The best treadmill desk shoes aren’t “shoes” at all

When I first cobbled together my treadmill desk back in 2014, building the desk itself wasn’t the hard part. Yes, it was tricky to hoist my IKEA tabletop onto those crates. And yes, the treadmill unit itself has proven remarkably unreliable over time.

But the real challenge was my feet. I struggled for over a year to find footwear that didn’t leave me limping at day’s end.

At first, I tried running sneakers. It made sense: athletic shoes are built for intense exercise, right? I presumed that they could handle slow-motion walking well enough. However, within a few hours of treading, I was in agony. With each step, the bumps on my heels grated against the hard plastic embedded in my trainers. Of course, that happened when I exercised, too, but I only jogged for an hour or so at a time. Eight hours on the treadmill proved torturous.

Next, I tried walking barefoot. This initially provided some relief—no shoes means no shoe-induced hot spots, after all. But the treadmill itself rubbed against the balls of my feet, and that friction created mammoth blisters by the end of my workday. Given a few weeks, I might have developed calluses—literally, some thicker skin—that would prevent injury. But I didn’t have the patience to wait. I continued my footwear searcb.

I tried traditional sport sandals (i.e. Chacos), but the thick nylon straps created their own special blisters. At one point, I wrapped my feet in duct tape. Obviously, that wasn’t sustainable, if I didn’t enjoy yanking out leg hair every night.

Eventually, almost accidentally, I discovered “barefoot running” footwear from a company called Xero. Their products barely qualify as “sandals” (let alone “shoes”), consisting of a thin, rubbery pad, held in place by a few nylon cords.

I had initially purchased Xero Clouds after reading a book called Born to Run, which advocates for ditching heavy, cushioned trainers in favor of more minimalist running gear and techniques. I soon realized that barefoot running wasn’t for me (gravel is my kryptonite)—but barefoot treading? That was just the ticket.

The Xeros’ flimsy soles offered just enough protection to insulate the bottoms of my feet from the treadmill’s abrasive surface. Their thin cords stayed in place, preventing the friction that causes blisters. Before long, I was knocking out 12+ miles in an eight-hour workday. Now, years later, I frequently hit sixteen or seventeen miles without undue effort.

I’m on my fourth pair of Xero Cloud sandals in three years. I wish they lasted a bit longer, but I can’t judge too harshly. After all, I’ve put thousands of miles on each pair, and it’s hard to put a price on pain relief. When my current pair inevitably breaks or wears through, I’ll plunk down $60 to replace them without a second thought.

That’s high praise for a flappy piece of rubber and some nylon twine.  ■


Does a treadmill desk make losing weight easy?

Every week, I walk between 60 and 70 miles on my treadmill desk. That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 marathons or a three-day weekend of intense backpacking. For someone my size, that translates to over 12,000 extra calories burned—roughly equivalent to three pounds of body fat.

Based on these numbers, you might think that a treadmill desk would make weight loss automatic. Alas, no.

Or, at least, not over the long haul. Yes, when I first installed the desk back in 2014, my weight plummeted. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first eight months! However, I eventually hit a plateau. Despite keeping up the same daily distances, my weight began to creep slowly upwards again. Twelve months later, I had regained nearly half the weight I had originally lost.

I realized that I had experienced a dispiriting truth about weight loss, first-hand: physical activity isn’t a panacea. Eat irresponsibly, and I will gain weight, no matter how far I walk at work or run before breakfast.

Why is that? Why doesn’t burning thousands of calories give me a license to eat whatever I want? Here’s my guess, in short: the more I move, the hungrier I get. Our bodies and brains seek out equilibrium; if I burn 1,500 calories on the treadmill desk, my instinct is to consume 1,500 extra calories as compensation.

So—whether I walk or not—maintaining a calorie deficit requires dietary self-control. I’ve found only one way to reliably burn off extra pounds: watch what I eat. I track my calories, measure my portions, and avoid “bad” foods, including extra salt, refined grains, and added sugar. It’s not super-fun, but it is effective: I’m down forty-five pounds from my all-time heaviest weigh-in.

I haven’t stopped “treading,” though. While it doesn’t give me a license to gorge, it does raise my daily “calorie ceiling.” Earning the occasional unhealthy splurge makes portion control a little bit less painful. ■