I’ve replaced my treadmill desk with the next generation: a simpler, cheaper, and better alternative!
Five years ago I shared my initial and follow-up experiences with a treadmill desk. Since then I’ve walked over 1,600 miles while working, and have seen a clear correlation between my general level of wellbeing and regular use of my walking desk for (typically) a couple of hours a day.
Last week, however, I noticed that my upper arms were aching after using my desk. After a few days experimenting, I realized that the height of the commercial plastic shelf I’ve been using since 2012 was causing my shoulders and upper arms to tense up while typing, leading to the achiness. Though this hadn’t happened before, I’m getting older and creakier and I needed to do something if I was going to continue to reap the benefits of my walking-while-working routine.
Simple, because I could quickly build a better shelf myself.
Cheaper, because I used materials already in my possession. (But even if you bought everything, it should cost you less than $20.)
Better, because the new shelf:
rests on the arms of my treadmill at a perfect height for me to type with my forearms level, avoiding the scrunched up shoulders my old desk required, and;
is twice as wide as the old one, giving me a place to rest reference materials right next to my keyboard while writing.
Materials: a piece of plywood, two brackets, four screws, two hooks, one bungee cord.
Tools: saw, tape, pencil, screwdriver.
Time: about an hour.
Here’s the side view of my finished shelf. The brackets were only needed because my treadmill’s arms have a gentle slope. Some treadmills have horizontal arms, making construction even easier.
Construction is so simple that these pictures and the referenced articles should contain all the information you need. Though I don’t regret purchasing my (now discontinued) commercial shelf in 2012, this homemade version is a great improvement. If you have a home or office treadmill and want to work while walking, this is the way to go!
Take it easy! Before I started using my treadmill desk my main scheduled exercise was walking outside (on varied, hilly terrain) for forty minutes or so three times a week. After starting, I set the treadmill and timer for four daily 20-minute sessions at 1.7 mph and a 4% incline. I felt great after the sessions and not especially tired. But after a couple of weeks I began to get achy joints. Not only my knees but also my shoulders and neck. I had been overdoing it.
As a result I reduced my walking speed to 1.2 – 1.3 mph, increased the session time to 25-30 minutes, and eliminated the incline. I now average 3-4 sessions a day and the aches have disappeared. According to the Sole F80, my daily workout consumes around 200-270 calories, down somewhat from the 300 calories I initially was burning. On average, there are one to two days each week when I don’t have time to go on the treadmill (nearly always when I’m away from home and walking while working or shopping around town).
Ramping up over time In my first post, I speculated that I might ramp up the number, length, or difficulty of sessions over time. What I’ve found so far is that I feel well exercised and reluctant to walk more after 90-120 minutes of treadmill per day. While I’m sure that I could stay on the treadmill longer I am satisfied with the time I spend on the machine and don’t currently plan to do more.
Sleeping better I’ve noticed that I sleep better on the days I exercise. This is a major plus!
Weight loss After having more or less the same weight for the last year, I’ve lost six pounds over the last three months. I seem to be keeping the weight off. Losing a couple of pounds a month is approximately what you’d expect from the amount of additional exercise I’m now doing. I can stand to lose some more weight—long may this continue!
Increased creativity Finally, I continue to find working while walking a significant stimulus to my creativity. For a long time I’ve been writing about one blog post a week. Recently, I have been averaging nearly two a week. I am also working on finishing my next book, and have found it much easier to get those 600+ words a day written while walking.
Conclusions? Better sleep, healthy weight loss, increased creativity? What’s not to like? As long as I don’t overdo it, using a treadmill desk works for me. Recommended!
I’m always on the lookout for new ways to improve my productivity. My latest discovery, which is really working for me, is a treadmill desk (shown above). Here’s why.
I’ve noticed that as I get older, regular exercise is becoming an increasingly important necessity for me to stay sharp and focused. (Here’s a New York Times article on the positive benefits of exercise on the functioning of the brain.) Walking along some of the 60 miles of dirt road in my Vermont town is my preferred exercise activity (as well as stacking wood in the spring) but bad weather can make this onerous, so five years ago I purchased a Sole F80 treadmill and used it when I couldn’t stand the thought of going outside. I didn’t use it much—about 150 miles per year.
Over the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of articles about standing and treadmill desks. Standing desks do not appeal to me; if I’m thinking on my feet I like to be moving (I often pace around the room while on a phone call). But the concept of exercising while working intrigued me. I’m writing my next book, which involves cranking out 600+ words a day until it’s done and I’d been having trouble staying focused on my writing while meeting my daily word count target. I didn’t want to exercise all day, but I thought even an hour walking while writing daily wouldn’t hurt.
Quite simply, this has been one of the best productivity investments I’ve ever made.
Writing while walking has turned out to be a fantastic way for me to maintain focus & creativity. I’m still using the 20+5 work sprint method that works so well for me, but the time on the treadmill flashes by and I’m eager to get back on the treadmill to write more. I have the Sole set at 1.7 miles/hour and an incline of 4%, creating a 2/3-mile walk and 100 calorie burn every twenty minutes according to the who-knows-how-accurate Sole readouts.
Walking to work
Currently, I use the treadmill for 3+ 20-minute sessions a day, equivalent to walking a couple of miles and burning 300 calories each day. Over a week, if I don’t eat more, that translates to a weight loss of about a pound, though that’s not my main objective. It will be interesting to see if I increase the number of sessions over time; I suspect I will.
The SurfShelf fits just about every treadmill, stationary exercise bike, elliptical trainers, and stair masters out there. I didn’t have much problem installing it on my Sole, though I hung it lower than recommended so my keyboard wouldn’t be too high and added a second horizontal strap from an old messenger bag around the vertical straps to cinch it in tight to the F80 faceplate.
Calling the SurfShelf a “desk” could be a little hyperbole as my 17″ laptop completely covers its work surface, leaving no room for anything else. That works for me, since I just want to write. But my large laptop does fit, and is held securely in place by a single Velcro strap that can be installed and removed in seconds. As you can see from the photo, on the Sole I’ve set the keyboard sloping forward; not ideal for typing all day, but perfectly comfortable for a few twenty minute periods with breaks.
Conclusions? As the Gizmodo SurfShelf review and the Amazon reviews indicate, I am not alone admiring this inexpensive gadget. If you have an underutilized treadmill—or can buy an inexpensive used unit—this could be a great way to increase your work productivity through increased focus and exercise. Who knows—maybe you’ll even lose a few pounds too?
I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years, and have learned a few things about working productively. During that time I:
Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.
Along the way I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.
You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps you will find helpful some of what follows.
Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken its toll. A kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments.
A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check. In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and you don’t position pointing devices correctly. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.
Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods.
Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.
Getting Things Done
No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish. As I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; it’s a framework that helps you build process customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.
Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff
I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers continually back up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers).
You can easily back up to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.
Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). Currently I decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes, and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.
That’s my summary of what I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?