/treadTray : Treadmill Desk

Treadmill Desk Setup

http://www.brains-N-brawn.com/treadTray 4/1/2010 casey chesnut

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Introduction

i love to code but hate sitting on my butt all day. enter the treadmill desk from Dr. James Levine. it lets you walk at a slow pace and get a little exercise while you work, surf, or watch tv. this article will explain how i went about setting up my treadmill desk. of course there's a little code to go along with it.

in all honesty, i'm addicted to computers and working out (e.g. brains-N-brawn.com) ... the very concept of a treadmill desk fits me perfectly. so i spend too much time at a computer and when it comes to working out ... i frequently overtrain. yep, working out too much. secretly (shh) the treadmill desk lets me feel less guilty about spending time at the computer, and it also lets me get some light exercise instead of hitting the gym and doing something more strenuous (i.e. overtraining) on the days i should be resting. if somebody is giving you crap about spending too much time at a computer and not getting enough exercise ... a treadmill desk is how you kill the 2 birds.

setup video

Treadmill

the first step was to buy a treadmill. for tips, i started out reading the articles at treadmill-desk.com. the motor should be somewhat powerful for continuous use and it should also be relatively quiet (especially if you want to use a speakerphone or speech recognition). the belt should be wide and long to avoid missteps. NOTE depending on how you build the desk, the desk might take up some of the usable belt length. the treadmill frame should be heavy and stable. the motion of walking will make controlling the computer difficult enough, so you dont want to introduce more error. along those lines, some treadmill decks are really stiff while others have more give. you'll probably want to try different brands to see which style you prefer walking on. i also wanted adjustable incline so that i could target different muscle groups/angles and change walking difficulty. finally the plan is to use this alot, so i wanted a decent warranty with in-home service. i recommend that you physically try out the treadmill to test its noise level, comfort, and stability.

i ended up purchasing a Sole F63 for $1100. that included delivery, install, and an extended warranty with in-home service. the in-home service includes 'tune ups', which means they will come out to perform yearly maintenance service such as tightening the belt. it has a 2.5hp motor which is 'relatively' quiet at low speeds. the belt is 20 inches wide and 55 inches long. 20 inches is more than wide enough to avoid stepping off the belt. the belt is longer than needed for my walking stride, and its also just long enough for me to jog on (although i use it strictly for walking). but i really like it because it was one of the sturdiest treadmills i tried out, so its extra stable.

now for the unimportant stuff. like built-in fans which i dont use because they just add noise and it is setup in a room with a ceiling fan. it also provides all sorts of exercise programs which i dont care about because i typically just adjust the speed and incline when i start a session. the cup holders are useful for holding USB hubs, otherwise my desk blocks access to them. it also has speakers with an audio jack, which might be useful, but for now i'm using the speakers that are built-in to the computer monitor. next, the heart rate handles are entirely covered by my desk, but they are positioned in a manner which seems to make them unreachable even if the desk wasn't in the way. finally, the treadmill deck could fold up ... if the desk wasn't in the way.

the only nitpick i have with this treadmill is my desk setup makes it hard to reach the start and stop controls. i also wish it had a USB port. i'd love for there to be an API that let me access start/stop, current speed, and incline settings as well as adjust them programmatically. NOTE some treadmills support iFit, which lets you adjust the incline and speed using audio signals. then you could write a program that could determine your current active window and adjust the difficulty based on how hard you need to concentrate. e.g. slow down when visual studio is open and speed up when windows media player has focus.

Desk

now i needed a desk. treadmill-desk.com describes that there are 2 main styles : Attached vs. Freestanding. i started out putting together a cheap Attached style desk. it was just a 36 inch shelf bought at Lowes/Home Depot ($10) glued to some foam blocks that I bought from Michaels, and all of it tethered to my treadmills handrails. i did not have an external monitor at this point, so i just set my notebook on top. this worked, but quickly showed me how important the ergonomics of the setup was going to be, because staring down at the notebook screen was not comfortable. it was also difficult to type on my notebooks keyboard while walking because my elbows were positioned awkward. finally, although the F63 is heavy and stable, the desk still had some motion when i walked.

for the 2nd attempt, i tried an Ergotron LX wall mount (used and on sale!). mainly, i just needed the monitor and keyboard arms. the idea was to place the treadmill parallel to a wall, and then install the monitor and keyboard arms to swing out from the side and be usable from the treadmill. if i just wanted to use the treadmill, not as a desk, then i'd be able to swing the keyboard out of the way. it would also be usable by people of different heights, because they could adjust both the monitor and keyboard. er, um ... so i think it looked dead sexy, but it didn't provide enough desk space and the keyboard arm was even less stable than the attached desk style above. that said, i loved the monitor arm. it can support moderately heavy monitors, is easy to position, and you can buy an extender piece if needed. NOTE another option, other than a monitor mount, is to put the treadmills back against a wall and build a wall shelf for the monitor.

for the 3rd attempt, i tried a hybrid approach. i kept using the Ergotron LX wall mount LCD arm with a USB (or wireless) mouse and keyboard on an Attached style desk (instead of the keyboard arm). the monitor arm took care of the problem of staring down at the notebook monitor, and the attached style desk improved the stability of the keyboard and provided more desk space. this was a pretty good setup, but it still was not as stable as i wanted.

finally, i found this post by Justin Lloyd. it basically involves building a shelf or shelves (2nd shelf for the monitor) around the desk; Freestanding style. i could not find the shelving components that he used, but i just bought a wire metal shelf (4 or 5 shelves) at Wal-Mart (54x36x14) for about $35. then i used heavy duty wire cutters to cut out the inner 'shelf' wires and 1 side for some of the lower shelves, where my feet could pass through as i walked. this still left 3 sides of these shelves to hold the legs together. for the top shelf, i used a wood drill bit to drill holes in a 36x16 inch wooden shelf so that it could be placed over the metal legs of the shelving. this provided the desk surface and additional weight. the wooden shelf was a little slick for mouse and keyboard, so i added some contact paper on top of that. finally, i bungeed the legs of the metal shelving to the frame of the treadmill. for the monitor, i kept using the Ergotron wall mount. this setup is very stable because the desk is freestanding, and the movement of the treadmill is not transferred to the desk surface. so that just leaves the problem of your body moving as you walk. the only drawback with this desk is that it covers the start and stop buttons of the treadmill. its a slightly awkward reach to turn it on/off, and then i just use the speed and incline controls on the arm rails. also, the desk height would be difficult to adjust if you needed to support people of varying height.

check out the Comfortable Computing Initiative for ergonomic measurements of your desk and monitor height. remember that you need to offset the height of the treadmill deck, especially if you'll be walking at an incline. the keyboard should be level with your elbows to keep your forearms in a neutral position. and a negative tilt on the keyboard will keep your wrists flat. the top of the monitor should be level with your eyes and about an arms length away. finally, the monitor should be tilted slightly back so the top and bottom are equal distances away from your eyes.

Accessories

Cost

there are a couple different options for setting up the desk part on the cheap, so if you already own a treadmill (and its collecting dust), then i think turning it into a treadmill desk is a perfect way to try and get more use from it.

Setup

the following is how i have the desks wired. its basically the opposite of a KVM switch. instead of having 1 set of keyboard, mouse, monitor to use multiple computers; you have multiple keyboard, mouse, monitors to drive a single computer. the setup should allow you to easily switch between sitting and standing, depending on what you are working on. for video, i have my desktop duplicated to both monitors. for a tower computer, you could also do a multi-monitor setup, or i'm assuming you could use a physical DVI/HDMI splitter. keyboard and mouse are easy, you can just keep hooking them up. using the internal mic and speakers of a notebook introduces some challenges with audio, but the /treadTray app will address those below. if you have external speakers you can just use an audio splitter.

Usage

started out using the treadmill for about 1 hr every day. surprisingly, my feet and hips were a bit sore from adding that amount of walking. i started out walking at 1 mph. this seemed really slow, but it was necessary for me to adjust, because i also had some initial eye strain from reading while walking. it took about a week for the soreness and eye strain to go away.

walking speed depends on what i'm doing. i jog on treadmills at the gym at 5 mph. if i was warming up on a treadmill before a workout, i'd walk at 3.3 mph. on the treadmill desk, i go at 2-3 mph when watching videos, 1.3 mph when i'm using the computer, and as slow as 1.0 mph if my legs are tired from working out. if i go faster than 1.3 mph, then it becomes difficult to accurately use a trackball. for duration, i usually walk for 1-2 hrs a couple times a day, and i'm at the sitting desk in between sessions. 2 hrs might seem like alot of walking, but its such a slow speed that its only 2.6 miles. most pedometer programs want you to walk 10,000 steps per day, or about 5 miles.

i also alternate between standing and sitting based on task. watching videos, surfing, email, news, light research/brainstorming is all done on the treadmill desk. but i sit down to code. the act of coding seems to require more of my concentration, so thats when i retire to the desk. it also becomes much easier to move the cursor around when adding missing parentheses. about the only code i've managed to write at the treadmill desk has been small code maintenance tasks. that said, i have done some more intense coding while using it as a standing desk. in this case, i dont even turn the treadmill on, and just stand at the deck. this has become a frequent usage pattern when i just want to look something up real quick.

usage video

Difficulty

using the treadmill desk is a balancing act between keyboard/mouse input accuracy and degree of physical difficulty. at high speeds, the motion of your body makes it prohibitively difficult to work the computer. so you have to find other ways to increase difficulty.

first, i always walk with at least an incline of 2. sometimes i crank it up higher, but that starts to throw off the keyboard height.

next, i tried the whole barefoot trend. this was really hard on my feet. i could only walk for about 30 minutes before my feet had had enough, while i can easily walk for hours wearing shoes. plus the bottoms of my feet were all black from the treadmill belt. if i could find the Vibram FiveFingers shoes in-store to try on, i might give barefoot walking another chance.

then, i started wearing weight vests. this increases difficulty at low speeds. i liked this alot, so now i have 2 vests (20 and 40 lbs), and i switch between them depending on how my legs feel. NOTE you want to avoid ankle/wrist weights and weighted belts.

finally, i bought a pair of Skecher Shape-Ups when they came out with pairs for men. these create an imbalance which is supposed to be like walking in sand. the 1st time i wore them i could really feel my abs working. that soreness went away, but they do make it more difficult to walk on the treadmill. there are times when i'll start out wearing the Shape Ups until my legs get tired, and then i'll switch to regular tennis shoes and keep walking.

now they just need a way to increase local gravity, a pro-gravity machine, DBZ style.

NOTE i need to try adjusting the treadmill desk to its highest height possible and try walking at a much steeper incline at low speeds to see how i like that.

NEAT

NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. the idea is that doing more small movements throughout the day will add up to a caloric deficit for weight loss. i.e. standing instead of sitting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away, or better yet, walking instead of driving, etc... blah blah blah obesity epidemic.

but i was 10-12% body fat when i setup the treadmill desk, so it wasn't my intention to build one for weight loss. walking at such slow speeds does not burn significant calories. i assume most people would get a bigger caloric loss by not drinking soda / high calorie coffee / alcohol. personally, i'm all for diet AND exercise, but i think nutrition is the bigger part of the equation. its easier to create a caloric deficit by not eating the calories in the first place vs. having to burn them off through exercise. so most people would be better served spending the time to learn nutrition vs. setting up a treadmill desk. that said ... when researching the treadmill desk, i read many posts from people that were losing weight using treadmill desks.

i wore a GoWearFit device for about a month to measure my caloric expenditure. NOTE 6 ft. tall, 190 lbs. at the sitting desk, i burn approximately 100-120 calories per hour. on the treadmill desk, i was burning approximately 150-200 calories per hour. if the goal is to lose 1 lb of fat a week, then you want to have a caloric deficit of 500 calories each day, for a  total of 3500 calories (l lb of fat) over a week. so i'd have to use the treadmill desk for a large portion of my waking day to get a 500 calorie deficit. thus, i dont really think of my treadmill desk as a weight loss device. its much easier for me to (in order of importance) get a caloric deficit by monitoring what i eat, lifting weights, performing more strenuous forms of cardio at a gym, and finally the treadmill desk ... of course it all adds up over time.

haven't read the studies, but i've seen articles stating that sitting all day might shut down an enzyme that burns fat, lower good cholesterol, and ultimately slow the metabolism. not to mention a little bit of exercise releases endorphins ... which are awesome. there have definitely been times where i've just totally forgotten that i'm on the treadmill and a couple hours have passed before i even realized it, or i get off the treadmill and feel like i have more energy than when i got on, or the change of scenery was just enough to help me solve some problem that i was stuck on.

/treadTray App

a goal of the setup was to be able to easily switch between the sitting desk and the treadmill desk. so all i have to do is turn on the treadmill, adjust its speed and incline, turn on the computer monitor, and start working. then to switch back to sitting, i just stop the treadmill and turn off the monitor. the one problem was audio, because i use the internal speakers and mic of the notebook. i could not find a good way to get the audio to play to multiple outputs at one time. i did try a program called Virtual Audio Cable, but there was a noticeable lag when watching videos. the other option would be to get external speakers for the sitting desk, and then physically split the audio output. but i'm more of a minimalist than an audiophile, plus i already have too many speakers in this room. the next option would be to change the default audio device. the problem is there is no API to do this programmatically. er, um ... actually you can do it a couple different ways in code, but that code has to run as Administrator. for now, i wanted to avoid that. the workaround is to use a script engine like AutoIt to open the Sound Control Panel and then change the settings for you. that's what i decided to go with. so the /treadTray app does the following

so as soon as i get up from the sitting desk and hit a key on the keyboard or move the trackball at the treadmill desk, then it runs the script and changes the default audio devices. simple, but i was getting really pissed off having to do this manually.

i used the following links as resources :

also wanted the /treadTray app to put my notebook monitor to sleep when i'm at the treadmill desk ... but i haven't figured this out yet. actually, i know how to put the monitor to sleep, but when the display is duplicated it also puts the treadmill desk to sleep as well. so i need to find a way to put a specific monitor to sleep, even when duplicated.

Conclusion

setting up a treadmill desk is pretty easy. the most difficult decision, as well as costly, was figuring out which treadmill to get. and creating a desk is really easy. but i was really hoping that i could use it while coding ... that said, i absolutely love my treadmill desk. i use it every day if not a couple times each day.

i do wish that treadmill manufacturers would get in on the action and start adding some features for walking workers (e.g. i really want a USB/Bluetooth treadmill). the computer could pair the treadmill and it would just show up as another device with a driver. then we could programmatically start/stop the treadmill, and read/write the incline and speed settings. the computer could also send audio to the speakers of the treadmill, or read the built-in heart rate monitor of the treadmill and display it as a desktop gadget or to record the workouts. i'm also holding my breath that treadmill desks would take off and people would come to realize how perfect trackballs are for treadmill desks, and somebody would manufacture a thumb controlled bluetooth usb trackball with a back button.

Source

Update

figure my next computer will be USB 3.0. i'm assuming that pipe might be big enough to just have a single USB connection off the desktop computer, connected to a universal dock with video, connected to the treadmill desk.

for the /treadTray app, i'd like to record workout data. i wouldn't wear a chest strap to measure heart rate, but potentially a GoWearFit, FitBit, or one of those Nike shoe accelerometers. ultimately, if i could programmatically adjust the speed and incline of the treadmill, then i'd like to determine which window had focus, and then automatically change the intensity of the workout based on the task of the user.

have problems with moderation, so i could easily see setting up * Desk (i.e. recumbent bike desk). i'd like to try the new Nautilus Mobia as a desk too.

Future

the next article might be MCE related. later