Saturday, September 13, 2014

How to set up a low-cost treadmill desk

Miss D. and I have fielded a number of questions about how I set up my treadmill desk, which allows me to work at the computer while walking and getting some exercise.  She recently took this photograph of my setup.

The computer is set up with dual monitors, both showing the same display.  One's plugged into the VGA port, while the other uses the HDMI port.  They're 23" units, one from HP (which came with the computer) and the other a cheaper, but entirely usable Viewsonic unit. I also use two USB keyboards (the Microsoft Natural 4000, which I find very ergonomic) and two mice, one pair on the seated desk and one on the shelving unit, using a USB hub to plug them all into a single port at the rear of the machine.

The shelving unit is similar to this one, 18" deep, 48" wide (I chose that width to allow plenty of space on either side of the treadmill, and to position multiple computer components along a shelf) and 75" tall on its wheels.  They're freely available at Lowes or Home Depot, or from online vendors.  I chose this type of shelving in particular because the shelves can be adjusted in height by increments of about 1".  That meant I could adjust them to slide the treadmill motor beneath the bottom shelf, position my computer, UPS unit, laser printer and other items next to each other on intermediate shelves, and accommodate a 23" monitor on the second-from-top shelf.  I cut a piece of plywood 24" deep and fastened it with clamps to a mid-level shelf, adjusting the latter's height so that it supports a keyboard and mouse at the right level for my hands.  The plywood extension allows me to bring them closer to my body, enabling me to walk naturally on the treadmill without having to reach forward too far.  I've covered all the shelves with thin (⅛") pieces of hardboard to provide a solid surface; if you don't want the hassle of cutting wood to size, there are low-cost plastic shelf liners to do the same thing.  This makes it easier to position computer components with small rubber or plastic 'feet' on the wire shelves, and also prevents small objects like pens from falling through them.

The treadmill is a LifeSpan unit.  The one I use isn't marketed as a stand-alone device any longer;  the current model is the TR1200, which is very similar to and several hundred dollars cheaper than I paid for mine.  It's a very good treadmill for desk use, being designed for extended walking with a heavy-duty motor providing lots of torque to keep going under heavy, slow-moving loads.  It can accommodate users weighing up to 350 pounds.  Miss D. and I sometimes walk for four to five hours a day between us, and our treadmill's worked just fine since we bought it almost a year ago.  To prevent it damaging the carpet in our office, we've put a sheet of heavy-duty plywood beneath it covered with a rubber treadmill mat, as well as a couple of planks on either side so that the wheels of the shelving unit can run smoothly (we have to move it now and again to clean behind it, or rearrange plugs on the computer equipment).

Thanks to my fused spine and nerve-damaged left leg I find it painful to stay in one position for too long, and I'm not able to walk fast or for very long without increased pain levels.  Therefore, this dual-desk setup gives me the best of both worlds.  I can sit and write until the pain increases;  then step onto the treadmill and walk slowly for 15-20 minutes while using the other keyboard, mouse and monitor;  then sit down again and continue working.  I get a decent amount of exercise even when writing for 8-10 hours per day, which is good for my health and (I find) helps me to concentrate and be more creative.

If you've been worrying about the real health hazards of extended sitting, you might want to try a setup like this.  It's often a lot cheaper to make your own using components like this than it is to buy one ready-made.  The major difficulty is finding a treadmill that can stand up to constant low-speed walking.  Most of them are designed for runners, providing more power and less torque (because a fast-moving body exerts less strain on the belt as it passes over the boards beneath it).  Consult professional sites (I found Treadmill Doctor particularly useful in comparing devices) and read user reviews before making up your own mind.

(On the other hand, I know someone who uses treadmills he picks up for next to nothing on Craigslist.  He buys one for $50-$75, removes the bits he doesn't need like armrests [taking out the cable to the control console if necessary, to make it a free-standing unit], adjusts his shelves to fit over and around it, and then uses it until it breaks down after a few months.  At that point he simply buys another cheap unit and throws away the old one.  He reckons that costs a lot less than buying a new, more expensive treadmill.  I prefer my arrangement, but if his way gets the job done for him, who am I to argue?)



Old NFO said...

Good idea, and one I'm filing away for when I get back into my own place! Thanks!

Eric Wilner said...

Ditto Old NFO: filing away against the possibility of "downsizing" to a place where I'd have room for such a setup.
I find it painful to stay in one position, too, and I don't even have obvious medical reasons for it. Maybe I'm just chronically fidgety.
I'd probably spend much of my time standing, if not necessarily walking. Hm. Maybe add a li'l brass rail for raising one foot at a time while standing?
For those on a higher budget, or who have connections at a hospital that's remodeling and discarding some old furnishings, there are some nifty alternatives for holding a stand-up keyboard and monitor just where you want them.

AbbyS said...

Another blog I read regularly has this idea for a treadmill workstation:
They are a VERY creative pair!


Rolf said...

Looks pretty workable. I have a lifespan 1200 treadmill desk, getting close to 5k miles on it now. Good unit. Making your own out of cast-offs has a certain satisfaction to it, and if it works, you are recycling!
Anyone that has to spend a lot of screen-time, I strongly recommend them.