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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review | Are walking pads worth it? Why I’m never leaving my desk treadmill.

SAN FRANCISCO — During a regular day in the office, I last about five minutes at my desk. Then I get antsy and move to the table in the office kitchen. Then to the conference room. Then back to the kitchen.

For whatever reason, deskbound work is a challenge for me. At home, I rotate from the couch to the floor to the roof of my apartment, stopping at intervals to pick at my cuticles and wonder why I can’t sit still like a normal person. If only there were some type of human-size hamster wheel I could install in the living room, I remarked grimly to my husband after another day nail biting and leg bouncing. Then in October, I opened TikTok and saw a woman on a walking pad.

In fitness corners of TikTok, the “walking pad” — the treadmill’s smaller, lighter cousin — reigns supreme. One TikToker starts her day at 5 a.m., watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” from her walking pad. Another pledged to walk a half marathon during the workday. Internet searches for “walking desk” and “walking pad” spiked this year, as people on TikTok promoted the tiny treadmills. I bought one expecting some cautionary tale about the dangers of self-optimization and productivity culture — then the thing remade my entire professional life. Suddenly, I could work in the same spot for hours with minimal damage to my cuticles and self esteem.

It’s not just me: Early research suggests walking pads may help with mood and stress in the workplace, and some people credit their walking pads with improvements to their health, productivity or happiness.

But the walking pad’s position in a long series of social media wellness trends deserves a raised eyebrow. Social media creators promote an endless stream of wellness products that are supposed to make us happier or skinnier. Plenty of walking pads will gather dust next to our vibration pads and gua sha sets. Plenty more will remain under our desks, pressuring us to overexert or joylessly count steps.

Walking pads aren’t for everyone, but with some reflection, you can dodge the downsides and reap the benefits. Here’s everything you need to know before diving in.

Why the walking pad obsession?

Burgeoning interest in portable treadmills is a testament to TikTok’s power in influencing consumer trends, said Forrester vice president and principal analyst Dipanjan Chatterjee.

“We’ve seen the nature of product and brand discovery shift over the years, from Google searching to Amazon browsing to TikTok scrolling,” Chatterjee said.

Videos promoting walking pads show people enjoying fitness on their own schedules — which might mean during the workday or a reality TV marathon. Many of us became more sedentary during the pandemic, and walking pads look like an easy way to get back on our feet.

Prolonged sitting has been linked to early mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and even exhaustion and job dissatisfaction. Interrupting sedentary sessions with spurts of activity, meanwhile, has been shown to improve these measures of health.

To get those benefits, we need the time and space to move. In 2020, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles asked students and faculty members why they were sedentary much of the day. Participants cited “environmental constraints” and “social acceptability.” (In other words, doing jumping jacks in the library or cafeteria is embarrassing.)

Enter the walking pad, which lets you move around without stopping your task or changing locations.

Walking pads help some people focus

Psychologists have long theorized that before we can pay attention, we need some arousal or stimulation. Too little arousal, and we’re distracted. Too much, and we’re overwhelmed.

That process works the same for everyone, but the amount of stimulation we need to focus varies. It’s why some people need background noise to focus, while others prefer silence.

For some of us, walking while working will be a helpful source of stimulation. For others, juggling both tasks will feel impossible. If you’re hoping a walking desk would help you stay energized at work, make sure to test that theory before you buy. Visit a friend with a walking pad or bring your laptop to the gym. Can you work and walk at the same time?

Generally, walking pad sessions are good for simple or repetitive tasks, said productivity researcher Lucas Miller, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Catching up on your email? Yes. Drafting an important presentation? Less so. The more weighty or important your brain perceives a task to be, the harder it gets to deal with the extra stimulation, Miller said.

Carver Bain, a 26-year-old writer in San Diego, said he struggles to stay focused, especially while he reads. He started wanting a walking pad after attending an event where author Ann Patchett said she wrote the entirety of her novel “Tom Lake” on a treadmill. (A representative for Patchett confirmed the detail.)

Bain decided to test Patchett’s strategy: He brought his book outside and walked around the neighborhood while he read — being extra careful before crossing the street, he noted.

The hack worked, Bain said, and now he’s considering a walking pad more seriously. “When my body is occupied doing something, I’m not thinking, ‘What’s on my phone?’

Other people just want to move more

Making exercise easier and more accessible is a smart way to boost our activity levels, said Michelle Segar, a researcher at University of Michigan and author of “The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise.” For decades, the fitness industry has pushed the long-term health benefits of exercise, but that hasn’t motivated many Americans to participate, Segar said. Perhaps there’s a better, more immediate approach.

“Look at it like a wine tasting,” she said. “We experiment, we savor, we use self-awareness to say, ‘How does this taste? How does this feel? Do I like it?’”

Future-oriented goals such as weight loss — or matching the routine of a TikTok fitness influencer — are liable to kill any joy you might get from the walking pad, Segar said. Instead, let yourself notice how your time on the pad makes you feel. Maybe you feel slightly less achey or a little bit proud of yourself. Those observations make you more likely to come back for more, Segar said.

If that fails, you can always engineer some joy with mood lighting, a big or little screen, your favorite beverage and some music. This TikTok user calls it “cozy cardio,” complete with a pumpkin sugar candle.

Will I look unprofessional?

Let’s be clear: Your boss and colleagues have nothing to lose by supporting the accommodations that help you do your best work.

That said, the corporate world can be slow to change, and most people are unaccustomed to seeing a bobbing head on the Zoom grid. Talk to your team ahead of time and let them know why the walking desk is beneficial to your work. Maybe you’ll decide to save the pad for your off-camera hours — or double down and become the resident Walking Pad Guy.

In this case, don’t worry about fancy brands. I got mine on Amazon for $195 after browsing the reviews on three models. Check that the item’s dimensions will fit its intended space, then glance at the speed and weight limits.

Like BowFlex, ThighMaster and Peloton before it, the walking pad may be a fitness fad. But if you, like me, find it easier to get things done when you’re moving, there’s nothing quite like a portable hamster wheel.

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