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Treadmill Desks And The Benefits Of 'Walking Alive'


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Like so many of us who spend much of the day at a desk, writer Susan Orlean spent years trying to find the right chair. She tried a Herman Miller Aeron Chair. She experimented with a balanced kneeling chair but found that it hurt her knees, plus she said it felt like sitting inside a giant Birkenstock sandal. She considered the yoga ball but worried it might deflate like the Hindenburg. And then three months ago, she decided to ditch the office chair altogether and step onto a treadmill desk. She wrote about it in the May 20th edition of The New Yorker.

So if you work at a desk, how do you keep moving? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Her book "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend" is out in paperback. Nice to talk to you again.

SUSAN ORLEAN: Great to talk to you, Neal. Happy to be here, and I am sitting.

CONAN: You are sitting.

ORLEAN: I have to say, I'm sitting.

CONAN: The station has not adopted the treadmill chair there?

ORLEAN: Not yet. I foresee a future in which we have the walking radio show, but not yet, not at this moment.

CONAN: But you're out there visiting. I wonder, your contraption back home, tell us what it looks like.

ORLEAN: It's a bit of an ungainly looking thing. It's a treadmill - a normal treadmill but it doesn't have the guardrails or the console that a normal treadmill has, so that it can fit under a desk. But the desk, in order to accommodate the fact that you're standing, and you're actually standing several inches up on your treadmill, is an elevated desk. So I have a normal desk and then I have a kind of platform that sits on it and my computer sits on that platform. I wouldn't say it's beautiful but it's functional. So I stand on the treadmill, and I walk and I work on my computer, and I do phone calls, and I read and I do all the things that I normally do. It just happens that I'm walking the whole time.

CONAN: Is the treadmill one of those that elevates, so you can be walking uphill?



ORLEAN: And actually I thought about that. I mean, you can hack a normal treadmill, you know, buy a cheap treadmill used and take the handrails off and...

CONAN: They're gathering dust in basements across the country.

ORLEAN: Absolutely. You can get a treadmill these days - probably, people would pay you to take them away. But the treadmills that are specifically designed to use with desks don't have the incline, and they also have a lower speed. You know, the fastest they may go is like three miles an hour. So, you know, one thing you have to understand is you're not running. You're walking, and you're walking - you can walk pretty briskly, but you can't - they're not designed for running. They're designed for walking. And when you're walking, you very quickly adopt to the motion and I type just as well walking as I do sitting down. And that really surprised me, because it's hard to even picture that you could type or control a mouse while you're moving. But strangely enough, it's very easy to do.

CONAN: I think the mouse would be a challenge.

ORLEAN: The mouse is probably the thing that is the trickiest, to be honest. And my guess is if you're somebody who does, say, graphic design where you do a lot of mouse gestures, it might be harder, because your arm is moving a little bit. But as for a regular person who's mostly on the Internet or working in a Word document, you learn pretty quickly how to move the mouse around as you're walking.

CONAN: And how many miles do you log every day?

ORLEAN: I've been doing about three miles a day, as I'm working.

CONAN: That's an hour.

ORLEAN: Well, you know, I've - I haven't been working a lot lately. No, I've...


CONAN: Now, your editor - if they have a readout of your treadmill, they know how much you're working.

ORLEAN: I know. I'm saying this and thinking, I hope my editor isn't listening. I've been, you know, I will end up walking for a couple of hours in the course of a day, of a normal workday. And I'll take breaks occasionally, and I originally set up my office so that I could sit down when I was taking those breaks. The funny thing is that I don't have any real desire to sit. I often - every half hour or so, I feel like I just want to stand still for a minute and not still be in motion. But I have not had the desire to go sit. And it's amazing to me, because, you know, I've been sitting at work for as long as I've worked. I've been sitting on a chair, at a desk for hours and hours and hours every day. So it's a pretty radical change.

The funny thing is that when I leave my office, it's not that I think, oh, my God. Thank goodness I can finally go sit. I find that I have more energy, and what I think often comes to mind is, oh, I think I'll take the dog and go for a walk.

CONAN: We're talking with Susan Orlean about her treadmill desk. 800-989-8255. What do you use to get around and keep active when you're at your desk, if that's your job? Email us: Let's go to Greg, and Greg's with us from Burlington in Massachusetts.

GREG: Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

GREG: Excellent. You know, I have to agree with what your guest has said, 100 percent. I eliminated - I got rid of my chair. I elevated my workstation, you know, up to basically just below my rib cage, spread everything out across three desks. I am much more energetic.

ORLEAN: And you - you're standing or are you - do you have a treadmill?

GREG: I stand - no. I stand, but I work, you know, 12, 13 hours a day, and I stand through the whole thing. And I am - you know, before, I was finding myself, you know, that 2 o'clock nap?

ORLEAN: Oh, yeah.

GREG: You know, when you're just starting to die? And, no, it doesn't exist anymore. And my back is so much better, and no more muffin top, like I said. And I agree with you. You know, when you leave work, you're a little more energized. You're not, you know, ready to go home and collapse. I just feel better, believe it or not. I...

ORLEAN: It's a strange thing - except that the science actually supports this, that sitting is not good for you. People who sit six hours a day or longer have a notably higher death rate, incidence of heart disease, diabetes. It's not only that they're not getting aerobic exercise. It's that sitting actually puts your body in a kind of hibernation, drops your metabolism down to practically zero. And as I said in my piece, it's only slightly higher than if you were dead. So you're just putting yourself to sleep, basically.

And I also suffered from that mid-afternoon slump where I would sometimes think I could stick a pin in my hand and I wouldn't respond. I was just in such a stupor. When I'm up and walking - and this is also true of standing, you know, because standing - you're supporting your weight. It's a different metabolic condition to be in than sitting. I don't have that afternoon slump that was the curse for me of working.

CONAN: Greg, what made you decide to dump the chair and go for the standing desk?

GREG: You know, I have - I developed lower back issues, you know, about 15 years ago, and nothing - you know, nothing was working. You know, life adjustments weren't working. Lifestyle adjustments weren't working. And I found that, you know, when I left work, even after such a long day, I needed to get out and power walk - not run, but just power walk and stretch. And I'm saying, you know, why am I stretching? Oh, it's because I'm sitting all day.

CONAN: Hmm. All right.

GREG: Why not just eliminate it, you know? And it - I feel great.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much.

GREG: Much better. Thank you very much. Yeah.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Susan Orlean, do you have people who have meetings with you in your office?


ORLEAN: Well, that is the one odd thing, because this - the way my desk is set up, it would be very peculiar to have somebody come in and meet with me because I'm several inches above them. I'm walking. I can't really look at them. When I interviewed James Levine, who is the big proponent at the Mayo Clinic of treadmill desks, and I said what...

CONAN: I love his title. He's the head of inactivity studies.

ORLEAN: I know. I know. And that's a real field of study, by the way. It sounds like a joke, but it's not. And I said, well, what about meetings? And, as it happens, I don't have a lot of meetings in my line of work. But he said, well, just do a walking meeting. Just take the person that you need to meet with and go walk together. And it has been shown that walking meetings, where people are talking but walking side by side, people tend to collaborate better and cooperate more and come to agreement more easily when they're side by side talking, as opposed to face to face at a table.

CONAN: When he heard our promo setting up the next segment, our previous guest Howard Dean said he'd been to conference rooms where there were treadmill desks set up all around the perimeter, and everybody was expected to walk as they held their meeting.

ORLEAN: Well, that would look pretty funny, but...

CONAN: Yeah, it would.


ORLEAN: I mean, it is a funny-looking thing, but so is sitting on a chair. You know, it's just what we're used to. And the thing is that, you know, some people have said, well, I can't afford a treadmill, so this is just a silly, elitist thing. Well, you can do phone calls walking around your office. You can stand up as often as you can in the course of a day, if you're somebody who's sitting at a desk. If you work for a big company, put in a request for, at the very least, a cordless telephone so that you can walk around your office as you're having your hours and hours of time on the phone. I also think more companies, as the health benefits are documented, are going to begin seeing this as a value to them.

Oregon just is - the state of Oregon is reviewing plans to have a pilot program of treadmill desks for state employees. Health insurance is a huge cost for companies, and if this is shown to make people healthier, it's a benefit in the long run.

CONAN: Staff writer Susan Orlean, of The New Yorker. Her piece "The Walking Alive" is in this week's issue. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Andrew's on the line with us from Cleveland.

ANDREW: Hi. Good afternoon. I'm on the road eight hours a day as a courier, so I'm in my car. And, unfortunately, that doesn't give you the best opportunities for exercising, especially while driving. But it does - what I've set in motion is sort of a small doing-what-I-can set of rules to follow. First of all, I always, once a day, I like to turn up the radio and try to do, like, you know, ab crunches, just as I'm going down the street, you know, just to the beat of whatever I'm listening to.

CONAN: Can't recommend that turn-off-the-radio part.


ANDREW: But, you know, it's kind of hard to do it to NPR shows. I mean, the beat is a little bit off, unless Neal is having a very good meter day. But I also try to, when I'm making my deliveries, if it's three - you know, if it's, like, you know, four floors or five floors or less, I try to use the stairs. And if it's 10 floors or less going the opposite way, I try to make sure I go down the stairs, as well. And...


ANDREW: know, it's not - I guess my only thing that makes me feel OK about my job is that it's not constant sitting. I am getting out of the car and moving around and doing what I can. But, you know, it is something that I have to watch, because, you know...


ANDREW: can also assume that on the road, your nutrition choices are horrible to ghastly. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

ORLEAN: Right. And...

CONAN: And if you're going to get out by the side of the road, you're going to inhale a lot of obnoxious fumes.

ORLEAN: Yeah. And...

ANDREW: Oh, yeah.

ORLEAN: ...I think that a lot of time in the car is probably one of the toughest - there isn't a way around that. I don't foresee a future of treadmill cars. But in the meantime...

CONAN: Fred Flintstone. It worked for him.

ORLEAN: You know what? And although he didn't look like he was in great shape, in spite of that. But...

CONAN: That's true. Because he sat on top of that dinosaur at work.

ORLEAN: Right. It was the dinosaur that was in good shape. But the thing that is actually kind of encouraging is, even though everybody always says to park far away from where you're going and walk the extra two minutes to the store. And, you know, on one hand, you think, oh, what difference does it make? That's not really going to make a difference in my overall health. And the fact is, it does make a difference. Parking at that further parking space and walking does make a difference. Breaking up your day by walking even in - even for two minutes is better for you.

I also think you feel - it's - there's a psychological benefit that is hard to measure, but feeling that you're active and physically sort of engaged is - it just makes you feel better. While this is anecdotal, I will say, I've written two stories since I've had my desk. Both of them I found very easy to write. I was just relaxed. I felt like my thoughts came flowing very easily, and I didn't get that nervous tension that you get sitting at a desk, trying to think of a lead. Some of it is - there's no question that we're these machines, and they are built to move.

And if you sit and sit and sit, it's just not good. So walking that extra minute or two, or as Andrew's saying, a couple of flights of stairs, it's not going to make you feel instantly like you're an Olympian, but it does make a difference.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call. I'll try to ad-lib in iambic pentameter from now, so you can keep the radio on.


ANDREW: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go - one more caller. Jennifer's on the line with us from Denver. Jennifer, we just have a minute.

JENNIFER: Hi. So I'm a radiologist in Denver, Colorado, and I got a treadmill desk about a year and a half ago...


JENNIFER: ...after reading an article from the Mayo Clinic showing that radiologists on a treadmill desk actually have improved detection of pulmonary nodules on - when looking at a chest CT. And I absolutely love my treadmill desk. I average about five miles each day that I work. I've had some mixed reviews from different physicians who come in to review images with me. Most of them have been positive, although I've had some older physicians who say that it's very unprofessional and they've demanded that I get rid of the treadmill desk, and that they say that they know my accuracy cannot be nearly as good when I'm on this treadmill. Yet, we do have peer review, and my - I haven't had any changes or no increase in discrepancies since I've had the treadmill desk.

CONAN: Well, congratulations, Jennifer. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

ORLEAN: That's great.


CONAN: And, Susan Orlean, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

ORLEAN: It's my pleasure to be with you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her article, "The Walking Alive," written so easily, appears in this week's issue of that magazine. Her latest book, "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend," out it paperback. Tomorrow, Kenneth Feinberg, administrator for the One Fund for Boston. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.