Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Lessons learned from walking at work

MIT’s commencement was Friday, and (despite the fact that most of my Masters students are continuing to work on their theses over the summer) my official summer began yesterday. Yes, I’m looking forward to catching up on reading, not driving into Boston and the general wonder of the Berkshires in the sunshine… but I’m most looking forward to working from my walking desk.

I have been restructuring my life around walking over the past couple of years. I’ve found that it’s the only exercise I can consistently get myself to do when I’m at home, in Cambridge or on the road. In Cambridge, I now stay in a bed and breakfast three miles away from my office, in part so I can get almost half of my daily walking goal during a 50 minute walk to work. When I travel, I try to wake up early and take hour-long walks around the city I’m staying in, which is good for combatting jetlag and for getting the lay of the land.

At home, though, I have become a reluctant treadmill user. It’s shockingly lovely where we live, and hiking is one of the very best ways to encounter the Berkshires. But home time is wife and kid time, and so I try to be efficient enough in my workdays at home that I have time to throw a ball with Drew or watch bad TV with Rachel. For the past two years, I’ve tried to schedule 1-2 hours a day of conference calls in the afternoon so I can drive to a nearby rail trail to walk and talk. (And yes, I certainly do see the irony of driving to walk. We live on a twisty mountain road where it’s just not especially safe to walk, and where it’s damned hard to carry on a conversation while trudging uphill.) When it’s too cold or rainy to walk outside, I’d tried a new trick – walking on the treadmill after Rachel went to bed, watching old episodes of LOST.

Rachel started using that treadmill – a noisy hand-me-down from friends – to walk while “syncing” in the morning (checking email, social media, etc.) and found that taking half an hour in the morning to do so made her happier for the rest of the day. I tried it and decided that, while I could sync and walk, I needed a desk for real work and a treadmill that was dramatically quieter if I was going to use it to walk and talk.

Last month, we took the plunge, and bought Lifespan’s TR-1200, which seems to be the entry-level walking desk treadmill of choice. (Lifespan makes cheaper treadmills, but this one is rated for several hours of use per day, and with the two of us sharing, it seemed a better option than the cheapest model.) Because Rachel and I are close in height, I was able to build in a desk that’s comfortable for both of us. I bought a new 27″ LCD monitor and a swing arm, repurposed an old desktop speaker set, and bought a remote control fan to mount on a ceiling beam behind the treadmill.

walkingdesk

For the past month, we’ve each been using the desk about an hour a day when we’re in town. This week, working from home, I’m putting in closer to 3 hours each day and starting to get a sense for how the new setup does and doesn’t work for me. Some lessons learned:

- The right treadmill matters. I love the guys at Instructables, and I think their advice to “just do it” and build a walking desk around an existing treadmill is conceptually sound, but not practically possible for me. If you can comfortably hold a conference call on your existing treadmill, perhaps then this is a good idea. My hand-me-down treadmill squealed like a stuck pig, and the first step in moving to a standing desk was taking the plunge and making the purchase of the Lifespan treadmill.

- You don’t have to go all in. I’m not an absolutist. Some of the folks who write about switching to treadmill desks encourage you to go all in, moving your full office setup to the treadmill desk. As a road warrior, I don’t have a particularly robust desktop set up at home – I work outside under an umbrella if it’s nice, in front of the fire if it’s cold. The treadmill desk has become another locus for work, but I doubt it will ever become my only workplace.

- Match the task to the workplace. The desk is magical when I’m on conference calls. I can walk at 2.5 – 3mph and no one seems to notice. I get the occasional comment when on Skype or Google Hangout, as my head does bounce up and down, but no one has groused yet. (One Kenyan caller was surprised that he was reaching me at the gym, but that may have had as much to do with how I was dressed as my walking motion.) And, like Rachel, I find that checking email and social media is perfectly reasonable at 2 mph, though I sometimes slow to 1.5 mph to reply. Thus far, I wouldn’t move major writing, programming or reading onto the treadmill… and, for better or worse, I usually have enough conference calls and email to give me 2-3 hours on the treadmill, which is enough to get my 15,000 steps a day.

- Walking is great for combatting distraction. The tasks that work best on the treadmill for me are ones where I don’t need my full focus. When I sit at my desk during conference calls, I don’t pay close enough attention because I end up reading news in another tab. Walking seems to lessen the need to multitask. It may be that I know I’m doing something good for myself physically, or it might be that the little bit of effort it takes to keep the legs moving forward and keep the hands on the keyboard means I have less cognitive surplus to deal with. Amy Harmon, writing in the New York Times, speculates about this as well, pointing to a study by the Max Planck institute in which children and young adults performed better cognitively when walking at their preferred pace.

The moments where I notice this the most are when I’m answering email I don’t want to answer. At a desk, I flit from tab to tab, reading this, tweeting that. At the walking desk, I seem to be able to focus better, perhaps because I know I’m going to use the walking time as email time, then sit down to concentrate on something more engaging.

- Don’t be an idiot. There have been several posts questioning whether it’s possible to work efficiently while walking. This one, by Alyson Shontell, titled “The Truth About ‘Working’ On A Treadmill Desk, makes the experience sound like training for a marathon. At the end, she reveals that she wasn’t so much testing the walking desk as a work choice, but competing with a fellow Business Insider reporter who’d walked 17 miles the day before. I’m finishing this post on the treadmill, having walked 6 miles over 3 hours today, and that’s more than enough for me. Getting in an hour’s walk a day would be a good change for most people, while spending 8 hours walking probably isn’t good for anyone’s productivity.

I realize that hearing other people talk about their work and exercise regimes is roughly as interesting as hearing them talk about their dreams, but the walking desk really is one of the more exciting things in my life right now, and I’m not able to resist evangelizing.

4 Responses to “Lessons learned from walking at work”

  1. elizp says:

    Good for you & Rachel. Evolutionary biology mandates that human beings walk around interesting places for 5.5 miles/day. Keep it up!

  2. Matt says:

    I disagree – I find this writeup interesting. Plus I have an important link to share, and I hope it doesn’t take anything away from your recent investment in the walking desk:
    More Office Workers Switching to Fetal Position

    You might also want to look into the Run n’ Read, which controls for the bob of your head as you read text.

  3. Ethan says:

    Thanks. I don’t know that staring at a monitor, answering email, is sufficiently Chatwinesque for my tastes, but I agree that I seem to be a happier, healthier person with 5+ miles a day…

  4. Ethan says:

    I love the fetal desk, and suspect that’s actually what the Media Lab should install. When Andres MH shared the link with me, I suggested I would work from the fetal position at MIT and walk at home.

    The headbob gadget is fascinating. One of my favorite scenes in Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE involves a highly productive author who’s built his home writing studio around an eliptical machine. Monitors on robot arms bob around him so everything is steady in his visual field, while he’s in constant motion. Love the idea of simply moving text on the monitor…

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