A couple of years ago, I suffered a painful upper back and neck injury that I only half know the etiology of. Maybe I’ll write more about that later, but one of the upshots of the whole experience is that I have become a big proponent of ergonomics, and of being kind to my body more generally. As with all desk jobs, being in academia entails large amounts of time spent in front of a computer. Most people do this seated, not for any principled reason, but mostly because that’s how office work has always been done. In fact, when you find out more about ergonomics, you’ll find out that’s primarily the reason why we have terrible office habits — tradition. Why would it cost more to produce a vertical mouse than a horizontal mouse, if mass production didn’t enter into play? But I’m getting ahead of myself here. This first post of mine about ergonomics focuses on my treadmill desk.
I found out about the idea of treadmill desks by googling/YouTubing some keywords like “ergonomic workstations” and riding the related video waves. I came across a video which featured Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine talking about his treadmill desk as a solution to obesity. My ears perked up. I swear I can’t lose weight no matter how much exercise I do (case in point: training for a marathon) and while weight loss isn’t a big concern of mine, additional exercise never hurts, especially during the Edmonton winter. Mainly, I was interested in the treadmill desk for my sore back. Here’s the video I saw:
Some people say that for sore backs, all you need is a standing desk, and not a treadmill desk. I don’t know about you, but my body starts to get achy and/or fidgety if I just stand in one place. These problems would be eliminated, I felt, in keeping moving. It makes sense, right? In walking slowly, the joints and muscles keep moving, but aren’t stressed.
As a caveat, I should add right here that when I went to the ergonomics specialist at the University of Minnesota and asked him about treadmill desks, he would not endorse the concept. He said he felt there wasn’t enough research out there showing that the benefits outweigh the costs, which are mostly potential injury if you fall off or forget you’re on a treadmill. Fair enough. If you’re uncoordinated or absentminded, maybe the treadmill desk is not for you. But I plowed straight ahead with the dream, because I am coordinated enough to walk at 1.0 – 1.5 mph (1.6 – 2.4 km/hr) and chew gum at the same time.
Unfortunately, while I was a grad student at Minnesota, that’s all the treadmill desk was for me: a dream. Graduate students generally have very little say in their physical work environment: I for one technically shared my office with like 10 other students, and there was no room for a treadmill. There’s no reason why grad students shouldn’t have access to say a department treadmill desk though. Could I have installed a treadmill desk at home instead, you ask? Well, only if I wanted to get rid of a couch, table, or bookshelf, the lack of any of which would have made my living room far less hospitable. Graduate students also tend to have small living spaces. And besides, I was going to move in a year.
Enter Alberta. As soon as I found out about my new position as a visiting professor at the University of Alberta, one of the first thoughts I had was, “I’ll finally be able to have a treadmill desk!” But not an expensive one though, as some of the treadmill desk workstations can cost upwards of $4,000. Here then is what I figured I needed for a DIY version (and what you’ll need too if you plan on making a treadmill desk):
- A treadmill,
- A way to transport the treadmill to my office,
- A friend who’s handy who could actually make the desk part of the treadmill desk (please suspend your disbelief. I’m not a freeloader but I’m definitely not handy either).
I estimated that all these together could cost up to $600. I was lucky: my treadmill desk ended up costing only about $150. Re (1), I knew that a colleague of mine, Harald Baayen, was leaving Edmonton for Tuebingen, Germany just before I arrived. I also knew that Harald had a treadmill at home. Treadmills are bulky — I wouldn’t want to take one to Germany — so I asked him if I could buy it from him. He said yes, and asked for $150. That is a great price, but also, it was a pretty simple model. But the beauty of walking at 1.0 mph is that you don’t need a fancy model.
Harald was leaving Edmonton literally two days before I arrived, so (2) had to be taken care of before I got there. Harald and another excellent colleague of mine up here, Pat Bolger, were also kind enough to transport the treadmill from Harald’s home to my office while returning some of Harald’s home computer equipment to the U of A. I had asked a friend up here if he could do it, and I was willing to pay him $75, but well he said he wouldn’t accept any cash, and in the end he didn’t even need to do it. And my colleagues would not accept remuneration, and so I work hard and figure that counts for a lot.
The last thing I needed was (3), a handy friend or family member who could make the desk part of the treadmill for me. You’re probably wondering why I couldn’t just make the desk myself. The answer is, I am horrible at handy-man-type projects. And sadly, I have no desire to be better. And for this particular project, which involved a saw, well, I’ve had a mild phobia of sharp objects after cutting my finger pretty badly on a blender a couple of years ago. I’ve forced myself to use things like knives, as well as the perpetrating blender which I have not replaced due to graduate-student poverty, but any other sharp objects that are electrically powered, I’d rather steer clear of.
Fortunately, a friend from Minnesota, Chad Marsolek, was handy and must’ve gotten sick of hearing me talk about the Holy Grail of workplace ergonomics. In fact, he had volunteered to make the desk part well before I even knew where I’d be working in the fall. Before I left for Edmonton, Chad gave me the formica-ish plank and the styrofoam-like support-thingey that goes between the treadmill handles and the plank. Do you see how my vocabulary just plummets when I even talk about all things handy? Me and “handy” are like oil and water. Anyway, again, I was willing to pay someone about $100 for making the desk part of the treadmill desk, but Chad just asked for something ridiculous like a six-pack of Bell’s, which I gladly provided.
As a measure of my near-zero HQ (handiness quotient), I literally did not even know what a shim was until somebody suggested I get some to stabilize the plank on the arms of the treadmill. With the shims now, the plank is very solid and I have no qualms putting a mug of tea next to my computer. If you’re tall, you can use another piece of foam to prop the board on. There are several videos and instructions out there on how to make a treadmill desk, and I think Chad followed this advice: http://www.treadmill-desk.com/2007/12/49-treadmill-desk.html. Yes, there’s a dude out there with an entire blog devoted to the treadmill desk. Actually it’s kinda cool to see how much he’s walked and all; he’s clearly very into the whole thing: http://www.treadmill-desk.com/2007/07/walking-across-america.html. There are some other designs that are more permanent, and perhaps more sturdy. But I like that I can take the plank off if I want to do some more vigorous walking.
One more thing you will need is tact and consideration when dealing with your colleagues or other building inhabitants, if you put your treadmill in your office. Treadmill desks are new, and sometimes it’s tough to be an innovator. Especially in my position: my job here isn’t permanent, and the last thing I want to do is be high-maintenance. But bringing a treadmill desk into my office within the first month of working was, as I discovered, a question mark for the department administrator, who rightly wondered if it would be interfering with anyone’s work experience. So I went downstairs to the philosophy department and asked an administrative assistant to help me simulate the noise the people in the office below me would hear as I, not exactly a big person, walked on my treadmill at 1.7 km/hr. She stayed in the office, and I went upstairs and did my thang. When I came back down, she said she couldn’t even hear me, and besides, the students who used that office weren’t always there. Green light!
I average 4 – 8 miles (6 – 12 km) per week on my treadmill desk. If I’m just doing something like responding to email, I ramp up the speed to 1.5 mph. If I’m doing something more cognitively demanding, I have to slow it down to 1.1 mph. And if a task requires a lot of concentration, I’m still not able to do it on the treadmill. For example, if I’m preparing slides for my undergraduate class, I’ll do the initial conceptualization of the lecture seated. Then for the implementation, I get right on the treadmill desk. I usually walk in 1-2 hour spurts; after 2 hours I want a break. And unlike some people, I have special slip-on shoes for walking. There’s no point in adding wear and tear to good shoes when it takes 15 seconds to slip into my old Puma Mary Janes.
If you have the means, I highly recommend getting a treadmill desk. As my experience shows, with the help of friends and colleagues a treadmill desk doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. And treadmill desks are less obtrusive than you’d think. They provide clear weight-loss benefits, and also help to get your muscles and joints moving. An additional benefit is that the more I use my treadmill desk, the less I feel sluggish during the day. Ugh, I have a huge postprandial dip where it’s all I can do to keep from napping under my desk. My fix is usually a piece of chocolate. Not necessary when I’m using my treadmill desk!
Some of my other ergonomic fetishes have been met with laughter, scorn, and/or curiosity. Like my wheelie backpack phase — oh, people just loooved to make fun of me for my wheelie. At Alberta though, my colleague Ben Tucker already has a standing desk, so people just view the treadmill desk as the next iteration of office ergonomics and are generally positive about the whole thing. If they stop in unexpectedly and I’m on the treadmill, I’ll stop, but they say, “No no, keep walking.” I don’t have many undergrad students visit, but those who do take notice. The treadmill desk sets a great workplace example for them. Prior to my back problems, I’d never thought of setting an example of the physical aspects of how to work. But the workweek isn’t getting any shorter, and computer use is on the rise. I hope that with the treadmill desk (and all my other ergonomic stuff) I can be a model of how best to engage your mind while not forgetting about your body.