I work at my computer all day long. Between eight and fourteen hours on the average workday, I’m staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard. Until recently, this meant I didn’t get much exercise; I’d aspire to a bike ride on the weekends, but went most weeks with nothing more than a walk or two. This is compounded because I work from home — no trips to the water cooler and copy machine for me. If I wanted to, I could get by with about 100 steps of walking per day, between my bedroom, office, kitchen, and bathroom.

Then I started using a treadmill desk. The idea, originated by Mayo Clinic Researcher James Levine, is straightforward: instead of sitting at your desk, you work at a treadmill that’s equipped with a monitor, keyboard, and phone. Rather than sitting, you walk at a slow pace. Because the human body has evolved to walk long distances, a healthy person can comfortably walk several miles a day. After just a few days, I was consistently walking about 6 or 7 hours a day. It’s been about a month now, and I’ve used the treadmill desk every day I’ve worked from home.

I love it. And what’s really amazing it that I’m not just doing something healthy without taking time away from work. I’m working better because of the steady supply of exercise. My concentration is sharper and my energy level remains steady throughout the day. The exercise has made me a better hacker.

The magnitude of this result surprised me. I’m in decent shape; I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds, but I eat well and my cholesterol and blood pressure are fine. On the other hand, I’m always looking for ways to be smarter or more energetic. Like many people whose work is intellectual, I suffer from lulls and funks, from afternoons of carb-induced catatonia to full days of hacker’s block. The exercise smooths over these funks. I still have some slow days, of course, but by defaulting to constant exercise, there’s a tremendous countervailing influence to the biochemical tides of mood.

How-to

If you think a treadmill desk might be good for you, it’s not hard to try it out. I started with a standing-desk prototype (pictured at right): tray tables piled with books to bring my laptop screen and an external mouse/keyboard to eye- and hand-level, respectively. A standing desk has most of the exercise benefit of a treadmill, with the caveat that standing still is far more stressful to your joints and muscles than slow walking. You can try this with stuff you already have; if you like the exercise but are limited to only a couple of hours of continuous standing before your knees start to ache, it’s time to take the dive and buy a treadmill.

1. Get a Treadmill

My current treadmill is a HealthRider SoftStrider I got for $100 via Craigslist. When I wear this thing out, I’ll consider buying a new treadmill in the $1000 range, but a cheap used treadmill is a great starting point and craigslist is a good way to find some locally. You can transport a foldable treadmill in the back of a van/wagon, or, as I did, in a car trunk with some bungee cords and careful driving. (They’re really heavy; you’ll need a friend to help you navigate any stairs.) Key features of a desk treadmill are:

  • Electronic. The force required to propel an un-powered treadmill will get in the way of your work. You need a conveyor belt under your feet. Give up on the dream of powering your computer with your footsteps.
  • Slow speeds. You’ll want to control your walking speed in, at most, 0.1mph increments between 0.7 and 1.5mph. You don’t need a treadmill designed for running, but a padded belt will make the walk more comfortable and gentler. If you’re over 180lbs, double-check the treadmill’s capacity. Although you’ll only be walking, the continuous usage could potentially wear down a weaker platform.
    • Update 1/27/2008: I would like to revoke my endorsement of padded belts. Foam doesn’t stay flexible forever and my belt has been gradually turning into dust. Most newer treadmills have a flat belt and cushioning under the deck, which is a better design.
  • Level arms. All treadmills have arms that the occupant is supposed to hold while walking. Your hands, however, will be on the keyboard, which will be on a shelf. The easiest way to build this shelf is to attach it to the treadmill’s arms. And if the arms are angled, you’ll need to compensate for that in the shelf. If they’re level, you can just slap a board across.
    • Update 1/27/2008: Actually, a level tray is not as good as one that’s inclined away from you. Ideally, you want to avoid bending your wrists, and you want to have your elbows open at 100 to 120 degrees. I’m still working on a design that achieves this; my temporary solution is a shim under the near end of my keyboard.
  • Quiet. Old, underpowered, or poorly cared-for treadmills may hum constantly; try to find one that doesn’t make much motor noise. The noise of your footsteps and the belt’s motion on the deck will always be present, and on a nice newer treadmill these should overshadow noise from the motor itself. (Added 1/27/2008.)
  • Console. Mounted on the treadmill will be an electronic console where you can set the speed. Sometimes these consoles include a reading tray and cup holder. You probably won’t want to use these for holding your monitor; vibrations in the treadmill will cause your monitor to shake and make it hard to read. So pick a console that is reasonably out of the way; you’ll need to at least build a shelf over it.

2. Build Some Stuff

Once you’ve got the treadmill, you’ll need to build two shelves: one for the keyboard/mouse, and another for your monitor and other equipment. The easiest way to do the keyboard tray is by attaching it to the treadmill’s handles, if they’re level. For mine, I have a wooden board that is laid across the handles, with segments of 2×4 on the sides in order to raise the shelf’s height. You’ll want to have the keyboard positioned so you can rest your hands on it with your elbows at an angle around 100 degrees. Since your body will be moving, you might also want a trackball instead of a normal mouse; being able to rest part of your hand on the shelf will stabilize your finger movements, and without that stabilization precise mouse movements will be difficult. I attached the keyboard shelf to the treadmill’s handles using industrial-strength velcro. This provides a solid attachment but allows me to lift the tray off of the treadmill so that I can fold the treadmill up, clearing space in my office for the fold-out guest bed.

The monitor shelf is different. You definitely want to avoid resting the monitor on your treadmill in any way, or vibrations from walking will shake your screen. Measure the height you’ll want in order to hold the screen’s center a level 2 feet in front of your eyes while standing on the treadmill. My shelf is at about 60″ from the ground (I’m 6’2″). My shelf has two legs (cut from 2x4s) and is held together with shelf braces; the materials and wood cutting cost around $25 total from Home Depot. A simpler design would be to build the shelf like a three-legged stool, with equal-length legs at the front left, front right, and rear center of the shelf. You might also be able to use a pre-made modular shelf, although it could be hard to find one that can straddle a treadmill.

3. Set Up Your Computer

You probably don’t want to force yourself to use the treadmill whenever you need the computer. A desk is useful if you get tired, or if you need to do actual paperwork — writing steadily is almost impossible on the treadmill. So I maintain my old desk, with its own monitor, keyboard, and mouse. These are connected to the same computer — the treadmill’s peripherals are connected via USB. While on the treadmill, I rotate the desk monitor and use it as a secondary screen — I leave work chat running there so I can see if anyone mentions my name, but drag the window over to the treadmill monitor for any intensive reading.

4. Brag About It

The treadmill desk is a great story for coworkers and friends. If you’ve read this far, then you’re exactly the kind of person I’d love to tell it to. In any social setting, the treadmill gives you an excuse to stand up, extend your arms, and walk around like a zombie while talking about what a geek you are. Lots of people find the idea appealing and will ask interesting questions.

The wikipedia Treadmill Desk page has more information. And, in case you’re wondering — this article was written entirely while walking.