Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Treadmill Desk - A Controversy

Although the development and testing of a treadmill desk is not new, I recently came across this post on the subject on a feminist blog that surprised me quite a lot in its tone:

"This is what happens when ‘your employer owns your body and soul’ cross-breeds with ‘nothing is more dangerous than fat.’ A treadmill desk designed by the Mayo clinic. Don’t mock because they were seriously scientific about their research:

“If obese individuals were to replace time spent sitting at the computer with walking computer time by 2 to 3 hours a day, and if other components of energy balance were constant, a weight loss of 20 to 30kg a year could occur.”

It’s none of our employer’s business whether or not we lose 20 to 30 kg, or gain 20 or 30 kg. Our bodies and our lives should belong to us, that’s the basic meaning of freedom."

In the comments section, it's basically a pile on about how making these desks available to workers is an example of discrimination against fat people, will not lead to health improvements because people cannot lose weight, will make work too difficult to do while walking [though the speed in the study was a leisurely 1.6 mph], is just one more thing employers are doing to take over the lives of employees, etc.

But one exchange really intrigued me:

A person named Weasel wrote: "I worked for a college for 11 years and even though they were concerned about health costs they would have never bought me this desk for simple $ reasons. Now I telecommute for a different company and I set up my own treadmill desk to help fight a family predisposition to being overweight. I actually have two desks, one that I walk at and one that I sit at for times when I need to rest, need more mouse control (such as editing a photo or illustration) or I’m just feeling lazy - ha. I walk anywhere from 1-6 miles most days depending upon the type of work I’m doing and what other exercise I am getting that week with the kids. I walk as little as 30 minutes a day and have walked 5 hours in a day as well.

Is the treadmill desk for everyone? No - a few of the comments above make that clear. Is it a dumb idea? To a lot of people it certainly is. Why do I use it? Cause I need the extra calorie burn and I want to spend non-work time with my family or having fun - not stuck in a health club.
BTW - even walking below 1 mph (which is pretty slow) gets you extra calories burned and most people won’t break a sweat at that speed so you don’t have to worry about “stinking up the meeting room”."

Then in response, B Adu writes: "Weasel, I appreciate that you find this kind of desk useful, but I am intrigued by your rationale. You say that you are burning calories, but doesn’t this encourage your body to keep up your calorie intake, after all you keep using them up all the time! When you do less, don’t you eat less automatically, and when you do more don’t you simply eat more?"

Then Kell jumps in with: "What rationale? I think it’s safe to assume anyone who thinks 1) exercise has any effect on body weight beyond about five pounds and 2) that still using the word “overweight” to describe fat people doen’t make her look naive and ignorant is going to have all sorts of food obsessions that keep her from being able to eat in response to body cues. (Yes, I’m calling her “overdumb.”)"

B Adu responds: "OK Kell,You’ve outed me. I was trying to fathom how the ‘other half’ relates their ‘theories’ to their actual reality, call me overpolite!"

Where to begin? OK, first of all, I thought Weasel's comment was pretty uncontroversial - she was simply relating her own experiences with a treadmill desk and countering some of the no doubt convenient rationalizations of those who pretended to oppose the desk because it would be too hard to use, would make you too sweaty, and so forth.

Is it a core belief within the fat acceptance community that exercise is of no value for weight loss or is this B Adu's personal idea? I saw it expressed a lot more times in the comments to the post than I would have thought. I'm sure there is a diversity of beliefs there as in any ideology [at first, I wrote movement, but that was too inappropriate given the implicit advocacy here for sedentary behavior], but I expected more comments along the "fit at any size" axis, in which the goal of weight loss is deplored but the encouragement of additional exercise is supported as important for overall health.

I found it awfully strange that Kell gives Weasel a hard time about "using the word overweight to describe fat people" when Weasel was talking about herself. Doesn't she get to use the word she wants to? Or is she obviously not fat enough to have any standing to discuss the topic of weight? And doesn't basically everyone use the word "overweight"? Maybe that word is not used by activists in the fat acceptance community or something, but it's hard to make the argument that "still" using that word is an indication of ignorance of anything but Kell's personal emotional issues. The use of the word "overdumb" was amusing in its inaptness; doesn't "overweight" indicate too much of a good thing while "overdumb" is too much of a bad thing?

It was great the way that Kell was able to glean so much about Weasel from her comment: Weasel has specific beliefs about how much weight can be lost through exercise, she has food obsessions that interfere with her ability to eat in response to body cues, and so on. I didn't have any of these insights independently. I have learned so much.

The original post brings up for me something I always think about when considering the issue of universal government-provided health care: making other people pay your way gives them a vested interest in your behavior far beyond what most of us would consider acceptable. As I see it, getting the government (i.e. the taxpayers) to pay for health insurance only ups the likelihood that behaviors associated with overweight will be regulated.

I have not forgotten what my Chinese manager at a previous job said about the enforced calisthenics regimen that she experienced during the Cultural Revolution. Exercising as part of a group was a requirement for showing loyalty to your fellow workers and the Communist government. No American company is going to force exercise on their employees at gunpoint. And since we work under at-will status, we can tell our boss to take a flying leap if we feel we are being pressured in any way to work at a treadmill desk.

Too bad we can't do something about real social pressures in the workplace - e.g. that we are expected to be basically friendly toward other people or we risk getting a reputation for being a snob or an asshole; that when somebody is having a baby shower, people are going to look at us as cheapskate jerks if we don't put in the $5 toward a stupid gift. And surely the true "basic meaning of freedom" in the workplace environment is having a corner window office, a high speed Internet connection, unlimited free beverage of your choice, and a sign hanging on your door that says
"I prefer not to" and that everyone respects.


Tam said...

There are various ways that this is mind-boggling but I just haven't been able to formulate a response.

I would like a treadmill desk if it didn't get in the way of my real desk (in other words, if I could switch back and forth easily) and if I were under no employer-sponsored pressure to use it. I think it would help me control my weight if I strolled in a leisurely fashion while working, but I'm also lazy.

Jay Buster said...

I LOVE my Treadmill Desk. In fact, I love it so much that I created a blog on how to build your own Treadmill Desk for $49.

Here's the URL:


Jay Buster

Anonymous said...

The WalkStation I have been reading about works but at $6500, it better. The concept is simple really. We are built to walk, not sit. Combine that with all the medical studies showing that walking reduces your chances of contracting just about every major health ailment it is a no brainer

We should be doing a lot more walking. But when? Who has the time? That is the beauty of a treadmill desk. I found one at called the TrekDesk that will be much more affordable and even incorporates an exercise ball chair so you don't need an additional desk and chair in your office. Cool!