Thinking on My Feet

by TC Loving

I use a treadmill desk. My reason: better thinking.

How I Use My Treadmill Desk

Here at Twocanoes I am a web programmer, which means at about 7 hours of screen time 5 days a week. (Just writing that makes my back ache.) I am in the office about one week every month. I working from home most of the time. When I am at home, I work at my treadmill desk. I have used my treadmill desk every work day that I am home since October 30, 2013. I always walk at 2.5 miles per hour when I am working, never faster; never slower. I keep track of how far I walk when I am working.

Date Miles
11/07/14 3.04 *
11/10/14 11.56
11/11/14 10.92
11/12/14 11.41
11/13/14 11.20
11/14/14 10.38
11/17/14 6.52
11/18/14 9.35
11/19/14 10.75
11/20/14 7.08

Average 9.22

* Miles are inversely proportional to video conference time.

What Surprised Me About Working at a Treadmill Desk

  • I never feel like I have gotten a workout even if I have walked more than 10 miles that day.
  • I never noticed any aches or pains from walking on my treadmill even though I am 57. I do, however, find it painful to sit for a long time.
  • I hardly ever want to sit down when I am done working at the end of the day.
  • Tennis shoes with arch support make my feet hurt.
  • It cost me about the same amount as a good office chair. My husband and I set up my treadmill desk with a treadmill from Craig’s list ($100); something called a Surf Shelf ($40) to attach your laptop (or keyboard, in my case) to your treadmill and articulating arm ($90) that attaches to my Thunderbolt Display to the wall.
  • When I need to be at Twocanoes HQ, I really miss working at my treadmill desk.
  • My brain seems to work better when I am walking.

Better Thinking

I feel like using my treadmill desk helps me think better. By better thinking, I mean decreasing the time I feel distracted and decreasing the time that I am stuck on a programming problem.

Keeping Focused

I have a tendency to get up from my desk at the drop of a hat. I think it is partly due to wanting to move a bit after being stationary and partly due obsessively drinking pots and pots of tea.

If I am at my treadmill desk, I don’t have that cramped feeling I get sitting or standing at my desk. If I move away from my treadmill desk it takes a bit more deliberate effort. I have to record how far I have walked and turn off the treadmill. Just this small barrier to moving away from my work, gives me time to reflect on whether I really need that break or if I can just as easily refocus on my work. And the truth be told, I want to rack up the miles – a little competition with myself. This keeps me at my work, until I reach the next mile. If I go past that mile, I will try for the next mile: a virtuous cycle, you might say.

Increased Blood Flow to the Brain

Ok this part is mostly me hypothesizing, but it sounds plausible.

This much is true: I can and do fall asleep everywhere: riding in the car, in front of the TV, at concerts and ballgames, and at my desk. I blame my low blood pressure. Not only do I NOT fall asleep while working at the treadmill, I don’t have my mid-afternoon lull that is characterized by me yawning and looking for bright and shiny objects on the interwebs to pull me out of the lull. I believe that walking, even at my glacial pace, keeps more blood flowing to my brain. More blood flowing in the brain MUST mean better thinking. If you have scientific evidence to the contrary, no need to set me straight. Don’t knock the placebo effect unless you more than 30% sure that people want their delusions shattered.

Working hard is my default response to all stress. When I am stuck on problem, instead of walking away for a bit and coming back to it with fresh eyes – what I know I should do – I often redouble my ineffective efforts. I call this “working stupid.” I have noticed most of the times that I am really working stupid are the times that I am sitting – not only just sitting, but sitting in the same position. My foot will fall asleep, my posture slips from poor to hunched, and I become more and more anxious about missing a deadline or producing low quality work. And I am in a vicious cycle of anxiety making me less able to think clearly and the lack of clear thinking making me unable to recognize that I need to step back. I can’t think of one time that I was in this kind of viscous cycle while working at my treadmill desk. I still get stuck, but I don’t seem to work stupid when I am walking. Just a little more blood flowing through my brain (or whatever it is about walking while I work), seems to prevent me from falling back into my worst work habits.

A Happy Mind

None of us think very well when we are stressed. This brings me to my next hypothesis. We think better when we are happy! That sounds at least as good as my last hypothesis, right?

I am one of those people who get a lot of exercise. I exercise like some people watch television: everyday and without giving it too much thought. Mostly I swim, jog, bike or cross country ski depending on the weather.

I always get the “runner’s high” when I exercise. After a swim, I feel ecstatic. After a jog, I feel like the Queen of all I survey. When I bike, I revel in every red tailed hawk and interesting cloud formation that comes into my peripheral vision. When I am gliding along a a ski trail on a cold, starry Iowa night, I feel like I found one of the best things the Universe has to offer. And how cool is that?

Let me tell you right now, working at a treadmill desk doesn’t feel like that. But I am definitely happier working at my treadmill desk. It is kind of like the general feeling you have on bright, sunny day or when you catch one of your favorite songs on the radio – a song that was popular when you were 19: simply a good feeling. I notice a little boost in my mood. I have a brighter outlook about my work.

And if you accept my pulled-from-thin-air idea that happiness helps you think better. There you go: walking while you work makes you work better.

Down to the Last Mile

Who doesn’t want to get more done at work? Who doesn’t want to think more clearly? Who doesn’t want to get more enjoyment out of his or her work? I wish I had the sure-fire formula for you and for me. As you can see, I just have a couple of hard-to-test hypotheses.

But using a treadmill desk is, for me, a no-regrets course of action. There is that one scientific study (and only one, as far as I can see) that concludes that using a treadmill desk increases productivity. There are many, many studies that show the mind and body benefits of increased physical activity. I have more than 1300 miles of working at a treadmill desk, and all I know is that I would much rather continue to work this way.

Pro Treadmill Desk Evidence

Other people (who have more impressive credentials a completion certificate from the Big Nerd Ranch and participation medal from the Minneapolis 2014 5K Fun Run) have lots of good reasons to use a treadmill desk.

Increased productivity

Scholarly Article: Treadmill Workstations: The Effects of Walking while Working on Physical Activity and Work Performance

Decreased health risk

Scholarly Article: Sedentary Behaviors Increase Risk of Cardiovascular Disease Mortality in Men

A healthy lifestyle change that is easy to maintain

A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy, experimented with innumerable healthy lifestyles from the caveman workout to proper hand washing. The treadmill desk is one these lifestyle changes that he embraced with enthusiasm and made a habit.