Working While I Walk

Due to some back issues I have been left with a bizarre reality that affects my work and other aspects of my life. My back pain varies radically between sitting, standing, sleeping and walking. Sitting is the most severe pain that I experience, closely followed by standing still. Pain is still significant while lying down but is nearly non-existant while walking. I will not fall into the “here are all my ailments speech”, I will save that for the coffee shop in twenty years. This is the circumstance I live with and it moved me to an unusual work solution.

I do most of my work on my laptop, a benefit of working in the technology industry. I googled around, upon a friend’s suggestion, and found examples of what are called “walking desks”. These desks pair a standing desk with a treadmill. While initially designed to aid in exercise, this seemed like a reasonable fit for me. Commercially produced models cost between $2,000 and $5,000 dollars, so I ventured down the path of building my own.

The first task for me was finding a treadmill that was cheap enough to experiment with, good enough quality to actually use, and would work with the correct height standing desk. The models with big control screens that stick up in the air will not work because they interfere with a desk surface. Many models have very long tracks to accomodate a running stride, these just waste room space when I am only going to be walking. In my research I also quickly discovered that many treadmills have motors and designs that are optimized for running so that operating at a slow walk could cause excess heat to build up in the motor. It also became obvious to me that there were two tiers of quality in treadmills, disposable and last forever.

The treadmill industry, because it is a high dollar purchase, appears to have attracted its share of charlatans. Some of these poorly built machines are surviving under traditional brands where consumers will assume a certain level of quality. While this is not unusual in America it does complicate things. In order to sort through the mess, I spent quite a few hours reading reviews and learning the cues that led me to quality machines. After developing a shortlist of models the real search began.

Once I knew what to buy, the rest was just persistance and patience. Craigslist, Ebay and local classifieds yielded a few options. After a few calls I found 2-3 units that were real possibilities. I ended up purchasing a True 500 SE ST at an estate sale. The unit was very cheap due to the fact the controls did not work. What made the day for me was the fact that when the unit was plugged in it steadily turned at a reasonable walking pace, perfect for a cheap experiment. My next stop was the hardware store where I picked up an adjustable metal shelving unit, a memory foam kitchen mat, and shelf edging.

You can see from the picture that the whole thing went together nicely. One critical design factor was isolating the shelving unit from the tradmill. Even a well built treadmill will transfer some vibration to the desk if there is any contact between the two. Another design issue was to use an external keyboard and mouse. The viewing level of the laptop screen was too low if I tried to use the keyboard and trackpad built into the laptop. We eventually settled on two shelves close together and a wall mounted 2nd monitor as shown in the picture. We cut the memory foam mat to size and added he shelf edging to provide a comfortable surface on which to rest my wrists.

In use I have found a number of positives and negatives in this setup. I will go over these in no predetermined order.

Working while standing:

It has been very interesting to me to learn how my brain changes when walking. Certain tasks that are more sensory in nature are impacted very little. Watching videos, listening to podcasts, reading articles, and participating in conference calls are all straightforward. Heavy cognitive tasks are a different story. If I need to really think and problem solve I find it almost impossible. I suspected that this would improve over time but it has not. After three months I have learned to choose my tasks carefully and plan my treadmill time wisely.

Eye Strain:

Another challenge has been eye strain caused by natural head movement during walking. I use very dense screens (1920 x 1080) on both my laptop and external monitor. I have noticed a predictable onset of headaches if I walk for longer than an hour at a time, switching resolutions would likely help but my guess is recently ordered trifocals are the real solution. Again this leads me to plan my time at the walking desk and use it as a change of venue or pace, not a lengthy work destination.

As I use it more often I also find myself wishing for speed controls, I expect to get them repaired in the near future. At this point I consider the experiment a rousing success. While there are some limitations, I am very pleased and I expect the walking desk to continue to be a central part of my work day.

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One Comment

  1. Christian February 7, 2012 at 11:44 AM #

    I think this is such a cool idea and very much wish I could apply it as well, a great way to stay moving and still be productive!

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