Years of Sitting Dangerously, or How Your Desk Can Kill You (or Make You Stronger)

by John Robert Marlow

iMovR Omega Everest Desk with iMovR ThermoTread GT Office Treadmill

If you’re like most people, when you hear the phrase “world’s most dangerous jobs,” WRITER and OFFICE WORKER are not the first words that leap to mind. But as it turns out, these occupations are more dangerous than anyone suspected. We’re not talking war correspondents in the latest foreign hellhole, or investigative journalists shadowing the Russian Mob. No; we’re talking Joe or Jane Writer (or Office Worker), who sits at a desk all day every day, or nearly so.

And therein lies the problem.

One might reasonably conclude that sitting in a chair all day is less deadly than, say, dodging bullets in Burma—but as it happens, that may not be the case. Scads of recent studies have brought to light a rather startling fact: sitting can be deadly—and the more of it you do, the deadlier it gets.

All of which begs the question: Short of giving up writing for marathoning—what to do about that?

This piece will explain the problem, and explore an increasingly popular solution to the dilemma it poses: how to get traditionally deskbound work done without risking an early grave. Treadmill desks—which accommodate sitting, standing and walking positions—make it possible to not just prevent sitting-induced maladies, but actually make ourselves healthier while working. Future posts will cover a number of enabling accessories that can help ease the transition, and make the new normal more comfortable/ergonomic.

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive review of a dozen different options. Rather, its purpose is to set out the criteria by which to evaluate adjustable-height desks and walking (or “office”) treadmills for combined use, and find the best. A future post will detail the performance of the selected desk and treadmill in daily use.

But first, the bad news…

SITTING IS THE NEW SMOKING

Sitting Kills

Sadly, this new buzzphrase is remarkably accurate. Literally thousands of studies and metastudies (analyses which combine the results of previous studies to increase sample size and/or gain new insights) document the now unassailable evidence that the more time you spend sitting, the sooner you will shuffle off this mortal coil—and that the road from here to there is disturbingly similar to that trod by heavy smokers. (“Sitting” includes time spent seated at a desk, in front of a TV, in the car, and so on.)

Prolonged sitting increases the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, blood clots, deep vein thrombosis, kidney disease, abnormal glucose metabolism, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and inflammation (among other things). These are not small risk increases; more like 80-420% in some cases (depending on the study, the amount of time spent sitting, and other factors). Even avoiding all of these conditions doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods, because sitting also increases “all-cause mortality” (death from all causes). Why this should be, no one knows, but the statistics are clear.

Before citing a few examples it should be noted that, according to a 2016 Nielsen study, the average American spends 5 hours and 4 minutes a day watching television, and another 58 minutes online at a computer. (This does not include smartphone or tablet app/web time, game console time etc.) Call it 6 hours total. Then add another 5-1/2 hours for time spent behind a desk at work. (A 2012 British study found the typical office worker spent 5 hours and 41 minutes sitting at a desk.) And let’s not forget time spent driving (48 minutes and change average, according to a 2016 study by the American Automobile Association) or commuting by bus or train. So let’s say—conservatively—12 hours a day spent sitting on our duffs. For writers, the figure may be significantly higher. For those who do not spend their workdays behind a desk, it may be lower.

Here are some results from just a few studies. (Googling appropriate search terms will bring you many, many more.)

A widely-cited, 6-1/2 year Australian study found that every hour of TV time means an 11% greater chance of dying in general (all-cause mortality), and an 18% greater chance of death from cardiovascular disease (which includes heart attack and stroke) in particular. If (as seems likely) we can apply the same math to time spent sitting overall, this means the Average Joe office worker who watches TV and surfs the internet at home has a 132% greater chance of dying overall–and a 216% greater chance of death by heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.

Obviously, we can’t stand all the time, a practice that would likely bring its own maladies, so consider these further breakdowns from the same study… Those watching 4 or more hours of TV a day were 46% more likely to die, and 80% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, than those watching 2 or fewer hours per day.

A 21-year U.S. study found that those spending more than 10 hours a week in automobiles had an 82% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those with less than 4 hours of auto time per week. The same study also found that those with more than 23 hours a week of combined TV/auto time had a 64% greater risk of cardiovascular-disease death than those with fewer than 11 hours combined TV/auto time.

A 17-year U.S. study found that women who sat for more than 6 hours a day were at 10% greater risk of developing cancer when compared to women who spent less than 3 hours sitting. The risk for men was found to be lower, unless they were obese—in which case the cancer risk was slightly higher than for women (11% as opposed to 10%). As to specific types of cancer, there was no correlation in men, but women were more likely to get multiple myeloma, invasive breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. Even so, these figures are likely on the low side. Because this study looked at leisure time only (and not at work time), it’s difficult to know what the numbers would be if all sit-time were taken into account.

Keep in mind that all of these numbers apply solely to the period covered by the study. For example, a study that tracks people for eight years is only tracking deaths that occur during those eight years. So study subjects who die on day one of year 9—or year 30—are not counted, even if the cause of death was the same. Making it extremely likely that all of these studies are underestimating the actual numbers, as many of the conditions they track take (so far as we know) many years to develop.

Also keep in mind that these studies control for (take into account) things like diet, smoking, weight, blood pressure, leisure-time physical activity and so on—so the figures hold true for smokers as well as nonsmokers, couch potatoes and joggers, etc. (There’s even a term for study subjects who sit a lot but still meet the basic physical activity level recommended for good health: “active couch potatoes.”) Study subjects ranged from 18-90 years of age, and number of people studied from thousands to hundreds of thousands. (The broader the study “sample,” the more widely applicable its findings.)

There’s more. For reasons not yet fully understood, the dangers of sitting do not seem to be related to lack of exercise. Or, as one 2009 study put it, this “may represent a different paradigm than that associated with lack of exercise.” (In the words of another study, “Too much sitting is distinct from too little exercise.”) What this means is that the problem isn’t—as one might think—that people who sit too much, exercise too little. Rather, sitting is the problem.

Though some studies show that exercise can have a small effect on the risks cited above, most have found that physical activity level—up to and including intense workout sessions—makes no difference. You can’t sit all day, and then exercise your way out of the problem with a run or a trip to the gym. You have to sit less. Or, as a 2017 science advisory from the American Heart Association puts it: “Sit less, move more.”

There is, on the other hand, some evidence that breaking up your sitting time with periods of activity—thus avoiding marathon sitting sessions—can help improve some (but apparently not all) of the problems caused by sitting (waist size, BMI (body mass index), triglyceride and 2-h plasma glucose levels). Some researchers believe that this intermittent-sitting approach may also lessen other risks but, for the moment, this remains theoretical.There are a number of theories as to why prolonged sitting is so bad for our health, some of them quite interesting. But the simple truth of the matter is that until that gets sorted out—the why doesn’t matter. We know what the problem is, and how to fix it. Clearly, if we sit around waiting for science to fill in all the nitty-gritty details, we may not be here to read the report. It nonscientific terms, it comes down to this: Our bodies were built to move; bad things happen when they don’t. “Sit less, move more.”

And if all that doesn’t scare you sitless, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.

To be fair, there is one cheery, widely-touted British study asserting that sitting has no correlation to mortality, but there are issues with that study’s methodology. Given the overwhelming majority of studies with the opposite conclusion, it seems wise to go with the majority here.


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TAKING ACTION

Doc Knows Best

In light of all that grim news, and the fact that we all have things to do—which things have traditionally been done from behind a desk—it’s easy to see why adjustable-height desks and treadmill desks have become all the rage.

But all desks and treadmills are not created equal. So here’s an in-depth look at separating the wheat from the chaff…


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CHOOSING AN AN ADJUSTABLE-HEIGHT DESK
(Skip to Author’s Choice)

iMovR Omega Everest Desk

Adjustable-height or “sit-stand” desks are often suggested as a way to get deskbound workers off their duffs at least part of the time—and so presumably lessen the dire health risks associated with long-term sitting.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that long-term standing is much better (lack of motion may play a large role in “sitting disease”), and there are a number of workplace studies (though none involving sit-stand desks) showing adverse health effects here as well. Certainly a mix of sitting and standing—particularly if one is moving around a bit while standing, which which some standing mats encourage—must be better than sitting all the time but, strictly speaking, the scientific jury is still out on this issue.

When it comes to walking, on the other hand, there is no debate—and the health benefits are literally too numerous to list. Which won’t stop me from listing just a few of the major ones here: brain health, cardiovascular fitness, aerobic capacity, prevention of cancer and type 2 diabetes, weight loss and muscle tone. With these alone, you’ve addressed 5 of the top 7 leading causes of death in America.

Just. By. Walking.

So why not take the sit-stand desk one step farther, combine it with a treadmill—and work while walking? The very design of most sit-stand desks—two widely-spaced legs supporting a flat desktop—makes them seem custom-designed for this purpose. Be aware, though, that there are some less-than-obvious considerations to take into account when pairing the two. (See Choosing a Treadmill and Matching Desk with Treadmill after reading this section.)

If you’re seeking for a well-designed, sturdy and long-lasting adjustable-height desk that’s a pleasure to use, be sure to consider the following features…

Height Range: How high (and low) does the desk go? Most adjustable-height desks go quite low (22-23 inches), and top out at about 47-48 inches. Some go a tad higher—50-51 inches or so—and those extra few inches can come in handy if you’re taller than average, or plan to use a treadmill (making you 5 inches taller). Some desks are available with optional leg extensions, raising the maximum (and minimum) height by several inches. (Technically speaking, probably 97% of adjustable-height desks sold in the U.S. adhere to the ANSI-BIFMA (American National Standards Institute / Business + Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association) standard, meaning among other things that the bases have a 25-inch (650mm) stroke beginning at 22 inches and ending at 47. Others are built to a Scandanavian “Euro standard” that specifies the same 25” stroke but on legs that are 3” taller, making the height range 25-50 inches. In both cases, manufacturers typically include the desktop thickness in advertised height stats—adding another 0.75 to 1.5 inches.)

Desktop Dimensions: Most if not all sit-stand desks are available in several widths, and some makers offer more than one depth as well. While room size may be a factor, be sure to take your intended use into account. How much desktop space do you need? Will you be the only person using the desk? Also, if you plan to use a standing mat (or treadmill) and a chair at the desk—and you don’t want to be playing musical chairs/mats/treadmills every time you change position—you’re going to need a desktop wide enough to accommodate both positions.

Desktop Shape: Most sit-stand desks feature slab-style tops: a thin rectangular block with squared edges. A number of companies offer different configurations, including chamfered, rounded, and bullnose edges, concave and beveled leading edges, leading edges with a cutout for the user, L-shaped or U-shaped desktops and in one case, infinitely-adjustable tilting keyboard supports that fit in cutouts in the desk’s leading edge.

Desktop Material: In nearly all cases, the standard top is some kind of composite or particleboard/MDF-type material, the latter covered with a laminate that can be had in several colors/patterns, including wood grain. One maker offers 3D lamination (also known as “thermofoil” or “membrane pressing”), which eliminates seams and hugs contours (including grommet holes) that standard laminates cannot, eliminating exposed areas that might absorb moisture (from a spilled drink, etc.) and swell. A very few manufacturers offer solid wood tops (some with a live edge option) for an upcharge. Such tops can also be found from aftermarket suppliers in standard and custom sizes.

Desktop Thickness: You want something that’s over an inch, preferably 1.125 (1-1/8) inches or more. Should you decide to go with solid wood, take the weight into account, as this varies wildly from species to species. Quality desks have lift capacity to spare, so unless you plan to turn your desktop into a moving library, this shouldn’t be an issue—but check just the same.

Grommet Holes: These are holes cut through the desktop near the back edge, and often covered with grommet inserts to conceal the bare wood. Grommets can be used to route wires through the desktop, and/or for charging stations (typically 3-prong, USB, or some combination) designed to fit the grommet holes. Unless you want a mass of unsightly cables hanging off the back of your desktop and possibly getting snagged or crushed as the top goes up and down—you want grommet holes. Check to see whether you can choose the number and position of the holes or holes (left, right, center), keeping in mind that the holes will need to stay near the back edge to avoid interference from the desktop support structure. Be sure to explore the company’s grommet insert/cover/charging options as well. Lastly, keep in mind that some desk lamps and monitor arms can be mounted in grommet holes.

Controller: Typically located just under the desktop’s leading edge, the controller is used to raise and lower the desk, and features a digital readout (usually visible only while in use) showing the desk’s current height. You’ll want to look for a controller that stores “presets”—meaning you can enter your preferred heights into the controller, which will stop the desk at the preset height. Many companies offer the preset controller as an option.

Complete Desk, or Base Only: Most if not all sit-stand desk companies will sell topless desks, allowing you to mix-and-match the base and hardware with the top of your choice. Should you decide to go this way—pairing the base with a RocketMission wood top, say—be sure to get a spec sheet or template from the desk company, unless you want to be eyeballing the proper places to drive screws and cut grommet holes while putting things together. (That said, some aftermarket tops come with guide and grommet holes already in place—for specific desk models only.)

Lift Capacity: How much weight will the desk support? This is a function of the base, and includes the weight of the desktop itself. (To determine how much weight the assembled desk will lift, subtract the weight of the top from the desk’s overall lift capacity.) Weight ratings vary quite a bit, but more is obviously better. The farther you operate from the desk’s maximum capacity, the less strain you place on the motor(s). Bear in mind that the stated lift capacity can be misleading, because such capacities are measured under ideal conditions. Meaning, in this case, that the measured weight is both centered and evenly distributed along the horizontal brace connecting the legs. In other words, the motors are pushing the load straight up. In real-life use, you’re often looking at “side-loading,” where most of the weight being lifted is off to one side or the other. When it comes to adjustable-height desks, this usually means the weight is concentrated at the back—where monitor supports, lamps, books and other objects tend to congregate. When lifted, this weight tries to pull the nested leg segments to one side. High-quality (primarily American and European –made, with some Asian) bases have tighter tolerances here, and handle side-loading better than low-quality legs with sloppy tolerances, which can get pulled out of alignment and wear or fail prematurely. (Which is why you generally see shorter warranty periods on these.) The longer the desktop, the more important the side-loading issue becomes. Thus, a sky-high lift capacity on a poorly-made desk may well mean less than a lower capacity on a well-fashioned model. Leg design also plays an important role here. (See below.)

Lift Speed: How fast does the desktop raise and lower? The industry standard is 1.5 inches per second. Those that are faster aren’t much faster but can be much louder, so it’s nothing to get hung up on.

C-leg vs T-leg: A C-leg (a.k.a. cantilevered) base has the legs positioned closer to the back of the desk, while T-leg desks center the legs beneath the desktop. The importance of this distinction is not immediately apparent, but merits consideration. Remember the side-load issue? A C-leg desk is less stressed by back-end sideloading because the legs are closer to the back edge of the desk—meaning balancing the extra weight closer to the legs’ centerline (a line drawn from one leg to the other).

Dual Motors: Some desks use one motor (or “linear actuator,” in techspeak) to raise both legs, while others use two—one for each leg. Two is better. While there are manual (hand-crank) desks, this gets old fast. (Trust me.) If your location has electricity, you want a powered desk.

Noise Level: The desk shouldn’t sound like a freight train in motion. Noise level is measured in decibels; a 10-decibel increase is perceived as a volume boost of 100%. So 50 dB sounds twice as loud as 40 dB, 60 twice as loud as 50, and so on. Point being, small numerical increases can make a big difference—something to keep in mind when evaluating desk specs. A sound level of 40-50 dB is quite easy on the ears.

Wobble: All two-legged sit-stand desks can be made to wobble at maximum extension; it’s a limitation of the basic design—a big slab top perched on narrow legs positioned behind the centerline. But…some of them wobble under normal use, while others feel rock-solid unless someone shoves them. This isn’t something you can evaluate from afar, so you’ll have to look at online reviews or see the desk in person.

Adjustable Feet: These help keep the desk level on uneven surfaces, which is reduces frame and motor stress, keeps the belt centered (and prevents squeaks)—increasing longevity.

Wheels/Casters: If you’re in an environment where the desk needs to move around, these make things much easier. They also add a little height, though not as much as the leg extenders available for some models. Be aware that, depending on design, wheels may make the desk less stable, or more wobbly. Make sure any wheels you use can be securely braked or removed from contact with the floor, so the desk can’t move unexpectedly.

Safety Features: Conventional desks don’t bang into the shelves above them, or crush the things beneath them unless you saw off the legs. Adjustable-height desks can do both. Some will automatically stop moving if they encounter resistance; others take things a step farther and offer programmable “container and shelf stops” that keep the desktop’s height within a user-defined range at all times. For business with liability concerns, look for a desk that meets ANSI-BIFMA standards and is UL-listed.

Treadmill Pairing: If you plan to use your desk with a treadmill, read the Choosing a Treadmill and Matching Desk with Treadmill sections before making a decision.

A Special Note on Keyboard Trays: Most people feel more comfortable using an adjustable keyboard tray than working at a keyboard laid flat on the desktop. There are several reasons for this: the tray brings the keyboard closer to the body, it allows the keyboard to be lower than the desktop, and—perhaps most importantly—it permits the user to tilt the keyboard in ways that just won’t work with the keyboard on the desktop.

Ergonomically speaking, the ideal typing position is one where the top edge of the keyboard is tilted down, making the front higher than the back. This position avoids muscle and joint strain while increasing comfort, speed, accuracy and endurance. Keyboard trays (which slide or swing back under the desktop when not in use) make this “negative tilt” possible—with a catch: once they hit -15 to -20 degrees or so, they bump into their own support arms and cannot move any farther.

The good news is, that’s far enough for day-to-day keyboard use while seated, and also works for most folks while standing. But once you start walking on a treadmill and typing at the same time, the angles change—making -25 to -40 degrees the “zone” for most people. This was an important factor for me in deciding which desk to pair with a treadmill because—so far, at least—there’s only one company addressing this issue. Probably because they sell both desks and treadmills. Fortunately, they make excellent products. Their solution—a height-adjustable and infinitely tilt-adjustable keyboard support integrated into the desktop itself—is detailed in the Author’s Choice section, below.

Other: What kind of tools are needed for assembly? Ideally, nothing more than a screwdriver and a level; everything else should be provided with the desk. Some desks come with recessed,threaded nuts embedded in the underside of the desktop, which makes things easier when putting the desk together (or taking it apart). This is actually a brilliant idea (particularly when dealing with MDF/particleboard-type desktops)—as it prevents repeated assembly and disassembly from stripping out the holes, thus ensuring a tight fit every time. If the desk ever needs to be moved, you’ll appreciate this. (Sit-stand desk are typically too heavy to move—even from room to room—without first removing the tops. Bases can be heavy as well, and too big to move in one piece.)

Warranty: A solid warranty. This doesn’t mean forever, but the longer the better—and the length of the warranty speaks to the company’s faith in its product.


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AUTHOR’S CHOICE: iMovR Omega Everest Desk

iMovR Omega Everest Desk

After extensive research and considering the above criteria—and the fact that I wanted to use the desk with a treadmill—the iMovR Omega Everest was the best choice. I’m currently testing/evaluating this model in combination with the chosen treadmill, and will report my experience in a future post (which will be linked from this post when available). For now, here are the basics…

The Everest and its brethren at iMovR (the Olympus, Cascade and Denali models) are the only adjustable-height desks specifically designed for use when sitting, standing, and using a treadmill—a huge point in its favor, for reasons cited below. The Everest’s build quality is outstanding; this desk is clearly made to last.

Desktops are 30 inches deep and available in 48, 60, 72 and 83 -inch widths and a wide variety of faux wood grain and solid-color 3D laminates. The 48 and 60 -inch models have a center cutout, the 72-inch model a left or right -hand cutout, and the 83-inch model a right, left, or dual cutout. (More on this—and why it’s important—in a moment.)

Desktop height can be adjusted from 26 to 52 inches, with optional leg extenders bringing the max height to 56 inches. (If you’re tall to begin with, you’lI need those extra few inches when standing atop a treadmill, making this an important factor.)

The Everest desktop is 1.125” thick, rectangular with rounded edges, comes with one or two grommet holes (one for 48/60, two for 72/83), and features threaded nuts recessed into the underside for ease of assembly/disassembly using machine screws (provided).

Lift capacity is a hefty 265 pounds, lift speed 1.5 inches per second, and noise level an easy-on-the-ears 42-46 decibels. The standard controller offers 4 user-programmable presets, and can be programmed with container and shelf stops to prevent collision with objects above and below.

The Everest is the most stable (no-wobble) sit-stand desk I’ve encountered, despite the fact that it uses no crossbar below desktop height—thus leaving plenty of room for a treadmill. The desk employs dual, German-made Bosch motors, one for each leg. (All other components of the desktop and the base are made in the U.S.A.)

The widest desktop offered—83 inches—is more than large enough to accommodate two work positions: treadmill on one side, chair or anti-fatigue mat on the other, and monitors at both (or one swing-arm monitor that can be moved from side to side). Accordingly, If you have the space, the 83-inch Everest with dual cutouts also maximize single-treadmill positioning options within a room, house, or office, as you’ll likely want a single treadmill near a wall to maximize open floorspace.

iMovR SteadyType Keyboard Tray

Now, about those cutouts… As mentioned elsewhere (see Matching Desk with Treadmill), walking while typing introduces new factors into the keyboard-angle equation—factors which are not really addressed by existing keyboard trays. The Everest’s manufacturer, iMovR, has come up with a unique solution: “SteadyType Keyboard Trays”—tilting keyboard trays that fit into cutouts in the desktop itself.

This moves the user closer to the desktop (because the tray doesn’t extend beyond the forward edge), and makes the tray’s tilt angle infinitely adjustable (because there’s no support arm forming a “T” with the back of the tray). The mounting arrangement (a bar running lengthwise beneath the tray) also allows the tray to be rotated 360 degrees. You could literally type upside-down, with the keyboard facing the floor if you wanted to. Point being, whatever angle you prefer, this desk (and others from iMovR) can accommodate—whether you’re sitting, standing, or walking on a treadmill. The trays can also be user-installed at two different heights: desktop level, or slightly below. Trays are made from the same material as the desktop itself, and 3D coated to match.

For those who’ve already purchased a different desk but would like to go with this infinite-tilt option, the company sells the desktops separately, allowing you to swap out the top on your existing base.

Power draw is under 0.5W in standby mode (plugged in, turned on), and 168W while in motion. (120V / 60hz / 1.4A draw while moving.)

MovR offers several desk delivery options, including delivery to (and setup in) to the room of your choice. Setup is not complex, but can take some time if you’ve not done this before—and the desk must be assembled upside-down and then flipped upright—which can be a challenge for some because of the fully-assembled desk’s weight. (Tip: if assembling in a bedroom, put it together on the bed, which will make the final flip much easier.)

The Everest comes with a comforting lifetime warranty on the frame, 10 years on moving parts and electronics, and 5 years on the desktop. The desk is conforms to ANSI-BIFMA standards, and is UL-listed. Desks can be returned in the first 30 days, subject to a restocking fee.

Large-scale users include The Washington Post, WME, amazon, Microsoft, Dun & Bradstreet, Wells Fargo, Electronic Arts, Alcoa, Alliant, State Farm, Westin Hotels & Resorts (which offers iMovR treadmill desks in their “Work While Walking” -branded rooms), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, etc.

Where to buy


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CHOOSING WALKING TREADMILL
(Skip to Author’s Choice)

iMovR ThermoTread GT Treadmill

When you’re looking at walking rather than running, not just any treadmill will do. As early adopters of the treadmill desk idea quickly learned, building a desk around a standard treadmill—that is, one designed for running—drastically shortens treadmill life. You’d think that walking would be easier on a treadmill than running but, oddly, it’s not.

Walking means more weight on the treadmill, more of the time, for longer sessions—demanding peak horsepower and motor torque at speeds under 3mph. Motors designed for run-type treadmills with faster torque peaks can’t handle the extra load at low rpms. They’ll never come close to achieving their rated horsepower, which kicks in only at higher rpms.

This combination creates a situation where the motor strains to handle a much higher load while operating at the weakest point in its power curve. Sooner or later (mostly sooner), the motor or controller burns out, and that’s that. Unless you want to replace it, and watch it burn out again. In the early days, there was no other choice.

Technically speaking and for a variety of reasons, the aim of treadmill walking is not to enter cardio and break a sweat, but to raise your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) through something called NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis). The target speed for this varies with user height. but is generally 1-2.5mph. (More on this in the follow-up post, which will be linked here when available. )

So far as anyone can tell, the first treadmill desk was cobbled together by Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, who perched a hospital table with telescoping legs over a standard treadmill. He did this in 1999—one day after his wife told him he was getting fat. He’d been thinking to take up walking anyway, after completing a study showing that people engaged in “non-exercise activity thermogenesis”—standing, pacing, fidgeting and the like—burned up to 800 more calories than those who remained still throughout the day, while consuming the same diet.

But as the treadmill desk concept gained traction (so to speak), a new breed of walking or “office” treadmill appeared, or seemed to—dispensing with the tall handrails of conventional treadmills and sold for use in office (and home office) environments. There was just one problem with this: these “new” treadmills were in fact the same “old” treadmills, slightly modified and largely repackaged. Some were even pitched as dual-use, for both running and walking.

Unfortunately, these models came with all the noise, size, power consumption and torque issues of their nearly-identical running twins and, in short, were completely unsuited for use as walking-speed treadmills. The only exception to this would be rehab treadmills designed for use in low-speed physical rehabilitation; these machines, developed for the medical-device market, come with sturdy handrails and pedestals (not suitable for under-desk use), and prices that can exceed $7,000.

More recently, a further evolution of the commercial treadmill has emerged, this one engineered solely for walking. If you’re looking for a well-designed, capable and long-lasting treadmill that’s a pleasure to use, you might consider the following…

Design and Speed: A treadmill designed for walking is better than a repurposed, adapted, or repackaged running treadmill being sold as a walker. You can’t really type past 2.5mph anyway. Be aware that some repackaged running treadmills have been gimmicked via software tweaks to run at lower speeds, making them appear to be walking treadmills (while retaining the inherent weaknesses of running treadmills). The speed should be adjustable, to allow for variation or multiple users. The treadmill should be usable with a variety of different desks, or with no desk at all.

DC Motor: DC motors are smaller/lighter, quieter, run cooler than and consume half as much energy as the AC motor-driven treadmills found in commercial gyms. A DC motor alone, however, is not enough—because if it’s still geared for running, it will eventually burn out or destroy the controller (or both). So you want a walking treadmill with a DC motor geared for walking speeds.

Horsepower: Though things like roller and flywheel diameter determine how effectively it’s applied—as with cars, more horsepower is generally better, within reason. Walking treadmills can be found with 3hp motors.

Duty Cycle: The “duty cycle” is the amount of time you can use a given device without a break. Something with a 20-minute duty cycle can be used continuously for 20 minutes, and no longer. It then needs a no-load recovery period the next use. The best treadmills have “continuous” or “unlimited” duty cycles, and can be run all day without a break. Which is ideal for multiple users, and a nice built-in safety margin for single users.

Duty Rating: Heavy, medium, or light-duty. Treadmills that will take 350 pounds and run for 6 hours a day are considered heavy-duty. Some heavy-duty models go beyond this. All things considered, heavy-duty is better.

Weight Capacity: How much weight will the treadmill support? It’s not much good if it won’t hold you up. As with duty cycle and duty rating, it’s best to get more than you need. Not because you may one day gain weight, but because machines last longer when they’re not being pushed to the limit on a regular basis.

Suspension: The treadmill should be mounted on internal compression shocks (preferably 6) to cushion footfalls and enhance durability.

Internal Fan: The motor, rollers and other parts generate heat; the fan blows it out of the chassis, keeping the internals cooler—which makes them last longer. Fan operation should be automatic and quiet.

Noise level: Some treadmills are annoyingly loud. Sound level is rated in decibels, but keep in mind that an increase of 10 decibels over any given figure is perceived as being twice as loud. So 20dB is twice as loud as 10dB, just as 310dB is twice as loud as 300dB. This makes seemingly small differences important.

Adjustable Feet: These help keep the treadmill level on uneven surfaces, which is important for belt and roller alignment and longevity.

Deck Height: Low and stable (5 inches or so) to eliminate wobble and step-down height, and also to ensure an easy fit below any under-desk cross-member. (The motor housing will be a bit taller than the deck, perhaps 10 inches.) Folding treadmills may be conceptually appealing, but they are inherently more fragile than quality non-folders. The design raises the deck height significantly, which presents a greater step-off hazard, and can make the desktop too low for practical use.

Tread Size: Walking treadmills can be smaller than running treadmills, but there is a limit as to just how small you want to go. An exposed belt surface that’s 20 inches wide by 50 long should provide enough “walking space” for just about anyone who’s not playing for the NBA. If the treadmill will have only one small user, you might get away with a smaller belt—but the overall space space savings will be small, and a misstep may put you off the belt. Metal side rails are preferable to plastic, as they may get stepped on at some point.

Wheels: Wheels/casters on one end of the treadmill will make it easier to move when necessary, especially on carpet. The wheels should be located under the motor housing (the heavy end of the treadmill), and be incapable of moving while the treadmill is in use.

Software/Display: If you’re interested in metrics, look for a treadmill that can track and display things like time, step count, pace, mileage, calories burned etc.—ideally for multiple users. The data should be exportable, and the software updateable. You might also want a touchscreen, rather than something you have to mash with your thumb every time you want to do something. Some displays operate via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, while others are wired. The display should be readable from the desktop, while using the treadmill.

Auto-Shutoff: For power consumption and safety reasons, the treadmill should be able to shut itself off when not in use, or if the user should fall. This can be accomplished by means of a current sensor that stops the belt when the user steps off (because the belt is harder to move when weighted, the treadmill draws more current when there’s someone on it), or a physical kill-switch that shuts things down when the user moves too far from the display. The second method will stop the belt even if the user falls on top of it, beginning the process before the user lands.

Quick Resume: Ideally after any shut-off—and certainly after a deliberate pause—it should be possible to get things moving again with a single button-push. You don’t want to be standing there punching a dozen buttons when what you should be doing is walking.

Stored User Profiles: It’s nice to have the treadmill store your preferred settings and pick up where you left off—particularly if one or more other users are changing the settings between your sessions. Best-case, the user profile also keeps track of (and can export) user data.Other Safety: You want the treadmill belt to have some kind of markings to alert users (and others—including children and pets) that the machine is engaged. You also want a treadmill that cannot be set into motion at ground level. If the only way to start the belt moving is via desktop console (or, better yet, a removable kill-switch key that plugs into the console), it should be impossible for toddlers or pets to turn the belt on if the desktop is “parked” at or near its maximum height. (The height controller will be attached to the desktop, and thus also out of reach.) If the treadmill is used alone (without a desk), any wired console should have a cord long enough to get it out of easy reach by children/pets.

Liability: For those concerned about liability in a business setting, one company’s console offers a “click-wrap liability waiver” requiring users to agree to a one-time onscreen waiver prior to first use, and (if the user has logged out, as will be the case with multiple users) before each subsequent use. You’ll also want to look for conformity to ANSI-BIFMA standards and a UL listing.
Other: What kind of tools are needed for assembly? Ideally, nothing more than a screwdriver and a level; everything else should come with the treadmill. Is there an option to have the treadmill set up on-site?

Power Draw: Generally speaking, power draw should be well under 5W at low speed, and not far above 5W while supporting maximum load at top speed. Standby mode (on but not in use) should be 0.5W or close to it.

Service: All treadmills need periodic lubrication to keep things running—scratch that; walking—smoothly. How often does the product need to be serviced, and how hard (or easy) is that to do? Can you do it yourself? If the belt gets off-center during use, rubbing against one side or the other—can you adjust it yourself, without too much trouble?

Treadmill Weight: Mentioned only because (as a general rule) the heavier the treadmill, the higher the quality.

Warranty: A solid warranty. This doesn’t mean forever; after all, the purpose of a treadmill is get walked on every day, and some things will eventually need service. But if the company doesn’t think its product will last long enough to offer reasonable coverage, why should you?


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AUTHOR’S CHOICE: iMovR ThermoTread GT Desk Treadmill

iMovR ThermoTread GT Treadmill

After extensive research and considering the above criteria, the iMovR ThermoTread GT Desk Treadmill seemed the obvious choice. I’m currently testing/evaluating the this model in combination with the iMovR Omega Everest sit-stand-walk desk (above), and will report my experience in a future post (which will be linked from this post when available). For now, here are the basics…

The iMovR ThermoTread GT Desk Treadmill is the only treadmill specifically designed, from the ground up, for walking. Which means it isn’t constantly straining to perform a job for which it was never intended. The GT has an unlimited duty cycle, meaning it can run—make that walk—all day, every day. So it’s not likely to fall victim to overuse, even with multiple users. Speaking of durability, it’s a heavy-duty model, solidly built, with a 3-hp DC motor geared to achieve maximum torque and peak (4,000) rpm at 2.5mph. It also has a 400-pound weight capacity.

The GT’s speed is adjustable (in 1/10th mph increments) from 0.5 to 2.5mph, and the treadmill can be used alone or in combination with a variety of desks—including several offered by the same company. Exposed belt size (walking area) is 20 x 50 inches, with a 5-inch deck height, aluminum side rails and adjustable feet (to level the machine on uneven surfaces). An internal fan kicks on automatically to keep the motor cool, and the whole thing (fan included) is comfortably quiet. (The company claims 42.7 dB at ear height @2mph—5 dB lower than its closest competitor (a redesigned running treadmill) and the lowest “noise signature” of any walking treadmill.) The belt sports two iMovR logos, making it easy to see when the belt is in motion.

The GT’s suspension features 6 internal compression shocks, and the whole thing weighs in at 147 pounds. Two wheels located under the motor housing make it easier to move around. The GT’s footprint is 67.5 inches long by 28.35 wide and 9.5 high at the front.

An anti-fatigue mat is available for those who plan to stand atop the the treadmill, and the company also offers a chair designed for on-treadmill use (without damaging the belt, as other chairs would). They also offer an anti-fatigue mat designed to be used when sitting and standing on the floor, so there’s no need to move the mat out of the way every time you want to use the chair.

Typical power draw is 1-2.5A (120V / 60hz / 15A circuit). Poor lubrication or extreme weight (300-400 pounds) at max speed can up the power requirement to approximately 3.5A (though the official specs say 7A to ensure that customers using transformers in 230V countries plug into a transformer with enough wattage to cover a worst-case scenario that includes the power-conversion loss caused by the transformer itself). Standby mode draws 0.5A. The company recommends a 1-minute lubrication for every 40 hours of treadmill use (no service call required), and the belt can be easily re-centered with an Allen wrench (provided). The control console alerts the user when it’s time to lubricate the treadmill.

Control Console for iMovR ThermoTread GT Treadmill

The controller itself is a touchscreen console with integrated kill-switch—a tabbed red “key” that must be inserted for the treadmill to work. A clip is attached to the key by a mid-length string. iMovR advises attaching this to your belt or shirt. This will cause the key to pull out (and stop the belt) any time you step off the treadmill, or in the event of a fall.

For the liability-minded, each user is required to agree to a one-time onscreen “click-wrap” liability waiver before using the treadmill for the first time, and on subsequent login (if they logged out or powered off after the last session, as would be the case in a multiple-user environment). The treadmill is UL listed. After pausing, the machine can be restarted with a single button-push.

The console features 5 customizable user profiles and a session timer with alarm, and tracks speed, time, steps, distance, calories burned and sit, stand, and walk time. The console comes with a lengthy power cord, and the company is now working to make the console’s data exportable with a software upgrade.

Cloud connectivity is in the works, which will (among other things) allow an infinite number of users to log onto any GT treadmill anywhere in the world and have it (and any compatible iMovR desk) automatically adopt their preferred settings and add their session data to their cloud account and/or personal or corporate/agency fitness platform.

iMovR offers several treadmill delivery options, including delivery to (and setup in) to the room of your choice. Setup is extremely simple; just unbox the machine and plug it in. It is, however, very heavy—147 pounds (not including box or pallet).

The warranty is 3 years on the motor, 2 years on parts, and 1 year on labor. The treadmill can be returned in the first 30 days, though there is a restocking fee for this.

Large-scale users include The Washington Post, WME, Microsoft, amazon, Alcoa, Entertainment Arts, Westin Hotels & Resorts (which offers iMovR treadmill desks in their “Work While Walking” -branded rooms), Wells Fargo, State Farm Insurance, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney General’s Office, U.S. FDA, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, The Nature Conservancy, and a slew of universities.

Where to buy


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MATCHING DESK WITH TREADMILL
(Skip to Author’s Choice)

iMovR Omega Everest Desk with iMovR ThermoTread GT Office Treadmill

Pairing desk and treadmill is not as straightforward as one might think. New factors must be considered, and old factors viewed in a different light. Things that make little difference when choosing an adjustable-height desk or treadmill alone, can become deciding factors when using both. For this reason, it’s best to plan ahead. Here are some things to think about…

Cross-Members: Many sit-stand desks have cross-members to enhance stability when the desktop is raised. Some of these are positioned close to the floor. So make sure the treadmill you’re considering will fit comfortably underneath, or that the cross-member (some are optional) can be safely removed. If the desk is deep enough, it may be that the treadmill can be used even with a low cross-member in place, but keep in mind that the farther under the desk the treadmill can be moved, the more floorspace you’ll have behind the treadmill.

Maximum Desk Height: The next consideration is maximum desk height, which varies quite a bit from brand to brand. A desk that’s high enough for you stand and work at, may suddenly become too low when you’re standing on a treadmill. This is of particular concern for tall people, but should (given the desk-model variation in maximum desk height) be considered by all. The industry standard seems to be 47 inches, with the tallest desks topping out at 50-52 inches. One company (iMovR) offers optional leg extensions for several of their desks, which raise the maximum (and minimum) height by 4 inches. (Not coincidentally, the company also sells walking treadmills.)

Desktop Width: The width of the desktop is also important. What happens when you want to sit or stand at the desk without walking? A narrow top may accommodate the treadmill and not much else, requiring you to move the treadmill (which may be quite heavy) or stand (or place a chair) on top of it. A wider desktop allows you to stand or sit beside the treadmill, or share the space with someone else while working. Note that placing a chair atop a treadmill can damage the belt—though one treadmill maker offers two chair models specifically designed for non-damaging treadmill use. (They also offer an anti-fatigue mat for those who’ll be standing on the treadmill.)

If you already have a narrow desk and decide you need something wider, keep in mind that many desks use the same base with multiple tops—so it may well be that all you need to do is order a wider top and swap it out with the one you have. (The length of the main support that runs beneath the desktop is typically adjustable.)

A Special Note on Keyboard Trays: Most people feel more comfortable using an adjustable keyboard tray than working at a keyboard laid flat on the desktop. There are several reasons for this: the tray brings the keyboard closer to the body, it allows the keyboard to be lower than the desktop, and—perhaps most importantly—it permits the user to tilt the keyboard in ways that just won’t work with the keyboard on the desktop.

Ergonomically speaking, the ideal typing position is one where the top edge of the keyboard is tilted down, making the front higher than the back. This position avoids muscle and joint strain while increasing comfort, speed, accuracy and endurance. Keyboard trays (which slide or swing back under the desktop when not in use) make this “negative tilt” possible—with a catch: once they hit -15 to -20 degrees or so, they bump into their own support arm and cannot move any farther.

The good news is, that’s far enough for day-to-day keyboard use while seated, and also works for most folks while standing. But once you start walking on a treadmill and typing at the same time, the angles change—making -25 to -40 degrees the “zone” for most people. This was an important factor for me in deciding which desk to pair with a treadmill, because—so far, at least—there’s only one company (iMovR) addressing the issue. (Probably because they sell both desks and treadmills.) Fortunately, they make excellent products. Their solution—a height-adjustable and infinitely tilt-adjustable keyboard support integrated into the desktop itself—is detailed in the Author’s Choice section of Choosing An Adjustable-Height Desk, above.


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AUTHOR’S CHOICE: iMovR Omega Everest Desk & iMovR ThermoTread GT Desk Treadmill

iMovR Omega Everest Desk with iMovR ThermoTread GT Office Treadmill

It’s no coincidence that the best-matched pair consists of the only desk designed for sit-stand-walk use, and the only treadmill engineered for walking. Or that both come from the same company. I’m currently testing/evaluating the iMovR Omega Everest sit-stand-walk desk in combination with the iMovR ThermoTread GT Office Treadmill, and will report my experience in a future post (which will be linked from this post when available). For now, details on both products can be found above, in the Desk and Treadmill sections.

Where to buy


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AUTHOR’S NOTE: No, that’s not me in the pictures.





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SOURCES

iMovR logo

Omega Everest Sit-Stand-Walk Desk, ThermoTread GT Walking Treadmill and other products mentioned in this article are available from:

iMovr
Website: iMovR.com
Toll-free: 888.208.6770
Local: 425.999.3550
Email: sales@imovr.com



UPCOMING GEAR POSTS

Future posts will cover other healthy-office necessities, including those designed for use with adjustable-height desks. Look for posts on ergonomic chairs, stools, keyboards, keyboard trays, mice, sit-stand monitor arms, CPU holders, desktop lamps, anti-fatigue mats, cable management systems, and more.


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