Careful Tech 100: Screen scratch zen

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Careful Tech 095: Kids’ TV limits during COVID-19


Careful Tech 075: The podcasting treadmill desk


Fitting a treadmill desk into a small house

I’ve owned a treadmill desk for over five years now. Those shuffling strides add up; I crossed the 10,000-mile mark earlier this year, and I lost forty-five pounds during my first year of treading.

Treadmill desk downsides

But the treadmill lifestyle has its challenges, as well. For example, my particular LifeSpan model requires a lot more maintenance than I expected. The repairman has visited at least five times, and I’m on my third motor since the purchase.

Another challenge: the treadmill desk takes up a lot of space. Legit treadmills are too heavy to store vertically; wherever you place it, there it will stay. And, up till now, my jury-rigged IKEA Galant desk made things worse; the table sits on chunky wooden crates, leaving little room for much else. We can squeeze an air mattress beside the desk, but forget about fitting in a bedside table, a lamp, or even a guest’s suitcase. It’s that tight.

Fixing it with furniture

So, in an effort to make the room more hospitable, I recently bought a small Jarvis standing desk; it arrives this Friday. If my measurements are right, the Jarvis will perfectly straddle the treadmill, freeing up something like twelve square feet of floor space.1

That might not sound like much, but in a room that’s less than 100 square feet total, it should make a significant difference. Hopefully, our air mattress—or (dare I dream?) a futon—will fit more easily, and guests won’t feel like they’re being crowded out by a monstrous Megadesk.

  1. While I’m gaining floor space, I’m sacrificing desk space with the smaller, 30” x 27” Jarvis tabletop. I use three 24” external monitors and may need to reconfigure the mounts to suit. Hopefully I’m not solving one problem by creating another! ↩︎

The best treadmill desk shoes aren’t “shoes” at all

When I first cobbled together my treadmill desk back in 2014, building the desk itself wasn’t the hard part. Yes, it was tricky to hoist my IKEA tabletop onto those crates. And yes, the treadmill unit itself has proven remarkably unreliable over time.

But the real challenge was my feet. I struggled for over a year to find footwear that didn’t leave me limping at day’s end.

At first, I tried running sneakers. It made sense: athletic shoes are built for intense exercise, right? I presumed that they could handle slow-motion walking well enough. However, within a few hours of treading, I was in agony. With each step, the bumps on my heels grated against the hard plastic embedded in my trainers. Of course, that happened when I exercised, too, but I only jogged for an hour or so at a time. Eight hours on the treadmill proved torturous.

Next, I tried walking barefoot. This initially provided some relief—no shoes means no shoe-induced hot spots, after all. But the treadmill itself rubbed against the balls of my feet, and that friction created mammoth blisters by the end of my workday. Given a few weeks, I might have developed calluses—literally, some thicker skin—that would prevent injury. But I didn’t have the patience to wait. I continued my footwear searcb.

I tried traditional sport sandals (i.e. Chacos), but the thick nylon straps created their own special blisters. At one point, I wrapped my feet in duct tape. Obviously, that wasn’t sustainable, if I didn’t enjoy yanking out leg hair every night.

Eventually, almost accidentally, I discovered “barefoot running” footwear from a company called Xero. Their products barely qualify as “sandals” (let alone “shoes”), consisting of a thin, rubbery pad, held in place by a few nylon cords.

I had initially purchased Xero Clouds after reading a book called Born to Run, which advocates for ditching heavy, cushioned trainers in favor of more minimalist running gear and techniques. I soon realized that barefoot running wasn’t for me (gravel is my kryptonite)—but barefoot treading? That was just the ticket.

The Xeros’ flimsy soles offered just enough protection to insulate the bottoms of my feet from the treadmill’s abrasive surface. Their thin cords stayed in place, preventing the friction that causes blisters. Before long, I was knocking out 12+ miles in an eight-hour workday. Now, years later, I frequently hit sixteen or seventeen miles without undue effort.

I’m on my fourth pair of Xero Cloud sandals in three years. I wish they lasted a bit longer, but I can’t judge too harshly. After all, I’ve put thousands of miles on each pair, and it’s hard to put a price on pain relief. When my current pair inevitably breaks or wears through, I’ll plunk down $60 to replace them without a second thought.

That’s high praise for a flappy piece of rubber and some nylon twine.  ■


Does a treadmill desk make losing weight easy?

Every week, I walk between 60 and 70 miles on my treadmill desk. That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 marathons or a three-day weekend of intense backpacking. For someone my size, that translates to over 12,000 extra calories burned—roughly equivalent to three pounds of body fat.

Based on these numbers, you might think that a treadmill desk would make weight loss automatic. Alas, no.

Or, at least, not over the long haul. Yes, when I first installed the desk back in 2014, my weight plummeted. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first eight months! However, I eventually hit a plateau. Despite keeping up the same daily distances, my weight began to creep slowly upwards again. Twelve months later, I had regained nearly half the weight I had originally lost.

I realized that I had experienced a dispiriting truth about weight loss, first-hand: physical activity isn’t a panacea. Eat irresponsibly, and I will gain weight, no matter how far I walk at work or run before breakfast.

Why is that? Why doesn’t burning thousands of calories give me a license to eat whatever I want? Here’s my guess, in short: the more I move, the hungrier I get. Our bodies and brains seek out equilibrium; if I burn 1,500 calories on the treadmill desk, my instinct is to consume 1,500 extra calories as compensation.

So—whether I walk or not—maintaining a calorie deficit requires dietary self-control. I’ve found only one way to reliably burn off extra pounds: watch what I eat. I track my calories, measure my portions, and avoid “bad” foods, including extra salt, refined grains, and added sugar. It’s not super-fun, but it is effective: I’m down forty-five pounds from my all-time heaviest weigh-in.

I haven’t stopped “treading,” though. While it doesn’t give me a license to gorge, it does raise my daily “calorie ceiling.” Earning the occasional unhealthy splurge makes portion control a little bit less painful. ■


The unscratched itch (why I meditate)

<!––>Every morning before dawn, I roll out of bed, stumble through the dark to our living room, and plop myself down in front of a massive light box. This suitcase-shaped panel blasts 10,000 lux of faux sunlight directly into my face. “Light therapy” serves as a sort of reality check, realigning my body clock to an earlier sunrise than we enjoy here at our northern latitude.

To stave off boredom during these half-hour light box sessions, I practice mindfulness meditation. These two practices, meditation and light therapy, are similar, in my mind. Just as bright light realigns my body clock to a healthier rhythm, meditation realigns my thought life to healthier patterns, too: from anxiety-driven obsessions to the steady rhythm of my breath.

Context: prayer as listening

I came late to the mindfulness party. In the evangelical tradition of my childhood, prayer was more about talking than listening. Every day, during my “devotions” (Christianese for bible-reading and prayer), I followed a familiar script: recite a list of God’s best qualities, confess where I screwed up, thank God for the good stuff in my life, and, finally, ask God for what I wanted—or what I felt I should want.

By the time I hit college, this daily prayer regimen had grown tiresome. I would often spend hours a day talking at God, churning through a long list of required topics. I came to dread that time, spent locked my dorm’s study room. The burden grew so heavy that I stopped praying altogether, save for hurried recitations before meals.

Fortunately, I eventually met faith-minded mentors who approached their spiritual practices less rigidly, more humbly, and more thoughtfully. They demonstrated how “quiet time” is better spent being quiet—i.e. shutting my mouth and stilling my mind—than babbling on and on.

Adopting the practice

Along these lines, seven or eight years ago, a close friend introduced me to mindfulness meditation and shared how it helped tame his anxiety. As he framed it, the practice was simple: just focus on your breath. When your mind wanders, return your attention gently to the breath. Repeat.

At first, I was suspicious. It seemed almost too simple—like some sort of trick. Eventually, though, my curiosity won out. I gave meditation a try, and, before long, I was hooked.

Reflections & results

What makes meditation “sticky” for me? In short, meditation provides a reliable way of short-circuiting anxious thought cycles.

Here’s what I mean: I occasionally find myself haunted by uncertainty. I wonder whether I said something dumb in a past conversation (“Did I offend her?”). Or I worry that my haircut looks stupid (“Is my head weirdly shaped?”). Or I fret about my health (“Does that bad test result portend a medical disaster?”). I retread the same mental territory over and over again, trying to think my way out of the problem. That never helps; instead, rumination makes me more anxious than when I started. It’s like scratching an itchy rash; in the end, the sensation only gets worse.

In meditation, I resist the temptation to scratch that mental itch. Instead of ruminating on an unanswerable question, I focus on something else instead: my breath. The sounds in the room. The physical manifestation of anxiety itself. Anything but that troubling question. As many times as it pops up, I acknowledge it, but don’t pursue, gently returning to my focus object instead.

In this way, meditation is “practicing the turn”: rehearsing the shift from unhelpful thoughts to steadier sensations. In my morning session, I repeat that cognitive move, again and again—so that I can perform it later that day and and derail circular trains of thought in “real life.”

There are signs that it’s working. I’ve noticed at least two encouraging improvements that I attribute to my meditation practice: first, I’m more aware of my own emotional state. It’s a subtle change, but I often find myself thinking, “Man, I’m really anxious” (or tired, or hungry, etc.). Somehow, the simple act of acknowledging those feelings loosens their grip and makes it easier to act charitably, in spite of them.

A second hopeful development? I no longer dread my morning “quiet times”; I actually look forward to visiting the meditation pillow. That was rarely the case when I dedicated that time to talk-heavy prayer.

Getting started with meditation

If you’re interesting in trying mindfulness meditation, I would highly recommend checking out an app called Headspace. The program was designed by a former Buddhist monk and provides an entertaining, novice-friendly introduction to the technique. The full program requires an incredibly expensive subscription, but the first ten sessions are free—and that might be enough to get the hang of things.

Once you’ve established your practice and feel comfortable meditating with less guidance, consider transitioning to an app like Insight Timer. It provides an intuitive interface for scheduling chimes to mark your meditation stages. ■


Tracking health data for its own sake

<!––>For the past few months, I’ve been using my Apple Watch to track my sleep. AutoSleep uses the device’s internal accelerometer to measure both sleep quality and total sleep time.

The app is surprisingly accurate, and it’s fun to peek at my sleep stats each morning. But I don’t actually do much with that data. The numbers don’t factor directly into my bedtime decisions or sleep habits.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my sleep tracking efforts are fruitless. There’s something powerful about knowing where I stand—particularly when it comes to health.

Take food tracking as a example. For the past year or so, I’ve input my consumed food via an app called Lose It. I don’t really adhere to a strict daily limit, but knowing how gluttonous I’ve been earlier in the day is often just enough motivation to resist dessert. Conversely, when I don’t record my meals, I tend to overeat.

Weighing myself each morning has proven similarly useful. Again, I don’t have strict weight loss targets; I simply record my poundage day after day using Vekt for the Apple Watch. This habit populates the Apple Health database with a running tally, giving me a general idea of which direction my weight is trending.

That knowledge leads to better food choices—almost automatically. If my weight drifts too high, I find myself gravitating to healthier options—fruit instead of sweets, salads instead of sandwiches, water rather than Coke. Conversely, when I’m hovering near my ideal weight, I’ll reward myself with an extra treat or two.

All that to say, even if my sleep stats seem inconsequential, I’m going to continue wearing my Apple Watch to bed. I’m hoping that a peripheral awareness of my sleep habits may (subliminally) lead to better sleep decisions. Maybe I’ll skip that Netflix binge in favor of an early bedtime. ■