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.


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.

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