The Treadmill Desk - The single most effective productivity hack of my last year

Having worked on a treadmill desk for the last year, I can safely say that it has been the best move I've probably ever made in improving my productivity and overall happiness at work. Because it's had such a tremendous impact on my life, I'm pretty evangelical about it and have been looking forward to writing this blog post for many months.

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My treadmill desk. Not super pretty, but highly functional

I really don't like sitting down all day. I slouch like any other programmer (exceptions noted) and can feel my spine ossifying into the twisted curved shape it takes as I hunch over the keyboard in my 'ergonomic' chair. My arms start sticking to the desk and my lunch rebels at the lack of motion. More than any of this, regardless of how I'd like the world to work, there's something about being stuck in one position for hours that really lets physical stress build up, and that physical stress starts to seep into the mind and really cramps up productivity.

A few years ago I started exploring ways to keep my mind fresh through what I learned later to call 'passive exercise'. My first attempt at adding said activity into my workflow was a miniature stair stepping machine that fit under the desk. As is classically said of chewing gum and walking, I found I could either code or step, but not do both, so it got the boot after a week or so. I also considered getting an under-the-desk exercise bike, but after discovering my multi-tasking limitations, I figured it would be a waste of a hundred bucks.

I let the problem sit for a while (so to speak), and realized that what I really needed was a standing desk. I mean, I should be able to *stand* and work at the same time, right? And apparently when you stand you burn like 50% more calories. If I remember correctly, a search on google lead me to the Lifehacker Coolest workspace contest, where I saw several examples of treadmill desks and it struck me that something like that might work really well. I often take walks to stimulate thought, and thought that maybe if I could code and walk at the same time, I'd be a lot more creative.

I did some research, and found that treadmill desks had been being used for quite some time - even in offices by people in suits. If guys in suits can do it, so can a guy in cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Here's an interview with the guy that might be the inventor of the treadmill desk on Good Morning America, with some good clips from office environments.

I found that there's even a company that sells shiny new "Walkstations" to the tune of $4,499. After a year of having a treadmill desk, I have to say that it would have been worth coughing up five grand for. But luckily, I got some good ideas off of some wiley spendthrifts on the web and started scouring Craigslist for cheap treadmills with horizontal handles. Within a week, I found one for $75, talked it down to $50, and brought it home. Here's what I did to construct mine:

  1. Lugged the treadmill to my office - by far the hardest part since my office is upstairs
  2. Cleaned off a cheap Walmart bookshelf (something like this) and faced it towards the end of the treadmill
  3. Took off a couple of the shelves and taped them onto the handles, using empty cd cases as spacers to get it to the right height
  4. Eventually I took off some hardware from the bottom of the treadmill because I kept hitting my head on the low ceiling.
  5. Put my laptop on the top shelf of the bookshelf
  6. Put my keyboard on the shelf taped to the handlebars

I would say that this $100 or so was my single greatest financial investment of my last year. It's had a tremendous impact on how I feel about my work, and especially how I feel after work, when I'm hanging out with my wife and baby.

Whenever I mention the my treadmill desk to someone who hasn't heard of them before, I get a pat series of questions:

Q: Do you run?

A: I've tried, but without much success. Normally, I walk from between .7 to 1.5 miles an hour. Dr. James Levine (the guy in the Good Morning America) suggests .7, and that's pretty slow. I like a little faster because it makes it feel a little more like exercise.

Q: Isn't it hard to use a computer when you're walking?

A: It's actually surprisingly easy, especially at slower speeds. At about 2mph using the mouse gets more difficult, but I can use Photoshop and Illustrator at 1.5mph just fine.

Q: How much time do you spend walking?

A: I walk about 3 hours a day. Some days I'm a little friskier and work all day on the treadmill.

If you've gotten this far, maybe you're actually thinking about taking the next step (ha ha). I highly, highly recommend it! Here's a few tips I've aggregated after a year of active use:

  • If you have an older treadmill, you might need some lube. I ended up applying this too liberally, and it leaked onto the wheel running the belt, causing the belt to slip if I caused too much friction with my step. I had to wipe the lube off the wheel to get it running right, and still have to do this on occasion.
  • Listening to music and dance-walking is surprisingly fun, just make sure you're in a private office and the windows are obscured in some fashion. Note that you can vary the speed of the treadmill so you can walk to the beat. :)
  • Don't walk without shoes - it will kill you after a week
  • If you have low ceilings, don't have curly hair, otherwise you will have an amazing - but oddly unattractive - 'fro at the end of the day.


Comments

Hi Chris,

I loved your walkstation post. Especially the part about being evangelical about it. I've said the same thing about mine. My tag line in my AIM is "Evangelical Walking: Spreading the weeeerd of the treadmill desk!" heh. Anyway look me up on twitter, I need more office walkers to keep me on my walkstation and motivated. I try to post daily stats. www.twitter.com/turbostation If you want to check out my own walkstation here's my Treadmill Desk Video .

keep struttin your stuff ;)

Lauren

I love this. I've been wanting to do something similar, but with a recumbent bike... can't quite figure out what to do about the "knees issue" though. :D

Hi Chris,

I am proud of you sir. That desk is even hackier than some of the solutions I have come up with. :) I love the use of the bookcase to precariously balance the laptop on. Can I recommend a better desk constructed out of a chrome shelving unit for about $100? It might just save your laptop one day. :)

Hi Justin! Just about to leave a comment on your site. Great tips! The bookcase may look precarious in the photo, but maybe it's the angle. It's actually pretty stable, and since it's not connected to the treadmill at all, it doesn't get the vibrations. Ideally, I'd love a nice standing desk, but I'll look into the shelving you mentioned. It would at least look nicer. :)

Thanks for reaching out, it's good to see another programmer office walker!

Chris,

If you have a Lowes nearby, you could do worse than look at the "Real Organized" line of self-assembly shelving units. It is what the two treadmill desks at the office are constructed out of. You can find some pictures of one of them on my website, and I will post details of the other desk once I find some time this week.

I'm soooo doing this. It solves all my problems in one fell swoop. Thanks for the advice & the push!

Please join our community of treadmill desk users at http://officewalkers.ning.com.

Is hard to program while walking? As a programmer concentration and typing is essential... I would imagine that typing speeds would definitely get affected?

Hey Benjamin,

I actually often find it easier to program while walking because I tend to think a bit more clearly in motion, though sometimes if I'm feeling a bit tired the walking can be distracting so I'll sit to program. Typing isn't affected adversely, and the only time I notice a little drop in mouse agility when doing fine graphic work or when walking faster than 1.5 mph or so.

You thinking of giving it a try?

Cheers,
Chris

Cool! I think I am getting that one, and actually considering the one from Treadmill Desks

Amazing! It's not my idea of a good comfortable compact desk but if you tested it and you say it works I will trust your word for it. I am not much of a sports type though, I really wonder how would this desk fit me...