(Yes, I have a giant mural of Fenway Park next to my desk)
According to my Google Docs spreadsheet (I’ll get to that), I’ve walked just shy of 61 miles on my Lifespan 1200DT / DT-5 treadmill desk. Since taking delivery, I’ve been in the office for sixteen days, thus averaging a bit below four miles per day with a high of 9.64 and a low of 1.63—the delivery came late that first day. Calorically, the treadmill desk claims to have burned off almost 10,000 calories, or a bit fewer than 600 daily. It’s been only a month, so definitive statements about usage over time can’t be made, but thus far a treadmill desk has fit into my workday seamlessly.
The first I can recall hearing about a treadmill/desk hybrid was in 2006 when Brad Feld wrote about his. Candidly, I found the concept outlandish at the time. It seemed like a set up made possible only by Brad’s stature and the nature of his profession; when people are asking you for money, rather than vice versa, they’re likely to be more accommodating.
Over the years, however, demand for treadmill desks has increased to the point that there are commercial options like the Lifespan—several of them, in fact—and major media outlets are beginning to cover the trend (see the Atlantic, BBC, or NPR). Part of the demand, of course, derives from the increasingly dire warnings about the health risks of prolonged sitting. The dire warnings being one of the primary reasons I’d been considering the idea more seriously over the past year or so. It was Neal Stephenson’s 2012 piece “Arsebestos” in his collection Some Remarks, however, that pushed me over the edge. He’s rather unequivocal in his advocacy:
Let us be clear about the import of this research. It’s not just that a bit of exercise is a good thing. It’s not the usual suggestion that deskbound office workers might want to spend a few minutes out of every hour on leisurely stretching activities. What we have here is hard scientific data telling us that if you sit for any significant amount of time per day, it will kill you. Maybe with a heart attack, maybe with a stroke, maybe with cancer, maybe with diabetes. The reaper comes for those who sit.
Even if one concedes that some of the risks of sitting are overstated (remember when eating eggs was considered dangerous?), and that the risks of alternatives are underappreciated, it can’t be argued that the basic metabolic exchange of sitting for walking is a positive one. Particularly if you do a lot of sitting, which I have to—or had to, I guess—to be any good at my job.
While I don’t care to speculate on the relative fitness of treadmill desks for wider adoption (I don’t, for example, agree that they’re for everyone), nor whether they will prove to be another passing healthcare fad (a more expensive version of the thighmaster), after a month with one I’m comfortable commenting on my usage. For those considering the jump, here are some thoughts on the pro’s and con’s of the device.
In the TechCrunch review of the same device I have, cost was apparently the number one complaint among commenters there. And at a $1500 retail cost, it’s easy to understand why. For businesses used to paying close to a thousand dollars for high-end desk chairs, it’s not a big leap. For an individual, it’s pricey.
Certainly it’s possible to assemble one on the cheap. This was actually the first route I considered, but I wasn’t able to find a match for the treadmill component on Craigslist: everything was either cheap and terrible, or much more machine than I needed and much higher cost.
In restrospect, I’m glad I bought the Lifespan rather than going the DIY route, simply because it’s been much easier to adjust desk height, and it’s nice have the treadmill controls integrated into the desk.
Two other notes on cost: first, most of the available retailers are eating shipping costs. This is significant because the shipped weight is over 200 pounds. Second, several of the available retailers have promo discounts available, and a little creative Googling may well turn one up. The cost of my unit, in fact, was $1350 rather than $1500.
The first thing I noticed when extracting the unit from the packaging was the build quality. The treadmill looks much like you’d expect a treadmill to look, but the desk is heavier duty than I’d anticipated. Structurally, the unit is quite sound and has no problem with my 30″ and 27″ monitor setup—weight-wise at least. It’s rated to hold up to 110 pounds, in fact.
General Installation & Setup
Installation was actually relatively straightforward. It comes in two large packages. All of the necessary tools—Allen wrenches, primarily—are included with the unit, and assembly is uncomplicated. I was able to complete it in maybe a half hour. The only tricky part, particularly if you are smaller, is bolting the desk surface to the desk legs: it’s somewhat heavy and unwieldy. I was able to complete it solo, but if you’re worried about it a second set of hands would help.
Lifespan has also thoughtfully provided wheels for the heaviest component, the treadmill unit, so that’s relatively easy to move and slot into place.
What They Don’t Tell You About Setup
One unanticipated issue was that none of my cabling—whether it was the USB cord for my keyboard/mouse or the power/DVI cabling for my monitors—was long enough for the new height. A USB hub and a couple of low cost 10′ cables from Monoprice solved this problem for me.
The one aspect of setup that is a bit of a challenge is determining desk height. It’s easy to do logistically, because the desk is designed to easily slide up and down with a series of predetermined slots. I’ve tried a number of different heights, and eventually settled on the calculation provided here, but I do occasionally experience some wrist pain so it may be that I have some tweaking ahead of me.
The unit is, in general, very quiet. The only real noise I’m making while underway is from footstrikes, as the motor and belt operation is present, but pretty minimal even at higher speeds. Getting going is simple: enter your weight and click On/Start. After a three second delay, the belt kicks in and you’re off to the races. Pausing is likewise straightforward: click Stop, and the belt starts slowing immediately. Starting up again will resume from where you were in terms of accumulative metrics; because I’m looking for metrics on a daily basis, I tend to stop and start a bunch each day, then reset it each morning so I can record the day’s numbers fresh.
One of the things I set out to do after getting the unit was determining what I could and couldn’t do at various speeds. This is roughly what I’ve come up with, though it changes as my experience with it grows.
- .5 – .8 MPH: Longer writing (email, posts), participatory voice calls (more on that later)
- 1 – 1.5 MPH: Research, reading, browsing, medium length writing (email)
- 1.5 – 2.0 MPH: Reading, browsing, shorter writing (Tweets)
- > 2.0 MPH: Light reading, non-participatory voice calls
The unit technically will get up to 4.0 MPH, but I’m almost completely unproductive above 3 MPH, and my downstair neighbors would probably kill me.
What I Can’t Do on the Treadmill (Thus Far, Anyway)
I’ve been able to acclimate most of my work responsibilities—reading, researching, email, Twitter, even my work in R—to treadmill usage, and I’ve even managed to write a few shorter pieces while walking. Longer writing tasks, however, are more of a challenge. At this point, pieces that require significant concentration – whether it’s for content, organization, or both—I do off the treadmill. Because I spend more time researching than I do actually writing, for better or for worse, this hasn’t been an issue for me. This may change over time—certainly it sounds like Stephenson has no issues with this, but for now long form writing is the one task for me that hasn’t translated yet.
I also haven’t tried development on the treadmill, so I can’t speak to it in that capacity. I will note, however, that I’m able to do my analysis in RStudio while walking with no real issues.
The first week or so I had the unit, I took all of my voice calls from a chair. Over the weeks since, I’ve gradually begun incorporating voice into the mix with zero issues. If you’ve spoken to me on the phone in the past few weeks, the odds are good that you’ve spoken to me on the treadmill. It may be that the Polycom speakerphones I use—I get them used off Craigslist and eBay for < $50—is actively canceling out some of the noise, but to date no one has been able to detect the noise of the treadmill while on a call. Or if they have, they’ve chosen not to mention it.
Over the month I’ve had the unit, it has locked up twice displaying a “DC – 1″ error, and Googling that error message has been generally unhelpful. A simple power cycle of the machine is enough to remedy things, but I’ll be opening a ticket with Lifespan to make sure I don’t have a real problem on my hands.
This is probably a complaint relatively unique to my setup, but I do wish the desktop space was slightly larger. It’s 46.75″ x 36.5″, which means that with my 30″ monitor centered, my second 27″ monitor has to be closer to perpendicular to me than is ideal. I have to turn enough to view the second monitor, in fact, that it affects my gait on the treadmill. Another inch or two would allow me to use a much more shallow angle and thereby improve the usability. I may eventually try to mount an arm on the desktop surface or even do away with the second monitor entirely, but in the interim, it’s a bit crowded.
My only other real complaint is connectivity and data access. My unit is equipped with Bluetooth, which theoretically should be able to sync data to my phone or laptop. As far as I can tell, however, my treadmill will only talk to the LifeSpan app, which I can only get if I’ve joined the “LifeSpan Fitness Club.” I’m hoping that LifeSpan will eventually open up access to their APIs and allow integration with other services, be they Nike+, FitBit (I’m contemplating a FitBit Flex) or otherwise. LifeSpan clearly makes excellent quality fitness equipment; I have less confidence in their ability to build and grow a competitive software and services business. So in the interim, I’m manually recording all of my statistics in a Google Doc spreadsheet.
One discovery made a result of getting the treadmill/desk is that there is one live/work space in my office building, and that it happens to be the unit directly below me. After using the unit late one night, I had a visit from the downstairs tenant the next morning. Fortunately, he was quite understanding cancelling particularly about usage during the day canceling but it remains an issue. I’ve cushioned the legs of both treadmill and desk with hard furniture pads and some vibration absorbant under-carpet material from Home Depot, but if I’m to use the unit at night I’ll probably need a different approach. Or an office on the first floor.
Overall, I’m very happy with the purchase. Whether or not the “SITTERS DIE” academic studies prove to be completely correct or not, turning what would otherwise be sedentary portions of my day into periods of at least mild exercise is a win in my book. In spite of the issues just mentioned above, it’s my opinion that the 1200DT / DT-5 is a good value for the money. It is a solidly built and easy to use piece of hardware that can improve your overall health without negatively impacting your productivity. If budget permits, then, I’d recommend it.
Disclosure: There’s nothing to disclose. This was not a review unit, but one purchased straight from retail.