Desk Treadmills Are Still Super Trendy, But Are They Worth the Hype? Experts Weigh In
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Desk Treadmills Are Still Super Trendy, But Are They Worth the Hype? Experts Weigh In

Jul 23, 2023

Experts weigh in on whether these pads walk the walk.

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It's not new news that most of us spend way too much time sitting. Research from the American Health Association estimates that a whopping 80 percent of jobs in the U.S. are sedentary. Sitting for long periods has been linked to many not-so-great health outcomes, from an increased risk of heart disease to weak muscles, chronic pain, and more.

The idea of a desk treadmill probably seems like a solid solution to sit less and walk more. But most are pretty pricey and can take up a decent amount of space. Plus, are you really going to be able to walk and work at the same time? If you've considered purchasing a desk treadmill but are hesitant to pull the trigger, here's a helpful guide to the pros and cons.

A desk treadmill is essentially what it sounds like — a treadmill you can walk on while working at your desk. "Compared to a traditional treadmill workout, where the focus is on cardiovascular training, a desk treadmill is designed to allow users to increase their total steps while using a computer," explains Kelly Borowiec, CPT, ACE Personal Trainer and founder of Keebs Fitness. Desk treadmills typically operate at a slower speed and intensity, enabling them to be used for longer durations and greater frequency than a typical treadmill."

Desk treadmills are compatible with most standing desks, allowing individuals to slide the treadmill portion directly under the desk to work while walking. Desk treadmills are smaller and slimmer than traditional treadmills — most models only feature the walking pad portion to fit with standing desks. This also allows desk treadmills to be conveniently stored when not being used.

Working while you walk is a tremendous benefit of desk treadmills and an easy way to incorporate more activity into your day-to-day. "A desk treadmill gives you the opportunity to keep active without having to get to the gym or take time off from an important work project," says Allen Conrad, MD, BS, DC, CSCS. Desk treadmills make it easier to stay consistent, which Conrad says is key to lower health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. "Finding a consistent time and commitment to a three to four times per week exercise program helps reduce cardiac conditions like coronary artery disease," he says.

Using a desk treadmill consistently will also enhance your calorie burn. "Walking burns calories, and using a desk treadmill can contribute to increased energy expenditure compared to sitting or standing stationary at a desk," explains Mary Sabat, MS, RDN, LD. It's also good for your heart. "Regular walking on a desk treadmill can have positive effects on cardiovascular fitness, including improved heart health, blood circulation, and lower blood pressure," says Sabat.

There are also plenty of mental health benefits that come with the regular use of a desk treadmill. In the wise words of Elle Woods, "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy." NASM-certified personal trainer Holly Roser echoes this sentiment. "You'll notice a brighter mood, lower anxiety, and stronger focus while working and walking," she says. "Even a slow pace will provide mental health benefits."

From an ergonomic perspective, Conrad says using a desk treadmill can improve posture. "A desk treadmill will help you focus on proper posture even at the desk, which can help prevent a common neck injury called tech neck," he explains. "This happens from poor ergonomics and leaning forward over the computer, leading to pain and tingling in the neck, shoulders, and arms." Using a desk treadmill requires you to focus on proper posture, which has lasting effects on improving spine movement. Sitting for prolonged periods can cause persistent lower back pain, which Conrad says can be remedied with the consistent use of a desk treadmill. "Instead of sitting all day, treadmill desks keep you moving and better focused on proper posture," he says. "Those with low back pain notice less pain when using a treadmill desk after a few weeks."

Working while walking on a desk treadmill can even improve your energy levels. "Engaging in light exercise on a desk treadmill, even at a moderate pace, can provide a consistent energy boost," says Erik Brown, UESCA-Certified Running Coach. "This heightened vigor and alertness help to increase productivity." More exercise and productivity — sounds like a win.

Though desk treadmills are designed to run at slower speeds, it's important to know that there's still the risk of injury. "This can happen in the obvious scenario of missing a step and faceplanting, but injuries can also occur from improper posture," says Borowiec. "For example, you might develop neck pain if the height of your computer screen is too low." So, it's important to make sure you're using a standing desk and desk treadmill that are ergonomically designed and properly adjusted for your height.

There's also a learning curve to walking while typing, which can take some time to master. "Start small, try just 10 minutes daily, and do a task requiring minimal effort, such as creating a document or texting a friend," recommends Roser. "Save the important emails for when you feel confident in typing and walking."

Desk treadmills inevitably take up space, which might not be the best solution for those who live in small quarters. Additionally, they can be pretty expensive and may not be financially accessible for everyone. They also shouldn't be your only source of exercise. "Desk treadmills are designed for low-intensity walking, so they may not provide the same level of cardiovascular exercise as a regular treadmill workout or other more intense exercise routines," says Sabat.

If you work in an office or co-working space, whipping out a desk treadmill might be met with some eye rolls and could be potentially disturbing those around you. "While operating, certain desk treadmills make noise and vibrate, which can be disturbing in a quiet office setting," says Brown. If you plan on using a desk treadmill in an office with an open floor plan, spend time reading reviews to understand the potential noise implications. You may find its noise distracting even if you use a desk treadmill in your home office. "Noise-cancelling headphones or using quieter models could assist to solve this problem," says Brown.

Some desk treadmill models can also substantially impact your (or your office's) electric bill. "Desk treadmills consume more energy than standard desks since the motor is powered by electricity," Brown explains. "It can result in greater utility costs, which might eventually reduce the long-term cost-effectiveness of utilizing a desk treadmill."

Purvi Patel, a NY-based product manager who works from home, purchased her Doufit Electric Under Desk Treadmill in 2022 after seeing positive reviews and experiences on TikTok. "With the walking treadmill, I feel like I'm double dipping — I can do my job and get some movement in," she says. "I'm definitely not burning as many calories as a spin class, but it's better than sitting around and not moving at all."

One thing she noted as a learning curve was the need to lubricate her desk treadmill before using it. "It was pretty loud when I first used it, but once I added the lubricant, it's a lot quieter," she says. Aside from taking up more space than she'd like in her apartment, Patel has been happy with her purchase overall. It's improved her posture and stamina and helped provide her with a routine. "I look at my calendar and plan my workday around when I walk," she explains, blocking off her calendar to walk and work without being interrupted by a call or meeting.

If you want to add more movement into your daily routine but don't want to commit to a desk treadmill, there are plenty of other ways to update your workspace to be less sedentary.

Standing desks. A standing or adjustable desk allows you to do work while getting you up out of your seat. "This alternative promotes better posture, engages your muscles, and increases energy expenditure," says Brown. "By incorporating periods of standing into your workday, you encourage better blood flow, reduce the risk of sedentary-related health issues, and may even experience improved productivity and focus." It's not as big of a cardiovascular payoff as a desk treadmill, but it gets you out of your seat.

Exercise ball. Swap your office desk for an exercise ball to engage core muscles and promote better posture. "This alternative introduces subtle movements, such as micro-adjustments to maintain balance, which activates your muscles and increases caloric expenditure compared to traditional chairs," explains Brown. Though this provides less cardiovascular benefit, it helps with posture and engages the core.

Try a pedal exerciser. If you don't have space for a desk treadmill, an under-the-desk pedal exerciser is a more compact option that allows you to pedal while you work. Though it doesn't take up as much space, there may still be a learning curve for typing and pedaling to overcome.

Discussing a new exercise routine with your healthcare provider is always a good idea, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions or physical limitations. Here are a few important safety considerations to keep in mind if you're starting to walk with a desk treadmill.

When used safely and consistently, desk treadmills can be an impactful way to get more movement into your day-to-day routine. Before purchasing, it's a good idea to evaluate the workspace you're planning to bring the desk treadmill into and your personal needs and preferences to determine if it's the right choice for you. If you're not ready to buy a desk treadmill today, there are still plenty of ways to increase your daily movement and make your workspace more active.

Standing desks.Exercise ball. Try a pedal exerciser.Start slow. Learn and utilize safety features. Wear proper footwear. Don't overdo it.