Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Work?

Being physically active and exercising is one of the best things you can do for your health. In fact, it’s necessary for health. And yet, around 80% of people in America have a desk job, which as Forbes puts it, is literally killing us – not the act of sitting but the fact that we’re not moving as much as we should.

Thankfully, as awareness is rising, people are trying to find new innovative ways of combating the hazardous effects sitting has on our health. One example of this has been under-desk ellipticals. So, today, we’ll try to answer all the questions regarding under-desk ellipticals. From what exactly they are, how they work, and the health effects associated with them.

Let’s find out if they’re actually worth the investment.

How Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Work?

CNN recently reported that sitting for long periods of time is a risk factor for early death of any cause, even if the person is regularly exercising. The reason for this is that the body needs movement, and experts advise stretching or taking a break from sitting every 30 minutes. However, not everyone working at a desk can take that luxury. 

So, instead of taking breaks to stretch and move every 30 minutes, can we experience the same benefits if we are simulating walking or running with a mini elliptical under our desk?

What Are Under-Desk Ellipticals?

Under-desk elliptical just like the name suggests, is an exercise machine that works just like a regular elliptical, if it were designed to fit under a desk. There are different types of under-desk ellipticals, including: folding ellipticals, fully assembled ellipticals, and standing under-desk ellipticals.

The thing they all have in common is that under-desk ellipticals lack the upper body components and are typically compact and portable. Therefore, they only have two pedals and a small activity tracker between the pedals. This way, people can still move (exercise) their legs while keeping their hands and eyes on their laptops.

How Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Work?

Under-desk ellipticals work by stimulating movement and blood flow to your leg muscles. They utilize resistance and force –  the force required to move the foot pedals – as a way to expend energy and burn calories. 

However, unlike in regular elliptical trainers where the body is in an upward standing position, in under-desk ellipticals the body is seated on a static chair. This means that the spine and upper body muscles are not moving!

Therefore, it’s a valid question to ask whether under-desk ellipticals have positive and beneficial effects on health in people with sedentary lifestyles and a desk job. Moreover, both employers and employees might be interested in knowing whether pedaling under desks can negatively affect work productivity. Considering everything, we should ask: Are under-desk ellipticals actually worth it?

Let’s find out.

Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Work?

The most accurate answer to such a broad question would be “it depends.” 

To better understand this question and get to a more specific answer we need to define our expectations. 

For instance, now that we know that under-desk ellipticals utilize resistance and force to stimulate movement and exert energy from our bodies, we understand how they work i.e they obviously train our leg muscles. However, when most people ask whether under-desk ellipticals work, they don’t just mean increasing blood-flow to our legs. In most cases, what people want to know is “Do under-desk ellipticals help alleviate the negative effects caused by prolonged sitting?”

Others might want to know if under-desk ellipticals are associated with some specific benefit, such as knee pain, hip problems, circulations, and so on and so forth.

Let’s see what science has to say for each question.

Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Prevent Negative Effects Caused By Prolonged Sitting?

People with a habit to stand up and move every half an hour when working have the lowest risk of early death, which is why the American Heart Association advises people to sit less and move more. This recommendation is different and independent from exercising. This means that even if people exercised three to four times a week, but still spent most of their day sitting, they would still be at risk of early death from a lot of causes.

Because of such chilling statistics, people are trying to come up with innovative ways to minimize the negative effects of sitting. So, when talking about under-desk ellipticals, we’re not really interested in whether under-desk ellipticals are an effective exercise machine, but whether they move the body enough to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting.

And, this is where it gets tricky. We have evidence and clear mechanisms on how under-desk ellipticals work on the leg muscles, but there’s no evidence that they counter the effects of prolonged sitting. In fact, most recommendations are to still get up and move after 30 minutes of sitting even if you’re moving your legs.

In recent years, some preliminary pilot studies have been done trying to find out a little more about metabolic responses and typing performance when people used under-desk ellipticals, but there aren’t any studies that directly addresses the issue above.

Until we find out more, any claim that under-desk ellipticals are a good replacement for the good old recommendation of standing up and moving after 30 minutes of sitting is completely unfounded and dangerous

But, what about other specific benefits related to under-desk ellipticals?

Do Under-Desk Ellipticals Have Exercise-Related Benefits?

Similarly to the question above, there just isn’t any conclusive evidence that links under-desk ellipticals with specific exercise-related benefits, such as better cardio-vascular health, lower cholesterol, and so on.

The only thing that probably holds merit is that under-desk ellipticals are good at improving leg movement and brigining circulation to the legs. Since resistance is used against the leg muscles, so you have to flex them to exert force to move the pedals, you’ll be effectively exercising the muscles in the legs.

However, this effect is limited. You can think of it as an isolation exercise in the gym vs. a compound exercise. If you’re unfamiliar with fitness jargon, that means that under-desk ellipticals focus on specific muscles or one muscle group while the rest of the body is passive i.e resting, unlike compound exercises where the whole body is needed to perform the exercise (eg. squat).

Because of this, there are no full body effects or any specific health effects linked to under-desk ellipticals. If done properly, you can probably expect some muscle definition, better circulation, or better movement.

It seems like under-desk ellipticals are better than doing nothing, but are not effective when it comes to countering the effects of prolonged sitting. There are also some considerations you need to understand before jumping the gun and getting an under-desk elliptical just because it’s better than nothing. Here’s what you need to know. 

Drawbacks And Considerations When Using Under-Desk Ellipticals

There’s no harm in using under-desk ellipticals, right? Well, think again. Under some circumstances, under-desk ellipticals can actually cause more harm than good. 

Under-Desk Ellipticals Might Lead to Poor Posture and Back Pain

One common concern regarding under-desk ellipticals is that they can worsen back pain and lead to even worse posture while sitting. The reason for this is that the pelvis and hips will be constantly rocking from one side to another. And, while this movement might not be significant enough for you to notice, it can put a lot of strain on your back muscles. Now, not only do they need to keep your back straight but also stabilize the torso from the hips movements to prevent your whole body from moving.

This is bad because your upper body will have to work extra hard to stabilize itself, leading to rigidness and stiffness, and therefore pain.

If you can work the under-desk elliptical, while relaxing the upper-body on the back-rest, you might be able to avoid these effects. But, you need to be really careful.

Under-Desk Ellipticals Might Lead to Knee and Joint Pain

Another consideration of using under-desk ellipticals is that they can put too much pressure on the knees, knee joints, and ankles. This also largely depends on the placement and height of the machine, as well as the intensity to which you’re pedaling.

Still, some people with sensitive joints or knees, might feel soreness or pain after using an under-desk elliptical. If you’re someone who has had problems with mobility in the past, or has had knee and joint pain, be extra careful and start slow.

The best recommendation for avoiding knee and joint pain is to gradually increase the frequency and intensity when exercising. Start very slow, and only when you feel comfortable, increase the frequency or intensity – never both at once.

Under-Desk Ellipticals Aren’t an Effective Tool for Weight Loss

A lot of people might be interested in an under-desk elliptical because they want to lose weight, but have no time due to their work schedule and responsibilities. If weight loss was one of the reasons for biting an under-desk elliptical, we’re sorry to disappoint you – they’re not really effective.

Sure, using an under-desk elliptical is still better than nothing, but not by much. To lose weight, you need to change a lot of lifestyle habits, including your diet, exercise regime, and sleep. The under-desk elliptical can be a good support to all the other changes, but on its own, won’t do much.

Under-Desk Ellipticals Aren’t a Replacement for Exercising

This follows from everything that we’ve said in the section above. If under-desk ellipticals are not an effective tool for weight loss, then they’re not really a good alternative to regular exercising such as running, hiking, or an hour-session at the gym.

Therefore, do not buy an under-desk elliptical as an excuse to slack on your exercise.

It’s not that under-desk ellipticals can’t produce an intense exercise, but that if you were exercising to the point where you experience cardiovascular benefits (70% to 80% of your max heart rate), you won’t be in a state to work – you’ll be sweating, breathing faster, and having a hard time to concentrate.

To conclude: under-desk ellipticals are not a substitute for exercise. So, why should you buy one?

When It’s Okay to Use an Under-Desk Elliptical?

If you’re careful and you’re using the under-desk elliptical properly, there’s no reason not to use one. It’s not something that should replace regular exercising and stretching after 30 minutes of sitting, but if you like the work-out, it’s still better than nothing, and in some cases it can be a good (positive instruction).

What we mean by this is that any type of physical activity helps clear the mind, especially if you’ve been working on a complex mental task and you need a distraction to keep you from getting edgy or irritated.

Plus, don’t forget that physical activity activates your sympathetic nervous system which makes you more excited and alert. For some people, that’s just what they need to concentrate better on their task at hand.

Final Verdict

As awareness is rising concerning the negative effects of prolonged sitting, a lot of new fitness gadgets and exercise machines are being released to help people move while working. So, it’s trendy to have a stand-up desk with an under-desk treadmill or a static desk with an under-desk elliptical.

However, just because something is a trend it doesn’t mean that it’s actually worth investing into it. Unfortunately, under-desk ellipticals are part of that category if you want to counteract the effects of prolonged sitting. Maybe in the future we’ll have more evidence on the contrary, but until then, under-desk ellipticals are not the best choice when it comes to prolonged sitting. You’ll still need to get up and stretch or move every half an hour to stay healthy.

In fact, buying an under-desk elliptical for the wrong reasons can cost you more than just money. If you’re using the machine improperly or you have chronic back pain and/or sensitive joints, under-desk ellipticals can aggravate those issues.

Still, we’re not completely discouraging people from buying an under-desk elliptical. For instance, some people find it extremely motivating and encouraging to move their legs (having a gentle physical activity) while working on a complex mental task. For these people, buying an elliptical can be a great boost to their work productivity.

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