Does a treadmill desk make losing weight easy?

Every week, I walk between 60 and 70 miles on my treadmill desk. That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 marathons or a three-day weekend of intense backpacking. For someone my size, that translates to over 12,000 extra calories burned—roughly equivalent to three pounds of body fat.

Based on these numbers, you might think that a treadmill desk would make weight loss automatic. Alas, no.

Or, at least, not over the long haul. Yes, when I first installed the desk back in 2014, my weight plummeted. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first eight months! However, I eventually hit a plateau. Despite keeping up the same daily distances, my weight began to creep slowly upwards again. Twelve months later, I had regained nearly half the weight I had originally lost.

I realized that I had experienced a dispiriting truth about weight loss, first-hand: physical activity isn’t a panacea. Eat irresponsibly, and I will gain weight, no matter how far I walk at work or run before breakfast.

Why is that? Why doesn’t burning thousands of calories give me a license to eat whatever I want? Here’s my guess, in short: the more I move, the hungrier I get. Our bodies and brains seek out equilibrium; if I burn 1,500 calories on the treadmill desk, my instinct is to consume 1,500 extra calories as compensation.

So—whether I walk or not—maintaining a calorie deficit requires dietary self-control. I’ve found only one way to reliably burn off extra pounds: watch what I eat. I track my calories, measure my portions, and avoid “bad” foods, including extra salt, refined grains, and added sugar. It’s not super-fun, but it is effective: I’m down forty-five pounds from my all-time heaviest weigh-in.

I haven’t stopped “treading,” though. While it doesn’t give me a license to gorge, it does raise my daily “calorie ceiling.” Earning the occasional unhealthy splurge makes portion control a little bit less painful. ■

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Eighteen months on a treadmill desk

Since April of 2014, I’ve owned a treadmill desk. Each day, I plod along at a glacial pace—just active enough to keep my metabolism simmering. Meanwhile, I’m typing, mousing and taking calls—all the little tasks you’d typically do at the computer. After walking 4,500+ miles, sitting down to work feels wrong, somehow.

Here are some observations and recommendations from my eighteen months “on the tread.”

  • Your feet will hurt—at least at first. During my first few weeks, I leapt into treading full-tilt, powering through fifteen determined miles each day. My feet protested, but I ignored “hot spots” and developed some ugly blisters. My advice? Treat any irritation as a warning sign so that it doesn’t fester into something worse. A little duct-tape, skillfully applied, makes a big difference. Before long, you’ll build up some blister-proof callouses.
  • Along these lines, proper footwear is key. Don’t expect to wear typical work or office shoes. You’re better off lacing up an old pair of running sneakers. If your workplace allows, consider trying sandals—or even going barefoot. But, again, whatever you wear, listen to your feet!
  • A treadmill desk can help you lose weight, if your expectations are realistic. In the first few months of treading, I lost thirty pounds, give or take. But then the weight loss flatlined. Since then, I’ve had trouble shedding (and keeping off) the ten extra pounds that lie between me and a healthy BMI. Eventually, it seems, my body adjusted to the enormous extra calorie burn that an all-day tread provides. Or, more to the point, I ate more. So, as with any other weight loss regime, be prepared to count calories and feel hungry at day’s end. The treadmill raises your calorie ceiling, but you’ll still need to exercise some dietary self-discipline.
  • Treadmills are noisy. Although I bought one of the quietest walking treadmills available, it’s far from silent. There’s the whir as the belt makes its endless rotation. The whine-whine-whine of the motor under strain. The rhythmic thud-thud-thud as footsteps hit the deck. Of course, my home office sits in a quiet patch of woods, far from the nearest thoroughfare. That makes the slightest sound seem loud. At your busy workplace, you may hardly notice the treadmill’s steady noise. Still, respect the ears of those nearby—whether fellow office drones or your sleeping spouse. Also, if you’re on a conference call, be aware that others can probably hear your pacing. Make judicious use of that self-mute button!
  • Vary your speed. Different work tasks require different paces. For me, 2 miles per hour works well for light emailing and web browsing. Fine design work demands a slower speed—something in the range of 1.5 MPH. Conversely, you can move faster when consuming content; I’ve pushed the treadmill up to 3 MPH when watching training videos or listening in on conference calls. Anything faster, though, and you’ll stray dangerously close to exercise. It’s hard to concentrate on work when you’re panting and dripping with sweat.
  • Static electricity can be nasty. Dragging your feet across a treadmill belt, you quickly build up a charge, especially in drier weather. Last winter, my earbuds (plugged into my grounded PC) would shock me every few steps. If this happens to you, find a way to discharge the electricity more steadily. It doesn’t take much to ground yourself; I simply connect a spare USB cable to my PC and tuck it into my belt line. No static build-up—and no more painful shocks.
  • Get the extended warranty. I’ve had issues with my LifeSpan treadmill ever since it arrived. Their regional technician has visited my house at least four separate times; they’ve replaced the motor twice. Fortunately, the problems have been covered under warranty; I’ve paid nothing extra. In fact, LifeSpan agreed to foot the bill for a five-year extended warranty. There’s little doubt that I’ll need it again.