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From Issue #27 October 10, 2013

He Likes to Move It

A treadmill distances him from mortality a step at a time.

By Lex Friedman Twitter icon 

I don’t want to die.

I mean, I’ve come to terms with the undeniable fact that I’m going to die. But I’d like to delay my mortal coil shuffle as long as possible. And that’s why I work at a standing desk while walking on a treadmill.

A steady parade of studies demonstrates that sitting all day is bad for your health. There’s nothing wrong with sitting — indeed, I’m a big fan. The problem arises when you don’t stop sitting for prolonged stretches, day after day; that is what causes problems to develop.

Your body, of course, has all sorts of stuff going on inside it all the time — the kinds of things that you generally try to avoid thinking about because, ironically enough, they make you need to sit down. But when you do sit down, your muscles go quiet; the electrical activity that’s normally going on within them plummets. While a walking person burns around three calories per minute, a sitting person burns just one.

After a day of sitting, the effectiveness of your body’s insulin drops, too. And the enzymes that process lipids into triglycerides start performing more poorly as well, which adversely affects your levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.1 People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as people with standing jobs.

And even if you hit the gym every single day, that daily burst of physical activity doesn’t counteract the negative health impact of sitting all day long — just as chomping down on a side salad won’t counteract the effects of guzzling corn syrup 15 hours a day.

Stand in the place where you work

It was sometime between reading the umpteenth and gazillionth news article about the health risks of sitting all day that I decided to get off my ass, and get off my ass. Initially, I switched to a standing desk. I used cardboard boxes, an enormous Yale Shakespeare collection, and various other rectangular household objects to prop up my screens and keyboard. (Remember that ergonomics matter: you want your screen at eye height, and your keyboard at elbow height.)

Though I work from home, it quickly became apparent that going barefoot was no longer an option. I discovered I needed a few things: great sneakers, an anti-fatigue mat, and the respect of others amazed that I was rocking a standing desk.

It was working from home that motivated my decision in one significant way: Many office workers at least get up to walk to the conference room or another cubicle. When I sat all day, I sat all day.

And after many months of standing, my legs were antsy for more. And since they don’t make jeggings in my size, I decided to upgrade to a treadmill desk instead.

Whistle while you walk while you work

My fear about upgrading to a treadmill desk was twofold: I worried about the cost, and I worried about whether I’d stick with it. A desk treadmill differs from a traditional treadmill — it doesn’t have the standard arms that would interfere with the desk’s surface, and its control panel is thus wired separately from the “in-dash” controls of regular exercise treads.

My tread set me back a cool $855. I stuck with my jury-rigged desk for a while, before upgrading to a stationary standing-height desk. You can instead opt for a height-adjustable desk so that you can switch from sitting to standing as desired.

I started out at one measly mile per hour. I wasn’t looking for aerobic exercise; I was looking to Not Be Sitting. There was a period of adjustment to get my typing speed back up to (or at least close to) normal while walking, but I was competent within hours and top-notch within days. (At typing, I mean.)

Over time, I inched up: 1.1 miles per hour, then 1.2, then 1.3. (More accurately, I “tenth of a mile’d up,” but “inched” sounds better.) Eventually, I was motivated to jump up in speed, thanks to friendly Fitbit competition. I wear one of the Internet-connected pedometers in my pocket while I tread, and my Fitbit friends list is filled with other treadmill desk walkers. Now I routinely walk between 2.5 and 2.8 miles per hour, all the workday long.2

There is something unpleasantly poetic about starting one’s workday on a treadmill, trudging endlessly forward while never getting anywhere. My solution to avoiding the negative emotions surrounding that unwelcome real-life metaphor is simply to say, “f--- it,” and see how many of my friends I can pass on the Fitbit step count ranking.

Tread lightly

In addition to my current treadmill desk setup, I’ve also reviewed a Bluetooth-enabled treadmill from LifeSpan Fitness. I miss that one. Though it was flawed, it ran more quietly at higher speeds than the TreadDesk treadmill in my office.

When I started treading, I was working for a large Internet company. I hit my groove — and my fastest speeds — while working full-time as a writer for Macworld. Now, I head up ad sales for the Mid Roll, a podcast advertising company. And I tread less than I’d like.

At 2.5 miles per hour or faster, my treadmill’s motor is noisy. It’s not enough to distract me or really bother anyone in the next room, but it’s loud enough to make conference calls difficult. And the motion of my head bobbing with each step makes the treadmill desk a nonstarter during video chats.3

In my new role, I’m on the phone and on video conferences all day long. I tread less than ever before. I’m working my ass off, but I’m no longer quite walking my ass off.

Lexercise

Speaking of walking my ass off, yes, the treadmill desk is a route to weight loss. That wasn’t my goal. When I first started treading, burning a couple of thousand extra calories a day without ever setting foot in a gym, I compensated by adding extra desserts and treats into my diet, because I’m a moron.

But when I stopped adding in extra treats thanks to the treadmill calorie burning, I shed serious poundage. I do not exercise, outside of the treading. But over the course of the year, without any significant dietary changes, I dropped from 218 pounds to 193 pounds.

What I gained — I hope, I think — is more important.

I hate thinking about my own mortality. Anything I do to be healthier for the sake of extending my life makes me all the more aware that I will die, that I’m not doing any of numerous other things that could make me live longer still, and that oodles of accidents could claim my life well before cardiovascular disease, old age, or cancer does.

All that said, treading feels like it’s better for me than sitting. Even if there were no health studies about this, it definitely beats sitting all day.

I walked nearly six miles while writing this story. Were it not for the treadmill desk, I would barely have walked six feet in the process. I like the idea of improving my life one step at a time.

Photo by Farhad sh. Used under Creative Commons license.


  1. You want a lower number of triglycerides — which coat the insides of arteries and cause atherosclerosis — and a higher number of HDL, which is a janitor of the arteries and can grab and carry off some of the bad cholesterol. 

  2. Editor’s note: Mr. Friedman is rather compelling, and convinced your editor to get a standing desk and then a treadmill over two years ago. While not of Lex’s caliber, I walk 1.7 mph and walk 4 to 6 miles most workdays.-gf 

  3. Other people have found that even their noise-canceling USB headsets produce a buzzing sound while treading due to electrical interference between the motor and a powered USB hub. 

Lex is an author, senior contributor to Macworld, and podcaster. He heads up podcast ad sales for The Mid Roll. Lex has three kids and one wife. His hobbies include writing third-person bios for Internet publications.

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