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. ■

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Eighteen months on a treadmill desk

Since April of 2014, I’ve owned a treadmill desk. Each day, I plod along at a glacial pace—just active enough to keep my metabolism simmering. Meanwhile, I’m typing, mousing and taking calls—all the little tasks you’d typically do at the computer. After walking 4,500+ miles, sitting down to work feels wrong, somehow.

Here are some observations and recommendations from my eighteen months “on the tread.”

  • Your feet will hurt—at least at first. During my first few weeks, I leapt into treading full-tilt, powering through fifteen determined miles each day. My feet protested, but I ignored “hot spots” and developed some ugly blisters. My advice? Treat any irritation as a warning sign so that it doesn’t fester into something worse. A little duct-tape, skillfully applied, makes a big difference. Before long, you’ll build up some blister-proof callouses.
  • Along these lines, proper footwear is key. Don’t expect to wear typical work or office shoes. You’re better off lacing up an old pair of running sneakers. If your workplace allows, consider trying sandals—or even going barefoot. But, again, whatever you wear, listen to your feet!
  • A treadmill desk can help you lose weight, if your expectations are realistic. In the first few months of treading, I lost thirty pounds, give or take. But then the weight loss flatlined. Since then, I’ve had trouble shedding (and keeping off) the ten extra pounds that lie between me and a healthy BMI. Eventually, it seems, my body adjusted to the enormous extra calorie burn that an all-day tread provides. Or, more to the point, I ate more. So, as with any other weight loss regime, be prepared to count calories and feel hungry at day’s end. The treadmill raises your calorie ceiling, but you’ll still need to exercise some dietary self-discipline.
  • Treadmills are noisy. Although I bought one of the quietest walking treadmills available, it’s far from silent. There’s the whir as the belt makes its endless rotation. The whine-whine-whine of the motor under strain. The rhythmic thud-thud-thud as footsteps hit the deck. Of course, my home office sits in a quiet patch of woods, far from the nearest thoroughfare. That makes the slightest sound seem loud. At your busy workplace, you may hardly notice the treadmill’s steady noise. Still, respect the ears of those nearby—whether fellow office drones or your sleeping spouse. Also, if you’re on a conference call, be aware that others can probably hear your pacing. Make judicious use of that self-mute button!
  • Vary your speed. Different work tasks require different paces. For me, 2 miles per hour works well for light emailing and web browsing. Fine design work demands a slower speed—something in the range of 1.5 MPH. Conversely, you can move faster when consuming content; I’ve pushed the treadmill up to 3 MPH when watching training videos or listening in on conference calls. Anything faster, though, and you’ll stray dangerously close to exercise. It’s hard to concentrate on work when you’re panting and dripping with sweat.
  • Static electricity can be nasty. Dragging your feet across a treadmill belt, you quickly build up a charge, especially in drier weather. Last winter, my earbuds (plugged into my grounded PC) would shock me every few steps. If this happens to you, find a way to discharge the electricity more steadily. It doesn’t take much to ground yourself; I simply connect a spare USB cable to my PC and tuck it into my belt line. No static build-up—and no more painful shocks.
  • Get the extended warranty. I’ve had issues with my LifeSpan treadmill ever since it arrived. Their regional technician has visited my house at least four separate times; they’ve replaced the motor twice. Fortunately, the problems have been covered under warranty; I’ve paid nothing extra. In fact, LifeSpan agreed to foot the bill for a five-year extended warranty. There’s little doubt that I’ll need it again.