My Ridiculous Treadmill Desk

I’ve finished building my second treadmill desk. Now I have one at both my east and west coast basecamps.


As the name implies, a treadmill desk (aka tread-desk or walking desk) is the mashup of a treadmill with a desk. And it lets computer users replace sitting with walking.

Sitting, it turns out, is terrible for us. So terrible in so many ways that I won’t even begin to list them here. The real surprise though, comes from a study that shows that even regular exercise can’t undo all the damage.

The goal then is to sit less. For those of us whose lives are primarily mental, where “acting” on our ideas tends to be effected by sitting in meetings, sitting on phone calls, and sitting while wiggling our fingers at our keyboard, a tread-desk may be the single best thing we can do for our health and longevity.


The most common misconception about my tread-desk is that I’m running or jogging on this thing. Not so. I have the treadmill set to its lowest speed: 0.5 mph. At that speed, there is no negative impact to my concentration or typing ability. Walking so slowly is actually meditative, just as a labyrinth is an ancient device for achieving meditation by walking at slow speeds.

With the tread-desk, I’m not after “cardio.” I’m just trying to avoid sitting (or stationary standing) for long periods, which our anatomy is not suited for. But long periods of slow walking is something our bodies absolutely evolved to do. When my treadmill automatically shuts off after 90 minutes I am always like, “What? Already?”

Solvitur ambulando, says an old Latin phrase. “It is solved by walking.”


So why have I titled this post my “ridiculous” treadmill desk? Because part of me recognizes that the whole thing is ludicrous. Right now I’m writing this post while striding atop an ugly motorized hunk of metal and plastic, from inside a house, on a farm, in the middle of a redwood forest.

Why am I in here instead of out there?

Because computer interfaces are about a million miles off from being reconciled with our million-year-old anatomy. Despite my brain and body having evolved “out there”, my primary tool of expression involves staring fixedly into a small glowing rectangle and tapping on it.

This is today’s default stance of productivity. And it’s gotta go.

One day computer interfaces will level up. And from Google Glass, Leap Motion, various eye-tracking startups, etc. we know that preparations are under way. Then we’ll be able to access all the information we need even while walking around outside with all that wide-screen, high-res reality. No keyboard, no monitor… no treadmill. The concept of the office itself will undergo another radical change.

Till then I am glad to have this kludge of a treadmill desk. And if you want to be around to see the future happen you might consider getting one too.


Standing Desk vs Walking Desk: I have of course tried standing desks before this. While some improvement over sitting, they are inferior. While standing I have found myself surprisingly capable of finding ways to slouch. Sometimes I would end up with belly out and hands on my hips (the pregnant look). Sometimes I would end up hunched over with my elbows on the desk. And after a half hour or so some part of me would always begin to ache — probably because we didn’t evolve to sit or stand stationary for long periods either. The treadmill desk doesn’t seem prone to the same abuses. Nor does it cause me any pain.

Cost — Brand new, you can snag a desk-friendly treadmill for around $500, or a ready-made treadmill desk for two or three times that amount. Me, I prefer to get unwanted treadmills used off Craigslist. It just makes me feel good to not make the planet cough up another hundred pounds of metal and plastic needlessly.

The first treadmill I got of CL for free because it was “broken”. Two hours later, after soldering a loose wire on the circuit board and tightening the drive belt it was good as new. The second treadmill I got off CL in perfect working condition for $35.

This strategy leaves you to fashion the desk part somehow. And while the productivity freak in me considers it a low-leverage waste of time, another part of me relishes the chance to actually use some tools and do something constructively tactile.

Consider it a brain-training exercise. We know it’s good for the brain to be challenged with unfamiliar activity and resourcefulness. I like trying to build my desks out of materials lying around and abiding by those constraints has led to some elegant designs: my first desk was a single sheet of wood and string, my second used a scrap 2×4”, a discarded plywood shelf, and a few inches of pvc.

Noise — If you’re in an office environment noise is a real concern, especially for the $35 Craiglist special. There are exercise treadmills out there that are whisper quiet but you’ll need to find out which ones. I assume the new generation of treadmills geared for desk use are a fair bit quieter.