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Test driving the office treadmill desk with writer Susan Orlean

Writer Susan Orlean walks on her office treadmill desk.
Writer Susan Orlean walks on her office treadmill desk.
Raghu Manavalan/KPCC
Writer Susan Orlean walks on her office treadmill desk.
Employees at a Minneapolis-based financial firm walk while working on treadmill desks. The firm offers treadmill desks for employee use and encourages an active workplace environment.
Salo LLC

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Are you sitting down? Well you might want to stand up for this story. 

The evolution of modern-day office desk set-ups looks a little something like this: First came the ergonomic desk chair, then the giant inflatable ball chair and the stand-up desk.

Now, believe it or not, some people are upping the healthy-while-working design by walking while they work at treadmill desks. Sounds like a recipe for spilled coffee, but the idea has been taking off in offices across the US. 

The state of Oregon is currently considering a bill to provide treadmill desks for state workers, and recent studies have come out claiming that sitting for several hours a day is very detrimental to your health.

Anyone who's worked at a desk job knows how it feels to spend 6+ hours sitting. Your back starts to ache, your legs fall asleep, and you can even feel sluggish by the end of the day. But is walking while you work really the answer? Or will this new trend be revolutionary for the health of US office workers?

Among the early adopters of this aerobic workspace is writer Susan Orlean. She recently traded in her Herman-Miller Aeron chair for a treadmill desk and wrote about the transition for the New Yorker. We happen to have a treadmill desk at KPCC headquarters, so we thought we'd take it for a spin and ask Orlean for her input. 

Interview Highlights:

On why she decided to get a treadmill desk:
"This came about because of two different things, first of all I found it harder and harder to make time to work out. Then on top of it I had to have some surgery that meant I couldn't run, and the exercise that I was told was most ideal for me while I was recuperating was walking. I thought I don't have time to walk. Well, the amazing thing about the treadmill desk is suddenly all that time that I was spending working, I could be spending walking."

On Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic and the emerging field of inactivity studies:
"First of all, you have to spend a moment savoring the term inactivity studies, because it really is one of the funniest sounding academic pursuits I've ever heard. [Levine] studies the non-exercise burning of calories, essentially trying to figure out how the body uses calories in normal life. He began noting that people who stay slim seem to move all the time. Pacing a little while they're on the phone or jiggling their legs, they're just active, He came to the conclusion that that is actually burning lots and lots of calories in a way that we hadn't anticipated. Then there were lots of studies that started to show that just sitting itself puts your body in a kind of hibernation and that if you're doing that six hours a day there are a lot of health consequences that are really bad."

On how it feels to walk while working as opposed to sitting:
"Honestly you don't get the endorphin high of running or stair climbing. The payoff is not that high of hard exercise. I never get that kind of anxious, kind of jittery feeling that I get when I'm sitting at a desk and the sentence isn't coming and I feel like my leg is jiggling and I'm tapping my keyboard and chewing gum. I just have  a lot of nervous energy, and that doesn't happen now that I'm walking."

On the difficulties of using a treadmill desk:
"There are a few things that you can't do on a treadmill and drinking hot coffee is one, and I can speak from experience, so please take my advice and don't repeat the mistake. That's one thing that's very hard to do. The thing that you have to remember and remind people who are sort of puzzled by how you can possibly work on a treadmill is it does have an off button, you are able to turn it off and stand still and god forbid even sit." 

On whether a treadmill desk is realistic for the average person:
"The $4,000 price tag is only for the very top of the line Steelcase treadmill desks. You can get a walking desk treadmill for a couple hundred dollars. I'm not suggesting that that's within everybody's price range, but like all new technology, first of all the price will go down. You can get a used regular treadmill for $75 or less. People pay you to take their treadmills out of their house when they're not using them. I'm not suggesting that this is something that everyone can go out instantly and afford."