I am accustomed to creating and sometimes evaluating ideas that seem insane, and when I heard about treadmill desks, I was half-certain that the very concept was only created to sell treadmills in a waning economy. Surely it would go down in history alongside the 19th century exercise equipment like the beard roller and the fat-shaker.
When you get over the initial shock of the blending the gym with the office, it seems like one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. It takes exercise from a serial activity for which few people have time and turns it into a parallel activity that you accomplish in the background while doing work. By parallelizing it, you create swaths of exercise time that you would not otherwise have.
But can it really be that simple? How would you type? What would your brain do to you for walking while not moving? Will people hear noise (treadmill motor, footsteps, huffing, puffing) when you’re on the phone? And wouldn’t a treadmill take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money?
For the answers to those questions, all I had to go by were some pretty positive anecdotes, but nothing beats personal experience. With a budget of $500, I set about to make a treadmill desk. I telecommute, so my office configuration and contents are up to me. That may not apply to you, but maybe you have a manager who will let you give it a try.
You will find that researching which treadmill to buy is not an easy task, and I have no one-size-fits-all advice. Most reviews of treadmills that I came across were for newer models and assessed reliability/warranty, weight limit, maximum speed, and running comfort. In my case, I only need it to go about 1.0 MPH, support up to 200 pounds (I’m at 162) so I was happy to consider models that do not hold up to the rigors of running or high weight. While going cheap would be a mistake, a mid-priced unit could have a motor that lasts for years at 1.0 MPH, if it’s meant to last at all at its maximum speed of, say, 10.0 MPH. The more expensive models are aimed at supporting the pounding that running gives to the deck and the stress it gives to the motor, and you don’t need them for your treadmill desk.
I gave preference to units with horizontal handlebars, since you do need to add a desktop to it, and I wanted to start out level. I also decided that there was no need to get a new one, just one that was new enough that I could find replacement parts if it failed, and new enough to have some non-structural pieces made of plastic and not depleted uranium. Thanks to Fleet, I learned that Craigslist isn’t just for San Francisco, and I was able to pick up a 2-year-old Horizon CST 3.5 treadmill with 2 years left on its extended warranty for $325.
Day 1 was spent moving it into the office, which was its own workout, after which I cobbled together a quick desk surface that I laid across the treadmill’s horizontal handlebars. I was able to play a little WarCraft III online, too. Day 2 was my first work day with it. I managed to get 4 miles in, after which I realized that I should have tried 1 and ramped up. I had some trouble walking over the weekend 🙂 Day 3 was another work day, and I decided to do 2 miles. Day 4 was the first day with walking shoes instead of unshod feet, and I think I got 4 miles done.
Side-effects. Your brain filters out patterns of motion very well as a way to present you with a relatively stable world under most conditions. However, this doesn’t instantly switch on or off, as you know if you spin around in a circle very fast and try to stop. Here are some brain problems that went away after Day 2:
- Dizziness. You’re walking, which your brain associates with forward motion, so it loads up the whole “moving forward” perception filter. The only problem is that you aren’t moving. When you walk in place long enough and then stop, you see the world moving. When you actually walk, you feel as if you’re moving faster than you really are.
- When I first started using it, the text on my laptop’s screen seemed to not be in a straight line. That’s gone now, and it looks straight again.
- Typos. Ok, I still make these sometimes, but their frequency is decreasing rapidly. Even while resting my hands on the laptop, my fingers pivot around as I walk, so it’s an adjustment.
- Hunger. WTF, I’m doing this to lose my “programmer gut” and I get hungry enough to throw Vanilla Coke at all the calories I just burned. This was mostly an issue on Day 2, when I ate my normal small lunch and walked 4 miles. After adjusting to have a larger lunch, I’m not getting hungry in the afternoon anymore.
That’s it for now. As I finish it up and turn it into a real desk, I’ll post more. Feel free to ask questions!
(As requested, a picture of Treadmill Desk 0.8 alpha follows.)