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Get Your Steps In At Work? The Treadmill Desk Experiment

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I’m writing this from a treadmill. A treadmill desk, that is. Our San Francisco HQ here at Density has stumbled upon some pretty sweet office amenities and this contraption is one. Tucked away in the back, near the fire escape, as far from my co-workers as possible, there’s a treadmill desk we adopted from a former tenant that until recently only gathered dust.

Last week, my co-worker Ari Kepnes asked me to conduct a workplace experience study during which I would spend an hour a day working while walking. The point of the experiment was to gauge whether this workplace amenity helped or hindered my productivity.

The treadmill became a magnifying glass that helped me understand what either promotes or detracts from my ability to do my job.

“Aaand how are we measuring your productivity?” My boss Adam joked immediately upon presenting him with the idea.

While he was kidding (I hope), that question actually kicked around in my head throughout the week. I found that my productivity depends on myriad factors, many of which I didn’t realize until I started focusing on my focus. The treadmill became a magnifying glass that helped me understand what either promotes or detracts from my ability to do my job.

Day 1

Dressed in my branded Patagonia zip-up (a Silicon Valley standard), a good pair of jeans, and some casual boots, I hopped right up on the machine and started walking. It took five minutes before I promptly removed the zip-up as sweat began to line my back. Day 1 consisted of co-workers laughing at the project and taking pictures to share in our company’s Slack. Their reactions were varied and somewhat predictable based on who said what.

“That looks ridiculous.”

“I need to try that!”

“I have tried that and let me tell you, you’re not going to get anything done.”

Between sweating through my wardrobe, fighting against the old treadmill belt that wouldn’t stop rubbing against the side of the machine, and generally trying to figure out how to walk and type simultaneously, Day 1 was a wash. This experiment would only prove treadmill desks are a distraction and should be banned from office life.

But Day 2 was different.

Day 2

In preparation for the second walk, I wore proper footwear replete with orthotic inserts, hiking pants that could pass as professional attire, and a t-shirt I usually wear to the gym (which, admittedly, would not be an option for people who work at companies with less casual dress codes). Prior to my walking-hour, I researched proper treadmill belt maintenance and, thanks to YouTube, after some careful adjustments with an Allen wrench, the treadmill worked like a charm. No more screeching rubber attracting sideways glances from the other people in my office. Today, I could focus.

And that’s exactly what happened. My co-workers’ interest had subsided so there were no interruptions, and the treadmill itself worked great. I was off to the races, or at least to the casual strolls. Day 2’s hour went by in a flash. I crushed my agenda for the day, scheduling social media posts for the rest of the week, reading through some content for our website, and organizing footage I shot from a recent client interview. I was convinced. This was the way to work.

Day 3

Day 3 coincided with the fourth day straight of overcast gray weather in the bay area. I generally don’t do well in continuous gray. I spent most of the day at my assigned desk slogging through work without making much of a dent in the pile. I made frequent, uninspired trips to the snack area and killed as much time as possible because I wasn’t feeling motivated. 4pm rolled around and I mosied over to the treadmill ready to get it over with.

A recent study by Stanford University found that walking can increase creativity by 60%.

And again, my focus improved!

The simple act of moving my feet instead of slouching in a chair lifted me from my lethargy and provided the blood flow necessary to get to work. And the science agrees. A recent study by Stanford University found that walking can increase creativity by 60%.

According to various surveys, physical movement significantly boosts attentiveness, productivity, problem-solving, and overall mood. By the end of the hour, I had completed pre-production on an upcoming commercial shoot and collaborated with key co-workers to hammer home the details. I felt great. Treadmill desk for the win.

Days 4 & 5

My faith in this device excited me, and I showed up the last two days of the week ready to go, even prepared to spend more than the allotted hour in order to be as productive as possible. My co-workers initial interest had been renewed when they realized I was still walking every day. It became an office joke.

“Dave, you do your hour yet?”

“I really should try that thing.”

“Does that actually work for you?”

Their whole tone shifted. I believed everyone should use it. I’ll stop myself before I don an Oprah impression and declare “You get a treadmill! You get a treadmill!” But that’s a little bit how it felt. The treadmill made me work better, smarter, and quicker. I felt rejuvenated.

So, should treadmill desks be a standard for office work? Or should they be Spartan kicked into a pit of useless office trends?

One stipulation is that I can only speak for my own experience. I imagine a software engineer trying to focus on the precision of her code and becoming infuriated with how easy it is to miss a letter or spell something wrong because your body is swaying back and forth while typing. On the other hand, I imagine our CEO being in workplace heaven because he spends all day on the phone and, if you ask anyone in the office, they’ll tell you he’s a pacer.

So, should treadmill desks be a standard for office work? Or should they be Spartan kicked into a pit of useless office trends? Maybe, to both. If you have the opportunity to try one, do so. Initially, it feels a little goofy, but it might help more than you think.

Brought my dog on the last day of the experiment. He didn’t get it.