An exercise machine that allows workers to multitask may be the silliest (or smartest?) invention since the executive toy
Designed by Steelcase and Dr. James Levine $3,500-$4,500
The press conference announcing Steelcase's new Walkstation was moving, and I mean that in more ways than one. Dr. James Levine—the inventor of the treadmill/desk hybrid—described it as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to help obese people. "Life is about movement, and being dynamic, and meeting people one on one, and going for walks and chatting," he said, his voice pitching with emotion. "I truly believe this will help millions and millions of people. This isn't the solution to obesity in America, but it is part of the solution." While talking, he strolled slowly in place upon his creation, a red safety clip attached to the flap of his suit jacket and a single bead of sweat streaking his forehead.
Obesity is clearly a serious health problem, and replacing the task chair with a treadmill can't hurt. Dr. Levine, a nutrition and metabolism researcher at the Mayo Clinic, even has the science to prove it. In what Steelcase boasts is "the most detailed and data-rich study of obesity ever," he extolled the benefits of "non-exercise activity thermogenesis," or "N.E.A.T.," the term for energy expended (which is to say, calories burned) during everyday activities, like walking. Thus the Walkstation seems a logical, kill-two-birds-with-one-stone piece of office design. But if design is an expression of culture, then the Walkstation reveals a sad truth about American ideals of work, exercise, and technology. The U.S. has not only the world's highest incidence of obesity but also one of its longest workweeks, and the two are plainly linked.
On a recent morning, I brought my laptop to Steelcase's Manhattan showroom to spend a couple of quiet hours working on the Walkstation. Steelcase is selling the product through its Details subsidiary, which makes height-adjustable desks and flexible monitor arms. The treadmill itself was borrowed from TRUE Fitness and chosen because of its quiet mechanism, low height, and suitability to extended slow-speed operation. (With a maximum speed of two miles per hour, it's aimed at keeping your heart rate steady.) Considering its mongrel origins, the look and feel of the Walkstation is polished if uninspired.
With the press of a button on the control panel that's tucked into a slide-out keyboard tray, the adjustable work surface whirred like a dentist's chair to a comfortable height. Another press revved up the treadmill to a leisurely one mile an hour. Then I fired up my email. (I thought better of trying to chew gum at the same time.) My wrists rested comfortably on the gray urethane pad that lines the front edge of the desk, and I bellied up to an arc-shaped indentation in the table. The treadmill's surface is slightly narrower than most machines', but the arc and the firm wrist pad help prevent the need for side railings.
For the first few minutes of walking, I was distracted. The blinking cursor on the bobbing screen was making me a bit seasick, and the two dozen Steelcase Leap task chairs scattered around the showroom seemed to be mocking me. I really wanted to sit in one. By six minutes in (.09 miles traveled, 16 calories burned), each step still required a glimmer of attention, but the noise of the treadmill had disappeared behind the hum of the building's ventilation system. After 17 minutes (and a quarter mile) my legs were finally doing fine on their own, and my typing—after a bumpy start—was back to its usual struggles. I drifted off to work—walking, walking, walking.
Steelcase isn't suggesting that the Walkstation replace a conventional desk. Instead, the company is proposing it for use in conference rooms, where people could walk as they PowerPoint, or as a shared "hot desk." Its price of $3,500 to $4,500 is in line with an adjustable Steelcase workstation and accompanying task chair. Because it will restore hours of sleep to those who make early-morning gym visits, my hunch is that the Walkstation will sell well and, like a lot of exercise equipment, be used less well. It seems an irresistible purchase for corporate health-and-wellness programs.
When my water bottle ran out, I came to. I had gotten a few things done, and, because I was successfully moving one foot in front of the other, I felt productive even when staring off into space. I can't say I was a complete convert, but it worked as advertised: The desk felt comfortably positioned, the monitor held steady, and typing while walking proved a reasonable proposition. The downside was feeling like a rat in a cage—with a safety clip for a chain. On long days of work, when my back aches from sitting and my shoulder hurts from mousing, I suppose I'll see the appeal of a brisk hour on this contraption. But I'd rather go for a walk in the park. For the moment, I had walked 1.1 miles and burned 150 calories. It was time for lunch.