Work Faster While You Walk

Adapted from Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath

“a recent study found a strong association between long-term sedentary work and rates of cancer.”

Working on my book Eat Move Sleep was an experiment in itself. While I had read a fair amount of research about the downside of sitting, I read most of it . . . sitting down. To make things even more difficult, because I have written several books, I know it requires even longer periods sitting at my desk than normal. It’s no coincidence my back pain is always at its worst when I am writing and editing. What’s more, a recent study found a strong association between long-term sedentary work and rates of cancer.

Given the topic of this book, it was time for a new approach. I decided to build a workstation on my treadmill and set a goal of writing this entire book while walking. So I mounted my computer monitor above my treadmill and built a homemade keyboard tray across the arm rests. Because it was a low-cost solution, I figured it was worth trying even if it did not work out.

Initially, I didn’t know if it would be possible to type, look at my screen, and use a touchpad while in motion. A few days into the experiment, I determined that as long as I maintain a pace of 1.5 miles per hour, it worked. At this pace, I can read, type, and talk on the phone at least as easily as if I were seated. When I use voice dictation software for extended periods of writing, I am able to write far more words per day than I can when I’m seated.

After using this homemade walking desk for several months, I am now walking an additional 5-10 miles per day as a result. At the end of each “walk day,” as I have started to call it, my back no longer aches. I also have dramatically more energy compared with days when I am sitting in meetings, cars, or airplanes.

By the time Eat Move Sleep was nearing publication, a wide range of commercial options had emerged for working while walking, standing, or a mix of standing and sitting. One of the most common treadmill brands now produces a model with an integrated desk for a keyboard and monitor. It gets even better reviews from users than the model without a built-in desk. A recumbent bicycle with an integrated laptop desk is even more popular. This “pedal desk” will set you back about $250, which is reasonable in the context of how much it could contribute to your health.

If it is remotely practical, try something like this to increase activity, even if it’s only when you are at home. I have a friend who forces himself to watch sporting events while on his elliptical machine, so he is getting a little activity alongside his favorite athletes. Another option is a standing desk or a convertible desk that moves up and down for standing and seated work.

If you stand still while you work, it is a good idea to alternate between standing and sitting. Standing still for extended periods can cause unnecessary strain if you don’t move around or alternate with sitting. You can also find adapters that secure to a stationary desk and allow you to raise and lower your monitor and keyboard to a standing or seated level.

All of these options are gaining popularity in workplaces as companies (like Salo, the company in the video below) discover the cost savings from fewer sick days associated with excessive sitting. Several organizations I have worked with provide shared walking workstations where employees can go to catch up on email. I spoke with a friend the other day who used one of these shared workstations to complete all of his annual online compliance training.

If your employer will not provide walking or standing desks (it never hurts to ask), put your laptop or monitor on a shelf where you can stand and work occasionally. Or get a music stand, wall mount, or something that makes it easy to read and work while standing. At a minimum, try reading on a stationary bike, or take a walk while listening to an audio book or conference call.

Tom Rath is an author and researcher who studies the role of human behavior in business, health, and well-being. His most recent work includes a feature-length documentary film, Fully Charged, which explores the key elements of energizing one’s work and life through personal stories and interviews with the world’s leading social scientists.

Tom has written six New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers over the past decade, starting with the #1 New York Times bestseller How Full Is Your Bucket? His book StrengthsFinder 2.0 was the top-selling book of 2013 worldwide on Amazon. Tom’s latest bestsellers are Strengths Based Leadership, Wellbeing, and Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. In total, his books have sold more than 6 million copies and have made more than 300 appearances on the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.

Tom’s latest bestseller, Are You Fully Charged? The Three Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life is receiving acclaim as “Rath’s best book yet” and is the subject of the feature-length documentary. This book and his second children’s book, The Rechargeables, were released in May of 2015.