and I certainly don’t get as drowsy after lunch when I’m walking.

But there are reasons not to get a treadmill as well. Treadmills are expensive. They are heavy. They’re not particularly attractive. (I’m a little embarrassed to post the photos of my setup here, but I want you to have an unvarnished view.) And they take up a lot of space, especially if you want to have the option of sitting as well. And I think you do.

How to Use a Treadmill Desk

  • Keep your sitting option. My treadmill makes some noise, so if I’m on a telephone call with an imperfect connection, I tend to stop. For very fine mouse work, you might need to stop walking as well. (A friend who edits video while walking on his treadmill uses a touch pad). Even if you can do everything your job demands while walking, you’ll still get tired occasionally.

    How to use a treadmill desk
    My treadmill desk in the walking position. (Photo by Laird Harrison.)
  • You’ll need more than a treadmill. Most desks sold with treadmills are only big enough to fit over the treadmill. I had just enough space in my home office to install a desk with space for a chair next to the treadmill. The desk has a motor that raises and lowers it. I also got an arm that lets me move the monitor from one position to another. When I’m tired of walking, I lower the desk, swing the monitor sideways to face the chair, and slide my keyboard and mouse in front of the chair. Of course, this takes up more than twice the floor space of a simple desk and chair. TreadDesk makes a shorter treadmill and sells a stool to put on top of it.
  • Don’t overdo it. When I first got my treadmill desk, I thought maybe I’d never need to sit at my desk again. I put in some 12-mile days. But after a few months of that, I began to develop low back pain. Now I switch back and forth from sitting to standing to walking. I don’t usually walk at my desk more than 5 miles a day.
  • A physical therapist recommended raising my treadmill to a 5 percent incline. The kind I bought, doesn’t have that capability, so I put a block under the front end (the end with the motor.)
  • Drink more water. Just doing all that walking dries you out faster than sitting.
  • Expect to be more hungry. Burning all those calories will increase your hunger. Decide whether you want to live the life of a leaner, hungrier person (my choice) or maintain the same weight and eat more.
  • Don’t stop exercising. Walking at one or two miles per hour won’t take the place of an aerobic workout, or strength training. In fact, you can get quite stiff walking all day.
  • I also like to alternate footwear on my treadmill. My feet get hot when I’m walking. So sometimes I go barefoot. My feet are gradually getting tougher, which I hope will help if I decide to do actual barefoot running some day. Otherwise I wear a pair of walking sandals or river shoes. In order to keep the belt clean, I try not to wear shoes on the treadmill that I also wear outside the house.

What to Get

  • You get what you pay for. For an article I was writing, I surveyed people who repair treadmills. They said the motors with more horsepower last longer. My whole setup cost $2,300, and is now available for $2,000. You could get away with paying a few hundred dollars if you build your own sit-stand desk and buy a used athletic treadmill. The repair people I interviewed thought a fitness treadmill would work fine, but if you go with that option, you’ll have to find some way of removing the pedestal. They say you’ll need a heavy-duty treadmill because constant use at low speed is harder on it than occasional use at high speed.
  • How to use a treadmill desk
    My treadmill desk in the sitting position. (Photo by Laird Harrison.)

    If you want the option of sitting next to your treadmill, get a wide desk. Mine is the ISE Rise It’s one of the few big enough to accommodate a chair and a treadmill side-by-side. It goes up and down very easily with the touch of a button. I have no complaints except that it took a month to deliver.

  • I like my Ergotron monitor arm except that the conduit for cords doesn’t hold them in place very well.
  • The Lifespan DT 1200 treadmill has functioned well, except that the console that controls the treadmill occasionally crashes and I have to turn it off and on again to reboot it. The treadmill also requires regular lubrication, and I find it awkward to spray in the silicone. Lifespan is now selling an upgraded model, so maybe it has addressed some of these issues. For even more money, you can get a treadmill that needs “little or no” lubrication.
  • I had good results shopping at WorkWhileWalking. The site specializes in treadmill desks. It offers reviews, but only carries Lifespan treadmills, arguing that they are simply the best value.

Those are my tips on how to use a treadmill desk. If you’ve got any questions, or if you have your own experiences to share, please post a comment.

9 thoughts on “How to Use a Treadmill Desk”

  1. One of my readers emailed me with this suggestion:

    “As for the lubing of the treadmill, have you tried the ridiculously named “lube and walk” it’s a foam pad that lets you put the oil across the width of the treadmill with no problem.”

    I’m intrigued.

  2. “I’m convinced that moving more has improved the pain in my knee.” Yes, yes, yes. Not only is “rest,” as a prescription for pain management not the best advice, it may just be the the worst. Muscles that move without pain rest without pain. Great article… but I’m not giving up my standing desk just yet. Standing burns calories at 30% more efficiency than sitting, and if you stand correctly, it’s far better for your back. Just sayin’.

    1. Yes, I agree. When I’m standing at my desk my back hurts a lot less than when I’m sitting. On the other hand, my legs hurt more when I stand than when I sit. Walking on my treadmill, I can go for a longer period of time before anything hurts. But even walking, I eventually I get some low back pain. So what’s the solution?

      I recommend changing positions as much as possible. A treadmill desk is ideal because you alternate among sitting, standing and walking. But they’re big and expensive, so the second-best choice is a desk that allows you to alternate between sitting and standing.

      1. Thanks LairdH. For sure each person is going to have to figure what works best for them. I agree with you though. Change positions as much as possible. Take many breaks. Drinking lots of water is nice trick. It forces you to walk to the bathroom more. Find the bathroom on the other side of the office… or another floor, and take the stairs. Just don’t sit there for hours on end. Please.

        1. It’s a funny reason to drink water. But fortunately there are a lot of others as well. For years I have meant to try one of the computer programs that leads you in a stretch every 20 minutes or so. Some how I haven’t gotten around to it.

  3. Thanks LairdH for sharing your experience with us.I’m definitely appreciate with you regarding this topic.It’s actually happening with me but after reading your article many problem are solve .So thanks you again for your awesome writing.

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