I’ve been reading a lot (too much, really) about what sitting all day can do to you. Study after study is popping up showing that not only is inactivity extremely bad for your long-term health, but the act of sitting all day can be deadly — even if you do commit to exercising after work. As a full-time writer, sitting on my rear all day is pretty much what I do, so I’ve been watching the damning research pile up with increasing concern. I finally felt that it was time to do something about it. I have a treadmill in my office area, and it’s capable of sustained, low-speed sessions. I decided to try MacGyvering a treadmill desk. It actually turned out pretty well.
Standing desks have become increasingly popular, but the idea doesn’t really appeal to me. I’ve spent years building up an office setup that’s comfortable, ergonomic and productive. I don’t really want to blow it all up and start over. I don’t want to start messing with risers to convert my existing desk, either. I also exaggerated a little when I said I sit my butt all day. Yes, I’m seated while I’m working, but I do keep moving a fair bit through the day. As a stay-at-home dad, my working hours are essentially limited to school hours and I take an hour out of that on most days to make lunch for my kids. So that basically leaves a pair of 2.5 hour sessions of quality chair time. Those are broken up by repeated trips up the stairs for coffee, to let the dogs out and to answer the door. I suppose that little bit of exercise is one advantage of having one’s office stuck in the basement. I try switch to a laptop and shift upstairs on occasion, to where I can see the sun for an hour or two. And I make a conscious effort to take a few breaks during the day to hit the treadmill and throw some weights around.
Still, I’m in my mid-forties, I’m nowhere near as active as I used to be and — ergonomic as my workspace may be — I am still sitting more than I probably should be.
Enter the idea of a treadmill desk. A good chunk of my daily writing is heavily research-based. I have multiple monitors and I use every square inch of them. I use an extended keyboard, a mouse and a trackpad. I’m jotting notes, and scrawling on a whiteboard. That doesn’t lend itself so well to the treadmill idea, unless I were to go whole hog and invest in a commercial treadmill desk. However, I try to spend an hour or so during the day on fiction. For that, I prefer to use a laptop, with the web browser and e-mail turned off for minimal distraction. No accessories, a small footprint and I don’t even need to worry about power. That’s a scenario where a jury-rigged solution is more likely to work.
Our treadmill has large, sturdy handholds. I grabbed an old IKEA shelf that was left over from some other project and tried laying it across the bars. The combination made for a very solid surface (the shelf is 1-inch thick), and at 4 feet long it was more than enough to securely span the bars and its 12-inch depth was sufficient to accommodate a 13-inch MacBook Air with space in front for a comfortable wrist rest (my 17-inch MacBook Pro would be happier with an 18-inch deep shelf). Unfortunately, the bars sloped downward, toward the user. This made it awkward to type and the laptop’s display couldn’t be angled widely enough for a good view. No problem, a couple of triangular chunks screwed on to the bottom of the shelf countered the angle of the bars, making for a flat surface. It was a perfect typing height too. But how to secure it? Ideally, I want to be able to set this thing up or take it down in less than 30 seconds (I can’t imagine my wife would appreciate running on a treadmill with a chunk of wood duct-taped across it), so I don’t want to be permanently affixing anything. The answer turned out to be Velcro. A few strips on the handle, a few underneath the shelf and the treadmill desk — more of a treadmill TV tray, really — is rock solid, even with the motor running and me stomping on the deck. It may not look state-of-the-art, but it also didn’t cost much. Besides the treadmill (which I fortunately had already), my investment was a $20 spare shelf, a few screws, $5 worth of Velcro and a half hour of measuring, cutting and assembly.
So far, it’s worked great. I still get to relax and enjoy my existing workspace for at least a few hours each day, but without the nagging feeling that it’s slowly killing me. Working on the treadmill desk required surprisingly little adjustment and no compromises. I keep it at around 1.5 mph, so I’m not exactly burning through calories, but that’s not the point. For a solid hour a day (and again in the evening if I get the chance), I’m writing without sitting down; I’m not only standing, but in motion. The movement is mechanical enough that I forget I’m walking; I keep a phone handy, I’m able to drink coffee and it doesn’t interfere with the writing process. The only issue has been a slight adjustment to a non-moving surface when I step off the machine after an hour, and the dogs seem a little confused about what I’m trying to accomplish.
Anyone who’s concerned about the potential health effects of sitting all day can buy a standing desk or a specialized treadmill desk — they’ve become popular enough that there’s a big choice of models out there now. But if you’re not certain whether or not to make the leap and you have the basics available, it may be worthwhile hobbling together something yourself to give the concept a test drive first. I’ll try to circle back in a few months to let you know if I run into any challenges with my experimental version.