Given how many people make resolutions involving being more active, getting healthier, etc., just after New Year’s seems like a good time for a post about treadmill desks. I’m not entirely sure when I first learned about them, but I think it was 4 or so years ago when a friend posted pictures on Facebook of one he was building himself. The idea was definitely intriguing to me, especially since starting a faculty position was associated with spending a whole lot more time at my desk. The basic idea of a treadmill desk is that you walk slowly while carrying on your normal, everyday tasks. I usually walk about 1.5 mph. Here’s a recent NPR piece on treadmill desks and here’s a recent story in the NY Times about them.
My main reason for wanting a treadmill desk was actually because I always would get really tired and fuzzy after sitting for a while. At some point, I realized that my walk to the coffee shop was probably effective at perking me up more because it involved getting up and walking than because it involved getting caffeine. So, I was trying to figure out ways to be more active while working, and a treadmill desk seemed like an ideal solution.
However, while I was interested in treadmill desks, I was also nervous about making the investment. So, while I talked about wanting one off and on, I didn’t do anything about it. Then, last spring, two things happened in rapid succession. First, Al Dove (of Deep Sea News and the Georgia Aquarium) tweeted about studies he was reading showing how unhealthy it is to sit for long periods of time. (See the NPR and NYT pieces above for links to some studies.) Second, I gave a seminar at the University of Alabama. My host was Jon Benstead and when I walked into his office I discovered he had a treadmill desk. Finally, a chance to see one in person! Jon humored my many questions about treadmill desks, and is the person who told me about TreadDesk. Their treadmills certainly aren’t cheap, but they are designed to go slowly for long periods of time. My understanding is that is very hard on the motor of a regular treadmill, and causes those to die fairly quickly.
After I got back from Alabama, I was really leaning towards getting a treadmill desk. But first I wanted to make sure that I would be okay with standing all day. So, the first thing I did – in true field ecologist fashion – was to attempt to build my own standing desk out of materials I already had on hand. My first attempt was a total kluge, and involved putting a case of Falcon tubes on top of my regular desk and putting my laptop on that. (Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have a picture of this setup, but it was pretty much as you’d imagine.) That seemed pretty good, but was not super stable (shocking, I know). So, as the next step, I ended up taking one of my filing cabinets and putting it on its side on my desk, and then putting my laptop on that:
That worked nicely, and, after a few days, I decided to take the plunge and order a treadmill base from TreadDesk. After it came, I got things set up with my normal office computer and monitors, like so:
My lab members immediately named my desk the Red Queen, and it seemed appropriate that the first manuscript I worked on from my new desk set up was one entitled “Epidemiology of a Daphnia-Multiparasite System and Its Implications for the Red Queen.” The main downside of this setup was that I didn’t have the option to sit if I wanted to. That was sort of solved by ordering a cheap stool off Amazon, but wasn’t ideal. But I mostly walked (I walked 4+ miles a day most days), so the setup was pretty good for me overall.
Since I had bought the treadmill myself, I took it with me when I moved to Michigan, but then I needed to get the desk part set up again. It was at this point that I discovered just how expensive filing cabinets are (who knew?), and started to look for a different solution for a standing desk. The person helping me place the furniture order for my new office heard about a company called Ergotron, which makes mounts for your keyboard and monitors that allows you to adjust from a sitting to a standing desk. That ended up being less expensive than a filing cabinet (not to mention much better suited for the job), so I got an Ergotron Workfit-S Dual, which has worked really well:
The Ergotron part of the desk has been particularly handy now that I’m pregnant and in my third trimester. I now alternate between sitting on a yoga ball, standing, and walking. At this point, it feels weird when I sit in a regular chair. The main downside to the Ergotron is that I can’t swivel the monitors, so if I have a visitor in my office, it’s harder to show them something on my monitor. But that’s a fairly minor problem. I also think I’d have a hard time with the Ergotron setup if I was any taller — I’m about 5’7″, and have the Ergotron all the way up when I am standing or walking at my desk. Surely there is some solution for people who are taller (which probably includes a large number of our readers), but I’m not sure what it is.
One aspect of the treadmill desk that I find interesting is what tasks require me to stop walking. I can edit papers while walking, and walking while having Skype calls with collaborators or lab members is great. But can I install an R package while walking? Nope. That apparently requires more mental power than I can muster while walking. After we have enough ecologists using treadmill desks, we’ll have to do a comparison of what tasks require stopping. I suspect there would be a lot of variation!