The Treadmill Desk: A Brief History


Treadmill desks have become the hottest employee perk at such varied employers as Dairy Queen, Wal-Mart, and the White House. Your inner historian might be wondering, where did these treadmill desks that everyone is talking about come from?

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It All Started With Double-Decker Buses

To answer that question, we need to go way back, further than the idea of putting treadmills over desks. While it’s well known now that movement and exercise are good for your health, decreases the risk of disease, and increases life span, those ideas were revolutionary less than one hundred years ago.

In 1949, a London scientist named Jerry Morris decided to study heart attack rates in people of different professions. The first result that Morris received showed dramatically different heart attack rates of people doing seemingly the same job: drivers and conductors (essentially the ticket takers) of double-decker buses. The drivers suffered heart attacks at an alarmingly higher rate than the conductors. The main difference between these two jobs? The amount and type of activity in their day. As Morris explained:

“The drivers were prototypically sedentary . . . and the conductors were unavoidably active. We spent many hours sitting on the buses watching the number of stairs they climbed.”

The conductors walked up and down the stairs repeatedly and were on their feet nearly all day. They were half as likely to suffer a heart attack as the drivers. In 1953, Morris published the results of his study, concluding that exercise helps to ward off heart attacks. The article was met with skepticism for a number of reasons. As some have pointed out, driving a bus involves a high-level of stress that also could raise the risks for a heart attack. The world of working at a treadmill desk was still far away.

Morris studied another group – postal workers – to see if he could validate his theory. He compared postal workers who were out delivering the mail either by foot or by bike with those who worked behind the counters. He learned that the letter carriers had significantly less chance of suffering a heart attack as compared to employees who worked behind the counters.

Then Technology Kept Us Planted In Our Chairs

Morris’ work helped spread the idea that exercise and movement throughout the day are important for health and longevity. These concepts became very important as technology – televisions, computers, tablets – kept us in chairs and became ingrained in our personal and working lives. It’s estimated that the average adult sits for over over 9 hours per day. As a study from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings explained:

In 1970, 2 in 10 working Americans were in jobs requiring only light activity (predominantly sitting at a desk).  By 2000, 4 in 10 adults were in light-activity jobs.  In 1970, 3 in 10 jobs required high-energy output. But by 2000, only 2 in 10 were high-activity jobs.”

(citations omitted)

The Treadmill Desk Arrives

While we might love the conveniences of modern technology, many folks began feeling the pain (literally) that comes along with being planted in a chair in front of a screen all day. And they started looking for alternatives. In 1996, Professor Seth Roberts put a desk over a treadmill and claimed to have been the first to create a walking workstation. Around 2003, Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic put a hospital tray over a running treadmill and created a treadmill desk. Dr. Levine is an expert in obesity and pioneered studies on how subtle movement throughout the day can be an effective weight loss mechanism. Dr. Levine became a vocal advocate for the benefits of treadmill desks.

In the mid-2000s, some folks began catching on to the treadmill desk craze. Brad Feld, successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, began promoting his use of a “treadputer” in 2006. In 2008, Dr. Levine partnered with the office furniture company Steelcase to create a commercially available treadmill desk with a hefty price tag of about $4,000. A few other companies have followed suit to offer their own versions of treadmill desks.

With popularity of treadmill desks soaring, Rebel Desk has entered the market to offer more choices to folks who have decided to take Jerry Morris’ advice and get moving. Learn more about Rebel Desk’s treadmill desk here.

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