This Instructable documents the building of three treadmill desks, the motivation behind walking while you work at your computer or talk on the phone, and gives our anecdotal evidence for how and why this has worked for us. Walking around 1 MPH, as shown in the video, seems to pose no negative impact on typing, mousing, or talking and probably has positive impact on cognitive ability and general wellbeing through increased blood-flow, if nothing else. We certainly didn't evolve to sit in chairs all day long! On the rare occasion when walking is actually distracting, turn the treadmill off for a standing desk.
Building a treadmill desk is literally no harder than getting a used treadmill and mounting a shelf to a wall, and can be put together for under $150. Perhaps the hardest part is just deciding to do it and then getting used to how everyone will insist on taking a picture of you working and walking at your desk. Should you decide to build your own, the specifics will undoubtedly be different, but hopefully you'll be inspired by the desks shown here.
Step 1: Motivation for Building a Treadmill Desk
Recently, I asked myself why I didn't have the energy to constantly work on projects and generally get things done. After coming home from work, I would cook dinner and read a book, but generally not accomplish much else. Except on days when I worked at home. Changing up my commute between biking, taking a train or bus, and driving seemed to have no affect, so I looked at how the conditions were different between home and the Instructables lab. Most notably, I worked at a standing desk at home, while I sat at the lab. The physical work was largely the same – working at a computer and talking on the phone – as was the environment in terms of natural light and noise level.
Around this same time, I heard John Ratey speak at conference. He's been studying how exercise – even low levels – strongly contributes to brain function in the elderly and attention and behavior in school children. The short of it is this: the more active you are, the better your health and brain function.
In a typical week, I was getting about an hour of biking, running, swimming, or, if I was lucky, kitesurfing, every day. However, I was also awake and sedentary for double digit hours everyday. So, I decided to take it up notch and start walking while I worked at my computer at the lab. If it did nothing for my health or energy levels, it would at least make the Instructables lab more eccentric, and that in itself was enough.
I hate exercise in almost all forms. And it shows. So when I heard Eric talk about a treadmill desk, I knew that was for me! It's like exercise that you don't have to pay attention to. Plus I HATE sitting at a desk all day! Snooze-city.
What finally spurred me to action was that I hurt my back from sitting too much! No kidding! So I built myself a make-shift standing desk out of a milk crate and some coffee tins. Not so awesome. The treadmill seemed like a double-tasker. Standing desk + free exercise when I wanted it.
Also, I wanted Eric to think I was cool. And concerned about brain function and all that junk. So. You know. There's that. I think it worked.
I've tried a standing desk before, and while it's certainly nice as a change of pace I found standing still while working was hard, harder than sitting at a desk. Within 20-30 minutes I would catch myself slumping in all sorts of new and damaging ways, then my feet would get weird numb spots, and eventually I'd head back to my chair. It seemed to work for Eric, but he's an alien robot.
Then Eric got excited about a treadmill desk. I gave him a week to test it out, then tried it myself. This turns out to suck far less than a stationary desk of either type, and is in fact pleasant, because you're moving. I'm perfectly capable of strolling at 1mph for days at a time, much better than 20 minutes standing. I don't count strolling at 1mph exercise, but simply movement; it's more about not spending my day slumped over, melting into an office chair.
My additional quirk is that I need to feed Corvidae while working. She fits nicely in her sling, but walking with her hanging in front of me for an hour just doesn't work - she's too heavy, and I need to give her a bit of head support. The solution turns out to be a tall chair of the drafting stool variety, with a small enough base to fit on the treadmill. I sit for that time period, taking most of her weight on my legs (feet on the chair ring) and support her head with a pillow or my elbow on the arm of the chair. When she's awake again, the chair gets kicked off the treadmill, and the baby goes back on the floor or on my back as I walk.
Step 2: Get a Treadmill
All three treadmills shown here came from Craigslist. I searched in my neighborhood for used treadmills under $250, found plenty, and bought two. I dissembled each treadmill enough to fit in a station wagon and transported them to the lab. Sarah managed to find someone selling a used treadmill who would also drop it off at the lab for under $100 – she probably got the best deal. Used, cheap treadmills have their quirks: the elevation adjuster doesn't work on mine; Sarah's display doesn't work; and Christy's is incredibly heavy.
When I was looking for treadmills, all I cared about was whether it operated around 1 MPH, and if it was reasonably quiet. Christy's Precor is the loudest of the three, and while we can still talk at normal volumes when it's running, it's similar to having a couple of fans running in our small office.
Step 3: Three Different Flavors
In the desks shown here, we've explored three different methods of constructing the treadmill desk: keyboard platform and desk attached to treadmill; keyboard platform attached to treadmill and desk attached to wall; and both keyboard platform and desk attached to wall. There are a number of other configurations, but hopefully you'll be suitably inspired by ours to figure out what works best for you.
Step 4: Customize Your Configuration
Your forearms should be horizontal while typing, and your monitor should be high enough such that when you are looking in a horizontal line, you're looking at the top of the monitor. More about this on my Ergonomic work station.
In the images, you can see that I've clamped some wood onto the rails of the treadmill to first get the keyboard platform height right for me -- see how my forearms are approximately level and my upper arms are vertical. Next, I'm pointing to the height where the top of my monitor should go, and my camerawoman helps measure that distance.
Step 5: Building the Keyboard Platform and Desk
After getting the configuration to my liking, I simply drilled holes and bolted pieces of wood to the treadmill, then screwed on even more pieces of wood. I used a plastic sheet to keep metal shards and sawdust out of the treadmill.
My keyboard sits directly on the keyboard platform. A smarter design would incorporate an adjustable keyboard tray.
Here's a tip: Don't use plyboo as a desk surface because optical mice do not work properly on it. I found some scrap plyboo and thought it would make an excellent desk surface until I tried to use my optical mice. They alternatively jumped wildly around the screen or didn't respond. Scratching up the surface with various grades of sandpaper didn't help, and I eventually replaced the desk surface with
some cheap pine that I sanded and varnished.
Step 6: Keyboard Platform and Desk Attached to Treadmill
Here's the version with the keyboard tray and desk both attached to the treadmill. Since my second monitor is so heavy, I opted to hang it from the ceiling. My laptop did slightly shake when I was walking. While it wasn't enough that I couldn't focus on the screen and work, with a wall so close, it seemed like I should take advantage of it.
If you can't attach something to a wall, I'd recommend building a desk that sits on the ground and forms an arch over the treadmill.
Step 7: Keyboard Platform Attached to Treadmill; Desk Attached to Wall 1
Step 8: Keyboard Platform Attached to Treadmill; Desk Attached to Wall 2
Christy's treadmill desk is of the same type: a wooden keyboard platform is bolted to the treadmill's handrails, and the monitors sit on a shelf.
She uses a Wacom Bamboo tablet so she can alternate mousing hands if one is occupied feeding or holding Corvidae.
Step 9: Keyboard Tray and Shelf Attached to Wall
In Sarah's desk, she has attached an under-desk keyboard tray to a shelf attached to the wall. Her treadmill is unmodified and simply sits underneath the shelf. Mounting standards to brick isn't difficult, but she got lucky and discovered holes from a previous set of standards already in place.
Step 10: Anecdotal Evidence of Why This Is Good for You
On an average day, I'll walk about 4 miles at 1 MPH. When I'm in the lab, I spend half my time walking around interfacing with people, and half focused on my computer on the treadmill. Working while walking keeps me energized throughout the entire day, and the day never drags on. During the first week on my treadmill desk, I knocked out a full third of my oldest, stagnating to-do items in addition to a normal workload. It was refreshing to simply finish a bunch of things I had procrastinated getting done.
I find that I'm also energized after work to go out socially in a way I previously was not. Dinner with friends on short notice? Yes, I'm not too tired. Take the baby to a party and put her in a pumpkin? OK, maybe treadmill-energy isn't always used for good...
If there are any drawbacks, it's that my feet feel like they've been walking all day (because they have).
All of the read-out devices on mine are broken (which is why it only cost me $50!), so I don't know how far or how fast I go. But I do love to play with the incline and work long, slow hills throughout the day.
Though it doesn't seem like much exercise at the time, I can tell how hard I worked by how much I need to stretch at the end of the day. Unlike Eric, though, I feel exhausted at the end of the day. I think I'm keeping too quick a pace.
I look forward to working on the treadmill. Although I keep it at a clip that challenges my trackball skills, it's invigorating and a great way to break up the desk-doldrums. I do have a desk set up next to my treadmill as well, for times when I just have to sit down for a task. I find that I think more creatively when I'm walking, which opens up number of new ideas for me to tackle!
I feel pretty good at the end of the day, just because I've moved more. I've been trail-running in my Vibram 5-fingers at home, so the treadmill desk is a nice way to continue putting my feet and legs through their paces, preventing me from getting stiff. I'm not sure about an increase in my creativity and productivity, but it certainly feels good!
Step 11: The Office of the Future
When we've got all three treadmills running, and we're laser-focused on getting things done, the Instructables lab has been described as "astronaut training camp." Add a baby in a-single-piece-of-fabric sling and you've got the office of the future that isn't at odds with our evolutionary past.