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Health & Fitness

Is desk exercise equipment the answer to sitting too much?

What to know before bringing the gym to the office

A man using an under-desk treadmill. Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages

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If you own a fitness tracker or smartwatch, you may be familiar with its hourly reminder to move. That's because sitting still for too long—which can easily happen if you work a desk job—can negatively impact your cardiovascular and muscle health. Fortunately, making the effort to move throughout your day can change that.

But finding time for at-the-office exercise during work hours can be tricky. You may have considered under-desk exercise machines that promise to help you burn calories while you work on the computer, but can you really get an effective workout this way? Here’s what to know before buying desk exercise equipment.

What types of desk exercise equipment are there?

Three people sitting on exercise balls at their desks.
Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

From under-desk ellipticals to hybrid desk-bicycles, desk exercise equipment has become a popular option among office workers.

There are many ways to stay active in your home office, from folding treadmills like Treadly to the Cubii under-desk elliptical and a variety of desk bikes.

While some equipment—like desk treadmills and stationary bikes—require you to get up from your office chair, many popular options—like under-desk ellipticals and similar pedal exercisers—are designed to get at least some part of you moving while you stay seated.

Who can benefit from desk exercise equipment?

A woman standing and stretching her quad muscle at her desk.
Credit: Getty Images / martin-dm

Not all desk equipment is created equal, but there are some benefits.

Research shows that sitting or standing still for extended periods of time, like from 9a.m. to 5p.m. at the office, can negatively affect your cardiovascular health. Keeping some fitness gear at your desk may remind and encourage you to move for just a few minutes every hour, which of course can benefit your health.

“If you can safely and easily accommodate a piece of equipment under or near your desk that helps facilitate movement throughout the day, you will be that much closer to reaching your health and fitness goals,” says Tami Smith, an ACE-certified personal trainer.

However—while we could all benefit from moving more throughout the day—you don’t necessarily need special equipment to do so. Getting up for a glass of water, taking a few laps around the house, or stretching for a few minutes will get the job done.

Does desk exercise equipment work, though?

A woman using the Cubii Jr. under-desk elliptical.
Credit: Reviewed / Betsey Goldwasser

Some desk equipment can benefit your health.

It depends on the type of equipment, and what you mean by “work.” Some equipment—like foldable treadmills—allow you to get in some steps because you must stand and walk on them to use them. But others, like under-desk ellipticals and exercise bikes where you stay seated in your desk chair, don’t elevate your heart rate or work your muscles as much as you might hope (or their manufacturers may claim) even when using the harder levels of resistance. If your goal is to increase your step count throughout the day without leaving your computer screen, a foldable treadmill could be a good choice—but actually going for a walk will have the same or better benefits.

Standing desks have also become a popular option as an “antidote” for sitting all day. However, they may not have as many health benefits as proponents claim.

“A standing desk can be a nice way to switch up your day by moving from the seated to the standing position, however, I think people overestimate the benefits of standing versus sitting,” Smith says. “Many people have found that a standing desk causes them to have fatigue in their bodies. I know plenty of people who found that working out after being on their feet all day was incredibly difficult, whereas those who spent the majority of the day sitting were eager to hop on the treadmill or get into a workout.”

How can I set up my workspace to encourage more movement?

A woman doing a bicep curl at her desk.
Credit: Getty Images / Wavebreakmedia

There are plenty of easy ways to motivate yourself to move throughout the day, even at your desk.

Smith recommends taking breaks throughout the day to get out of your chair and move. This could mean taking a walk, stretching, or even committing to a 10-minute session with your favorite workout app.

There are many ways to motivate yourself to exercise. For starters, you could invest in a fitness tracker that reminds you to move (and keep those notifications on). If you’re not crazy about getting a wearable, you can set your own timer to go off every hour and get active for 10 minutes each time it goes off. If you find it difficult to get up every hour, you can try setting the timer for every two or three hours, and work your way up to more frequent breaks.

If your goal is to walk more, you may want to invest in a treadmill (foldable or full-size)—or a pair of walking shoes.

“I’m a big proponent of just putting on some sneakers and going out for a walk,” Smith says. “It's one of the most underrated health hacks of all time. I also recommend that you find time in your schedule to go to the gym or do a home workout that's structured and in alignment with your goals. This is the ideal scenario, but if it's not possible, any way you can sneak in some movement will be beneficial.”

For those who prefer strength training or HIIT workouts, keeping some dumbbells or resistance bands by your desk could be a great way to motivate yourself.

If you want to take more frequent stretching breaks, go with a yoga mat, a foam roller, and/or guided sessions from a yoga app.

Finally, if you’re just looking for a fun way to move more, you could try a jump rope or hula hoop.

The bottom line: More movement in your day, however you get it, is always going to be better than sitting still. But relying on under-desk equipment to “exercise” while you work is likely not the best way to go, for your body or your budget.

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