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Walking at work: Treadmill desks soaring in popularity

A customer tries out a treadmill desk at the newly opened Work While Walking in Bellevue, the world's first retail store dedicated to walking and standing desks. (Work While Walking photo)

Longtime Seattle-area tech entrepreneur Ron Wiener is used to spending long hours in front of a computer. But when he started putting on weight over the years and feeling crummy, he realized he needed to do something different.

“You don’t think five pounds is a lot. But it adds up, so over the years it became a real problem for me,” he says. Then one day he saw someone working on a treadmill desk and figured he’d give it a shot. After trying one, he was hooked.

“It changed my life,” he says.

He’s not alone. Treadmill and standing desks are soaring in popularity.

LifeSpan Fitness in Salt Lake City says its sales of treadmill desks more than tripled over 2012.

“We don’t see the growth slowing down for several years as right now we are just moving from early adopters, which are educated and highly health-conscious, to more mainstream users,” says Peter Schenk, company president.

With treadmill desks, users walk at a leisurely 1 to 2 miles per hour, enough to speed your metabolism, but still allow you to work or talk on the phone without losing your breath or working up a sweat.

“When you walk at very slow speeds your productivity goes up significantly and this has been scientifically shown. You’re increasing blood flow to the brain, obviously. Your concentration improves,” Wiener says.

While there’s little research so far measuring the direct health benefits of treadmill desks, there’s plenty of data showing all our sitting is significantly hurting us.

Conditions from obesity to increased risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease have all been linked to sitting. Even going to the gym three times a week doesn’t offset the harm of being sedentary for hours at a time, said Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.

“There’s a glob of information that sitting is killing us,” Levine said. “You’re basically sitting yourself into a coffin.”

More companies are intrigued by the idea of helping employees stay healthy, lose weight and reduce stress, especially if it means lower insurance costs and higher productivity, says Levine, an enthusiastic supporter of the moving workstations.

“Even walking at one mile an hour has very substantial benefits,” Levine said, such as doubling metabolic rate and improving blood sugar levels. “Although you don’t sweat, your body moving is sort of purring along.”

But finding one to try isn’t easy. That prompted Wiener to first set up a website to review and sell treadmill and standing desks. And he just opened the world’s first retail store dedicated to the desks in Bellevue.

“I couldn’t find good info online. It was mostly put out by manufacturers. Some of them were high quality products and the information just wasn’t very thorough. Some of them were very poor quality products and the information crossed the line into fraudulent health claims.”

The Bellevue location of “Work While Walking” near Microsoft’s sprawling campus was a logical location. Weiner says tech workers are far and away the biggest adopters of treadmill desks.

“Intel, Google, Microsoft, they’ve got hundreds of them. The IT industry has the highest health care costs because it has the highest incidents of sitting disease. So naturally, you would expect this industry to glom onto it,” he says.

The desks are also the hot thing in Hollywood. Jimmy Kimmel, Al Roker and Ari Emanuel, the head of powerhouse agency William Morris have become enthusiastic users.

Treadmill desks can range from about $800 to $5,000 or more, depending on the manufacturer and model. They’re not cheap. But Wiener says they’re a lot less expensive than a heart attack.

“Yeah, the equipment is expensive, there’s no question, but the returns are unbelievable,” he says. “Talk to anybody who’s been doing it for awhile and they’ll tell you it’s been a massive change in their energy level and their overall health.”

Learning to work and walk takes some practice. You can try out a number of models to get the feel for it at the retail store, where coaches are on hand to dial in optimal ergonomics and techniques to help you get comfortable.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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