Wellbeing

Running on empty: Why my treadmill desk trial was a flop

Bri Williams /

treadmill desk

An employee working at a treadmill desk. Source: AP Photo/Michael Conroy.

All the cool kids seem to be doing it. Where once a ping-pong table and fruit box was a sign your company cared for you, now it’s treadmill desks in meeting rooms and new-age offices.

For once in my life, I was a fairly early adopter, setting aside my standing desk for a walkstation back in 2015. It sounded genius — the ultimate multi-tasking. Who wouldn’t love exercising while working? Why sit or stand when you can burn calories?

If you haven’t seen one, a treadmill desk is a low-speed, no-incline treadmill that has a desk attached to one end. The idea is to set it at a comfortable pace (about 3kms per hour) and walk as you type or talk.

The first month was great. I used my new toy every day and marked the distance on my calendar. Six kilometres some days, almost ten on others. I was even interviewed about it for a national publication and I had nothing but good things to say. I was drunk on my own virtue.

What changed?

Each morning I boarded my treadmill, ready to walk my way to a productive day. Only, my finger didn’t seem encouraged to press the ‘go’ button. Justifications like ‘I’ll walk later’, or ‘I’ll just get this done first’ crept in to shield me from the looming realisation I had just installed a giant white elephant in my home office.

My distance log started to look as sparse as the hair on a teenage boy’s chin. An occasional two kilometres here, 600 meters there. And here’s why.

The fatigue

I was tired. I was walking the dog before going to the gym most days, so the last thing I felt like doing was more exercise. At least, that’s how I reverse rationalised it. You see, before I bought it I was doing those same things, but somehow I’d still been able to justify the purchase to myself.

The noise

Proponents say a treadmill is great to use while you are on the phone but I found it too noisy and distracting for the caller and me. I felt awkward about doing anything that signalled to them I was not focusing on our exchange.  

The work

I found I could only use the treadmill for certain types of work. For anything straightforward, like admin and simple emails, it was fine. For anything where I needed to draw together concepts, I found I needed to sit down and spread my papers and my mind. Typing was okay, writing and doodling were not.

On reflection, for me, walking on a treadmill was priming me to think in a linear way. Feeling like a rat on a wheel, having to walk in a straight line where I wasn’t going anywhere seem to limit rather than unlock my conceptual thinking.

This marks an important difference between machine-based walking and walking in nature, I believe, because having the freedom to physically roam can most certainly allow the brain to wander and wonder.

To walk or not to walk

Treadmill desks do have advantages, and those who love them, really love them. The New York Times writer Nellie Bowles mentioned hers in a recent podcast, and TV host Jimmy Kimmell is also known to be a fan.

If you are interested in this new office appliance, here are some thoughts on how to make it work for you.  A treadmill desk is best for people who:

  • Have limited opportunities to exercise;
  • Have component of ‘linear’, narrowly focused or procedural work;
  • Are training for something or have a goal in mind;
  • Like to track their progress;
  • Are willing to persevere each day to build the habit;
  • Commit to pressing the ‘go’ button as soon as they jump on; and/or
  • Are surrounded by others who also have treadmill desks to normalise the activity

It was a significant moment, a few months ago, when I said goodbye to my treadmill. After spending money to fix its broken fuse, advertising it for sale, getting no interest and blowing its fuse once again (as if to really prove its point) it was carted away. I am now back at my standing desk, returning full circle to the same place I stood before my treadmill experiment and happy to leave my treading to the great outdoors.

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is Australia's foremost authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness. Author, speaker and leading consultant, Bri can make your life easier through behavioural science. More at www.briwilliams.com.au.

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