When a new fitness fad pops up, I'm skeptical. One that allows people to incorporate their workouts into the workday without even changing their suits or breaking a sweat sounds too good to be true.
So when I read several blogs in which people described how they were able to lose weight while writing emails, researching, reading papers, and having conference calls, I suspected the whole thing was some kind of viral marketing campaign for the latest BowFlex-type machine. Bloggers were gloating about how they were using a treadmill/desk mashup to steadily shed pounds, and they were expounding about how this new idea could solve America's obesity problem. Before passing my final judgment on the absurdity of it all, though, I decided to try it out for myself.
Worried that my laptop would fall and break, I grabbed the most recent issue of Newsweek and hopped on a treadmill. I set the pace at 0.7 miles per hour, which is what the bloggers recommend. It's really, really slowso slow that I could imagine myself writing emails or making phone calls without anyone knowing what I was doing.
After reading two pages without a problem, I looked down to see that I had walked 0.12 miles and burned 17 calories in 10 minutes. Now, that isn't more than a couple of Skittles, but it adds up quickly. Walking at that pace, I would burn 102 calories in an hour, and after eight hours, 816 calories. If I did that five days a week, I'd burn an extra 4,080 calories. One pound of fat is equal to 3,600 calories, so even if I didn't change my current diet, I could theoretically burn more than one pound a week. That's 50 pounds a year, including two weeks vacation.
On the other hand, if I eat an extra 100 calories each day, about a snack-size Snickers or two-thirds of a can of soda, I'm going to gain 10 pounds in a year. Those 10 pounds more than double my risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Little numbers can add up to big results.
That's exactly what James Levine, an endocrinologist and nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, told me he had in mind when he set out to test his hypothesis that thin people use more calories than obese people in the everyday activities of life.
It's all a NEAT ideaNon-exercise Activity Thermogenesis. NEAT is the energy people expend that isn't outright athletic exercise. It includes dancing naked in front of the mirror, fidgeting at your desk, and walking to Gordo's for a burrito. NEAT is everything we do that makes us vital living beings, Levine says.
Levine and a team of 150 staff at the Mayo Clinic conducted one of the most powerful studies of NEAT ever. Twenty study participants10 obese and 10 leanwore special "sensored" underwear that measured their every movement 24 hours a day. The lean people burned about 350 calories more per day simply by moving more. That's enough to account for the entire obesity epidemic, said the lean doctor.
"This is not rocket science, and that's why it works," Levine says. "Basic people can understand these simple concepts."
Levine published his findings in Science in January 2005 and then began brainstorming ways to apply his results to the real world.
He came up with the idea of a treadmill desk that would allow people who spend the majority of their waking hours working at computers to take advantage of NEAT. Most people in Levine's office now use one. A computer sits on a shelf at eye level, and they walk at a very slow pace0.7 miles per hour, the speed I walkedin their business suits. They never break a sweat, but burn at least 500 more calories each day than someone sitting in a chair.
Joseph Stirt is one of the converted. On his blog bookofjoe, he swears by his treadmill desk. Stirt first read about Levine's research in the New York Times, and the simple profundity of the idea struck him. Ten months later, Stirt was reading while walking and soon typing, too. A blog post from last October describes why:
I used to lie on my reading couch with my legs up on some soft cushions, reading the Sunday papers … Invariably, I'd get bored and have to get up and do something else before returning to my spot … I'd sometimes get sleepy and doze off.
Stirt insists that the crawling speed on the treadmill keeps him alert and makes him a much happier person. On the average day he walks for 8 to 10 hours and covers about 5.6 miles. "It also seemed to be kinda quirky," Stirt tells me. "I like quirky. Some people might call me eccentric."
That's because obesity carries a price tag much larger than giant love handles. According to a 1998 CDC study, the extra pounds cost Americans over $70 billion annually in combined medical costs and lost workdays, decreased productivity, and increased worker's compensation payouts.
Obesity is a leading risk factor for some of the nation's most complicated and costly chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Creating work environments that encourage people to move more could lower health-care costs because lean, healthy people visit the doctor less frequently, take fewer drugs, and generally require less health care. Theoretically, a widescale proliferation of treadmill desks in offices could end up reducing companies' health-care costs.
But while the NEAT idea seems to be catching on among a growing number of forward thinkers around the country who have the space and means to build a treadmill desk, it has yet to be incorporated into largescale office environments. (Indeed, those most at risk for obesitythe poorwill probably never have access to them.) Levine says he has started consulting with some companies, though.
Brad Feld, managing director at Mobius Venture Capital, read about Levine's treadmill desk and took it a step further. Two months ago, he built his "treadputer" fully outfitted with three flat-screen monitors, voice recognition, and Bluetooth technology.
Feld, 40, hopes to run a marathon in every state before he turns 50 and believes the treadputer will help him train to reach his goal. "There's no question that if you work standing up and walk on the treadmill for three or four hours a day, it has a huge impact on your level of fitness," Feld says.
As a venture capitalist, Feld sees a definite market for "treadputers," but thinks the first step will be existing treadmill companies adding the web and internet at high-end health clubs.
Rick Couture, marketing and promotions director at the Canadian Go-Mango Fitness Equipment, has built and marketed fitness equipment in the past. Recently, he developed a treadmill desk prototype, but he says it's too early to predict if this trend will go mainstream.
Until commercially-developed treadmill desks catch on, though, would-be NEAT freaks still have options. One is to build their own treadmill desks (see sidebar). The other is to incorporate some NEAT principles into their work environment. One of Levine's suggestions is to buy carpet tape and mark off a walking path around the office. Two people walking together could both wear yellow buttons so everyone else knows they are in a private meeting and shouldn't be disturbed.
As a telephone-bound journalist, I'm not sure if I'll be able to take advantage of the yellow button plan. I am, however, scheming ways to fit a treadmill in my cubicle.
Sarah Arnquist is a health reporter in Northern California. Eric Lister is a freelance illustrator and artist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.