If you have an office job, chances are, you spend a lot of your day sitting—so much so that setting aside time to get more steps in during the day might feel difficult, if not impossible. Enter: the desk treadmill—a portable treadmill belt that can fit under an elevated desk and allow you to walk while you take conference calls and answer emails.
It seems like the fitness hack of all fitness hacks—but is it a good idea? Or is it just a Band-aid for our lack of ability to tear ourselves away from work and give our bodies the movement breaks they need?
Benefits of a treadmill desk
“A walking treadmill desk allows individuals who work from home to get exercise throughout their 9 to 5 shift,” Alexandra Kahn, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at NYU Langone Health, told Health.
“The walking treadmill desk makes the daily goal of 10,000 steps much more achievable,” added Khan. “Also, a walking treadmill desk can guarantee you get your steps in, despite inclement weather.”
Basically, these devices provide a convenient way to move, when you otherwise wouldn’t get out of your chair for hours on end.
An even better option: Walking outside
At the end of the day, walking is walking. It strengthens your lower-body muscles, and improves muscular endurance and heart health, said Kahn. But if you have the option, going for a walk outside can be even more beneficial.
“Taking a walk outdoors increases your exposure to Vitamin D,” Kahn says. “Vitamin D has numerous benefits for overall health, such as balancing mood and strengthening the immune system, which are both incredibly important.” Walking outdoors is also typically more challenging, she adds.
“Outdoor walking typically burns more calories and increases your heart rate greater than treadmill walking due to the variance in the environment—wind, uneven terrain, steps up/down, and variable speed,” Andy Wang, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, told Health. This can also add in a balance and stability challenge that you wouldn’t get from walking on a flat treadmill, Kahn says.
Beyond just being a great workout, walking outside has some additional benefits—mostly related to the fact that you’re giving your eyes and brain a much-needed break from that dang computer screen.
“Giving your eyes a break from the computer screen can help with eye strain and taking in nature can assist in a mental reset before returning to the home office,” said Wang.
What to consider before using a desk treadmill
If you do choose to set up your own treadmill desk to get those steps in during busy days, there are a few things to consider. Specifically, you’ll need to do some periodic form checks to make sure your focus on the screen isn’t throwing off your mechanics.
“If you’re walking while performing work tasks, you now have to pay attention to your work, your gait mechanics, and your upper-body posture, which can be very challenging to do simultaneously,” said Kahn. “Also, walking while typing or using a computer would eliminate the arm swing component of [walking], which is beneficial for hip, pelvic, and spinal mobility. This may lead to compensations at the shoulder, hip, and trunk regions.”
In general, though, “if your desk height, keyboard, and mouse are positioned where your elbows bend roughly 90 degrees and the top of the screen is slightly below eye level, walking while working at an ergonomically favourable workstation should be both comfortable and harmless to your posture,” said Wang.
Kahn also recommended setting a timer for every 20–30 minutes or keeping a sticky note on your computer “as a reminder to reset your posture to avoid slumped shoulders or forward head posture.”
Walking and typing also require a certain level of coordination. “At faster walking speeds, walking while typing can be awkward but not immediately harmful for your body,” said Wang. “There may be more typos and your balance may feel impaired momentarily, but the body should be able to adapt and multi-task upper-body movements independently from lower-body motions.” He compared it to walking and texting.
The exception: If you have a history of falls, balance problems, or poor stability, then it’s best to avoid treadmill desks and walking while looking at a computer screen, according to Kahn.
Similarly, if you’re someone who’s prone to it, “the constant motion of walking while focusing on a fixed target can definitely trigger some level of motion sickness,” said Wang.
“The symptoms of constant motion while fixed on a focal point when working at a walking treadmill desk can be compounded by prolonged screen time, which can potentially induce ‘cybersickness,’” he added. Cybersickness is kinda like motion sickness, but it’s caused by the absence of motion thanks to staring at a non-moving screen for an extended period of time, he explained.
Keep in mind that going from a mostly sedentary lifestyle to walking 10,000 steps a day on your treadmill desk may also come with some unintended consequences.
“Walking/standing for large portions of the day can cause overuse injuries, especially in an individual who is not used to that much physical activity,” said Kahn. “Just like most exercise, starting slow and working your way up is recommended.”
Ideally, you want to alternate between sitting and standing/walking throughout the day so that you’re not in one single posture for too long. It’s all about balance.
The consensus: A desk treadmill is likely fine—but go outside when you can
Walking on a treadmill desk is a great way to get in some passive movement when you’d otherwise just be sitting in one position all day long.
If you’re adding treadmill walking to your workday, be aware of any increase in low-back, upper-back, and/or neck pain. “That could be due to altered walking mechanics or poor working posture,” said Wang. And remember to start slow and work your way up to longer periods of walking to avoid ending up with an overuse injury.
If you have the option, going for a walk away from your desk and computer has additional benefits—specifically of the mental health variety. “Fully unplugging, shifting the mind elsewhere, and just focusing on exercising can improve cognition and performance once returning to the desk,” said Wang.
“Odds are, walking outdoors would result in a more refreshing and satisfying break than staying at the workplace and walking on the treadmill, or worse, sitting and scrolling through social media,” he added. “However, if time is a constraint, treadmill desk set-ups can be a more efficient way of getting in some daily exercise.”
If a treadmill desk is what helps you get moving and log more minutes of exercise each day, then it’s a great tool to utilise, as long as you’re taking these basic precautions. “Walking is walking,” said Kahn, “and a person needs to do whatever works best for them in their daily life to stay active.”
This story first appeared on www.health.com
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