Now that most of us are working from home more often, if not all the time, it’s easy to just park yourself in front of a desk for hours on end. And if your aching back and shoulders aren’t indication enough, sitting all day isn’t great for your body. Research has shown that the more hours you sit, the higher the likelihood of harmful health consequences. While you may not always be able to fit in a run or workout into a busy day of meetings, a cardio desk can help you be less sedentary by bringing the exercise to you.
There are various types of cardio desks that can all help get your legs moving, even while sitting and working. Ahead, fitness trainers break down the difference between under-the-desk ellipticals, bike desks, and treadmill desks to help you choose the best option for you.
Meet the Expert
Do Cardio Desks Work?
If you’re trying to get a strenuous workout, despite your best efforts, it’s unlikely you’ll get one using a cardio desk. You’re not getting a “traditional” cardio workout because the manageable pace of intensity at a workstation or desk is low, and you’re not putting much overload on the cardiorespiratory system, explains NASM Master Instructor Fabio Comana. Instead, you can get a nice, easy steady state workout that keeps your heart rate in zones one and two (below 70% of your max heart rate), says Zz Gore, a Performance Coach at Future, the app that pairs you with a world-class fitness coach who manages your ongoing fitness remotely. It’s more difficult to multitask by working in zones three and higher, she says. “Imagine the difference between texting and walking versus trying to text while running.”
However, if you’re trying to evaluate whether cardio desks have health benefits, the short answer is yes. Over time, our occupations have become more and more sedentary (hello, desk jobs), and the lack of movement wears on our bodies, says Becky Miner, a Macros Inc coach. Since many of us are working from home and will likely continue to do so for the near future, any added activity is a benefit. The ability to break up long work days with movement can prevent long periods of sitting, and also help improve blood glucose control during the day.
Another bonus of cardio desks, says Gore, is that you can increase your daily activity without having to block off time for it. In general, the American Heart Association advises everyone to “sit less, move more.” And there are studies that have shown that exercise not only helps with stress, but can also improve brain functions like memory and cognition, which are all useful for dealing with working long hours.
Note that while sitting for long periods has certain risks, and standing is better than sitting, standing motionless for long periods of time has issues as well. Comana says that persistent static loads placed on the body’s joints can increase the risk of injury or the chance of developing blood clots in the lower extremity. Cardio desks (whether you’re sitting or standing) add in movement, which helps lubricate joints to relieve pressure and requires muscle action to reduce the risk of blood pooling.
Elliptical machines usually require moving both your arms and legs at the same time, so it’s hard to attach a desk to that. Instead, ellipticals you can use while working fit under the desk, which is considerably more space efficient than a stand-alone machine.
Like all cardio desks, under-the-desk ellipticals add more movement into your day while you’re sitting, says Miner. Because this version is a lower body-only activity, it can be easily incorporated into your day. Ellipticals are also a low impact machine, adds Gore, which makes them easier on the body compared to higher load bearing cardio options.
However, it’s harder to elevate your heart rate with recumbent pedaling, says Gore, so while it can be a good option to keep your body moving, it’s no substitute for a true cardio workout. Without proper set up, an under-the-desk elliptical can also enforce poor posture.
The way your legs move while using an elliptical can make it difficult to do certain work as well. Says Comana, we generally need the body to be somewhat static to allow us to read, type, etc. The orbital path of an elliptical can create a lot of forward/backward and/or upward/downward movement, which may be too distracting to let you work efficiently. In other words, an under-the-desk elliptical may be better suited for breaks rather than during actual work sessions.
Bike desks come in two different forms: Some are basically stationary bikes with desks attached to them, while others are a set of pedals that fit under the desk.
Similar to under-the-desk ellipticals, bike desks are low impact and focus on exercising the lower body. But compared to an elliptical, it’s easier to increase the intensity of a bike desk by adding resistance or pedaling faster (depending on the model). Since the circle of movement in the legs is also larger, says Gore, you may be able to elevate the heart rate and get a more challenging workout.
A bike desk can also be great for anyone with balance issues or who fatigue easily, says Miner. Especially if you have any difficulty standing for long periods, bike desks can be a way to achieve activity in your day.
On the flip side, Miner says that as you often have to hunch over on a bike, posture could be a concern. And seats on a bike desk could be uncomfortable if you’re sitting for a while. In addition, localized muscle fatigue may be an issue, says Comana, as cycling puts significant demands on the quads to do most of the work. If you don’t ride consistently, muscle fatigue could be distracting and demotivating.
Like the name implies, treadmill desks are standing desks with a treadmill attached so you can walk (or jog if you’re so inclined) while you work. Compared to elliptical and bike desks where you’re seated, treadmill desks help solve the prolonged sitting problem by getting you on your feet.
Gore, who actually owns and uses one, notes that walking is more of a full body activity, and more of a functional movement compared to biking and using an under-the-desk elliptical. Standing has health benefits for the back and hips, and when you add walking, it enhances those benefits even more. Comana notes that while standing is better for posture and joint loading, this is contingent on having good posture to start with.
Walking is also an intuitive movement and easy to do. “We did some exploratory testing with a treadmill here at our university (San Diego State University) and discovered that an ideal and sustainable speed that did not compromise reading and writing was about 1.5-to-1.7 mph, which is pretty slow, but when accumulated over hours, days and weeks, it does add up significantly against sitting,” says Comana. You don’t even have to find extra time in your schedule or even leave the house to get the walking into your day.
And because treadmills have various settings, they can be slowed down to a comfortable pace for working, no matter what you’re doing. “It’s a great tool for all those video meetings we are all on,” says Miner.
Despite these benefits, there are disadvantages to treadmill desks too. They tend to be more expensive, heavier, and take up more space than other cardio desks, and they require more set up, a power outlet, and maintenance. And even though sitting all day isn’t recommended, standing all day isn’t either, and it’s hard to switch between the two on a treadmill.
There is some danger involved too. Miner mentions that they can take some getting used to, and if you have balance issues, it might be hard to walk and type at the same time. A desk treadmill also tends to be smaller than a normal treadmill, so Gore says if you don’t pay attention, you could end up walking off the side or falling off the back.
Picking the Right One for You
Choosing the best cardio desk for you will be based on personal preference and goals, but here are a few things to look for:
- Size: Treadmill desks will take up the most amount of room in your office space, while under-the-desk ellipticals and bikes are space-saving (and can be moved out of the way if you don’t want to use them). The size of your room may dictate what piece of equipment you get.
- Cost: Not only are treadmill desks the biggest, but they are also the most expensive. Miner advises that while you should keep a budget in mind, you shouldn’t pick something just because it’s the least expensive. Do your homework, and read reviews, especially ones about how noisy the cardio desk may be. The last thing you need is another noisy distraction while you work.
- Activity: Like with exercise in general, the best workout is the one you’ll actually do. Gore recommends first deciding if you want to use your cardio desk only while working or if you plan on using it for a more strenuous workout. If it’s the latter, look for machines that have various resistance/speeds. Then decide what kind of activity you want. If you don’t like exercise, the under-the-desk elliptical may be a great option. Moderate exercisers may prefer a bike. And if you are already active and love cardio, Gore says the treadmill can give you a bigger challenge overall. Regardless of the activity, Gore recommends scheduling specific times during your work day to use your cardio desk to fit in with your tasks.
Anyone that has any injuries or physical restrictions should avoid using a cardio desk. In addition, Comano mentions that individuals with skeletal or joint issues (e.g., arthritis), or specific pathologies (e.g., uncontrolled diabetes), should consult with a medical professional to determine if a cardio desk, especial one that requires standing for long periods like a treadmill desk, is beneficial. If you have any general concerns about your health, always consult a doctor before trying out a cardio desk.
The Final Takeaway
Sitting for long periods of time has been linked to health concerns, but the reality is that many of us have jobs that require us to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time. It’s not always easy to be able to get up and move around, so a cardio desk can help break up the monotony of sitting by incorporating some movement into your body without you having to dedicate extra time or leave your office/house..
Under-the-desk ellipticals, bike desks, and treadmill desks, are all great options for cardio desk, and they have different pros and cons in terms of size, intensity of exercise, and type of movement. While sitting all day isn’t optimal, neither is standing all day, so ideally, you would have a workstation that lets you alternate between sitting, standing, and moving.
Overall, any additional movement can have both physical and mental benefits, and a cardio desk is a relatively easy way to add more activity to your workday. And any cardio desk, if you can use one safely, is better than just sitting still.
Daneshmandi H, Choobineh A, Ghaem H, Karimi M. Adverse effects of prolonged sitting behavior on the general health of office workers. J Lifestyle Med. 2017;7(2):69-75.
Torbeyns T, Geus B de, Bailey S, et al. Cycling on a bike desk positively influences cognitive performance. PLOS ONE. 2016;11(11):e0165510.