Tired of the Same Old Treadmill at Work? Try a Treadmill?

You might remember a famous scene from Charlie Chaplin’s movie Modern Times (1937) that features Chaplin’s character, The Little Tramp, at his impossible assembly line job. Two wrenches in hand, he tightens nuts on the parts that fly by, hour after hour. Conscientious to a fault, and falling behind during a sneeze—the line stopped for no one!—he dives after the parts he’s missed and is drawn deep into the factory’s mechanism where he literally becomes just a cog in the machine. You might laugh out loud watching it like I did just now. But Chaplain had a serious point to raise—in fact, he had hatched the idea for the movie during a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi, who had complained of the human costs of the modern trend of “machinery with only consideration of profit.”

I couldn’t help but think of the scene when I read of a pilot study in Oregon that will put “treadmill desks” in the offices of state workers to gauge potential health gains. “We are not designed to sit,” insisted Oregon Republican legislator Jim Thompson, plausibly, “…we talk about all these things we need to do to get people healthier, but when are we actually going to try some of them?”

When the same idea came up at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, the senior U.S. Senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, would have none of it. Hatch harrumphed on Twitter, reasonably, “Can walk on sidewalk. Doesn’t cost the taxpayer $.” But the CEO of the treadmill desk company shot back that people in other areas of the country weren’t blessed with the pleasant, tree-lined walkways and balmy weather that the privileged elite in Washington, D.C. enjoy. “If their answer to obesity is sidewalks combined with a closed mind to new innovations that actually hold promise, it is time to look for leadership elsewhere!” Reading this testy exchange, I started laughing out loud, again. Nevertheless, here, too, there’s a serious point.

Proponents of office desks that oblige you to walk point not only to the advantage of burning calories at the rate of between one Big Mac and one beer per day—or nearly a pound of fat lost per month—but to the effects the desks have on attention, especially for those whose minds are easily diverted. “I feel like the simple task of keeping me upright occupies that distractible part of my brain and leaves the main part of my brain able to do its thing, undisturbed,” writes James Hamblin, an advocate of treadmill desks, in The Atlantic. The treadmill desk makes that writer more industrious.

I do not know enough to settle the amusing dispute about treadmill desks. But I do know that the debaters have left something out in the discussion of weight loss and workplace productivity: our need for fun. The treadmill might be diverting for a time. But what happens when the novelty wears off? Are you back to the same old grind?

Instead, at my regular desk when I’m wrestling with a tricky sentence, I’ll pull out a yo-yo for a few spins. Usually this helps me pin the stubborn thing. Or when the phone rings I’ll stand up to answer it. If the caller asks, “are you walking around?” I say “yes, I’m walking around.” This is surely and at minimum good for the pitiable human lower back. But if I stand on one foot because it’s fun to balance, and the caller asks, “what are you doing now?” I’ll say, “I’m still walking around,” because to answer, “balancing on one foot and tapping the other toe” might well invite less sympathetic questions.