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Mobvoi under desk treadmill
(Image credit: Mobvoi)

Under-desk treadmills are a popular investment right now, but do their benefits make them worthwhile?

With working from home becoming more and more prevalent, it’s all too easy to be inactive during the day. This is bad news all around; a recent WHO paper on global health risks identified physical inactivity as the fourth leading global risk factor for mortality, and five out of the six highest can be alleviated by increasing activity levels. 

To compound that issue, it’s rare for someone to have enough space for a full home gym. Plus, it can be tough to find enough time to pack your gym bag, travel to the gym, complete your workout, shower, and head back home. This is where under-desk treadmills come in. They are designed so that they take up very little space, they’re convenient for multi-tasking, and stay in your home so you can say goodbye to all the pesky travel time.

What is an under-desk treadmill?

An under-desk treadmill is an incredibly useful bit of equipment. Designed to go under a desk (no surprises there), under-desk treadmills have no handles, and are simply the base and belt of a treadmill. This means they're easy to store, require very little room to use, and are quick to set up and put away. Just put it on the floor and switch it on. 

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What are the benefits of an under-desk treadmill?

If you’re already using a gym to run on the treadmill, a huge benefit is the cost. You can get a high-spec under-desk treadmill that will last you several years for less than $400 / £300 / AU$600, and products with lower speed capabilities are often under $200 / $150 / AU$300. Ask yourself how much your current gym membership would cost over a similar time period, and this will likely save you a lot of money. If you’re not using a treadmill in your exercise routine, you should definitely consider doing so.

The US Physical Activity Guidelines advice for adults is to get 150 - 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. However, a 2018 report by the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee estimated that only 20% of Americans meet that target, and a 2019 study in Frontiers in Public Health found that number to be less than 10%, and this inactivity is a major contributor to poor Public Health. How do we change that? Luckily, a little goes a long way.

According to a 2014 study in The Lancet, taking an extra 2000 steps per day (only about 20 minutes of brisk walking) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by 10%, and cut the risk of blood sugar issues by 25% according to a 2011 paper in Diabetes Care. Recent research from 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine demonstrated significant health benefits in going up to 4,400 and 7,500 steps per day. This research shows that being more active by simply walking more can hugely improve physical health. Not only that, but at a time when people are suffering from more stress than ever, walking can have a profound impact on mental health, as outlined in an article by the Mayo Clinic. 

When you have a treadmill in your home, all of the annoying travel time to and from a gym disappears, and any free time you have can be used to get some steps in - it all adds up! It’s much easier to motivate yourself when your ‘gym’ is right beside you, and you can even walk on a treadmill while on a call or typing away: under-desk treadmills are made to be as quiet as possible, and you can set them under a standing desk so you don’t even need to take a break. 

Under-desk treadmills take up hardly any space, usually less than 10sq ft when in use, under 1sq ft if stored upright. You can slide one under a couch when you’re not using it because they’re often only half an inch high. This convenience doesn’t come at a huge trade-off, though. While some models max out at about 4mph (which is still a brisk walking pace), while others go above 6mph. That’s the pace of a four-hour marathon, so pretty rapid.

What are the downsides of under-desk treadmills?

There are, of course, some downsides to under-desk treadmills. Because they’re designed to be lightweight and portable, they have less speed than traditional treadmills, a smaller belt size, and rarely do they have any incline options. They also have much lower maximum user weight capacities of 220-240lb, while traditional treadmills are usually rated at a 300lb minimum.

It’s also worth noting that under desk treadmills would be woefully inadequate for any kind of HIIT or sprints. Even the fastest 6mph models are likely too slow for high intensity exercise, and their lack of handles would make high speed work too dangerous.

One model in particular limits speed to 2.5mph unless you put its handles up, at which point its limit increases to over 7mph. Ultimately, these are the tradeoffs for a lighter, more portable, less expensive treadmill. 

Should I buy an under-desk treadmill?

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want to use a treadmill for. If you’d like something small, inexpensive and convenient to help increase your daily step count (while multitasking) or do some jogging, then an under-desk treadmill is perfect for you. If you need something a bit sturdier for high intensity running or sprints, then it probably isn’t the best option.

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Will McAuley

Will McAuley is a London-based Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach who’s writing has appeared in Men’s Fitness and GQ magazine, covering exercise, nutrition and health. He has a Master’s degree in Strength Conditioning from Middlesex University in London, is a published scientific author in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from Trinity College Dublin.