I work from home a lot and about 20 months ago I converted my home office to one where I could stand or walk as I worked at the computer. For both health and productivity, it’s the best ergonomic decision I’ve made by quite a margin. And in this post I’d like to share with you my own experiences with this different way of working: the benefits it’s given me, the tactics I’ve adopted that work well, and the others I’ve shed that sometimes lead to problems.
The evidence has been mounting for years that sitting at an office desk for most of the day, five days a week, is seriously bad for your health. And it’s surprising and disappointing that regular, but discrete gym exercise does little to mitigate this. In September 2013 I took a close look at all the evidence and became largely convinced that I had to make changes. I don’t intend to explore the evidence here (for those interested, here’s a great short summary video and a decent lengthier article in Time). I will just briefly say that the consensus suggests that excessive daily setting – which basically means a standard desk job – considerably increases your chances of early death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and a range of cancers. It also places a greater strain on your back and neck. At the same time, being more physically active, even in moderate ways, helps protect you from almost every serious physical or mental condition going. The phrase of the moment, based on all this, is that “sitting is the new smoking.”
This was all a strong motivation for me, but I’m not sure it was even the main motivation to try to avoid the office chair as much as possible. Maybe it’s a little to do with my age (I’ll turn 40 this year), but my general alertness levels sitting in the office aren’t what they used to be, especially in the early afternoon dip. Remaining productive for as many hours as possible in the day is hugely important to me. If I feel at the 80% alertness level, say, then this can mean the difference between a useful day and a wasted one, since trying to decipher a difficult academic paper, or write one, or work on one of my other writing projects, tends to require all the concentration I can muster. So I wanted to do all I could to maximise that. Again, avoiding that office chair seemed to make sense to keep me alert.
For the first month or so, to try things out, I simply took over a tall set of drawers in a bedroom, and spent the day standing while working. I deliberately tried not to stand still, instead fidgeting as much as I could. My alertness levels increased dramatically, to the extent that I resolved never to spend whole days sitting and working again, if I could possibly avoid it. I also noticed that the general lower back niggles I would normally get as I spent the whole day sitting had largely disappeared. Having said all that, it wasn’t the most comfortable way to work. My ankles and calves would get sore after some hours of standing solidly, and other parts of my back occasionally also became sore.
But this was encouraging enough for me to take the next step.
So in November 2013 I bought a cheap second-hand standing desk (with a motorised mechanism to turn it into a normal sitting desk if I needed that) for about £280.
The desk is perfectly fine, although I actually almost never change the height (the main time the height changes is when my four-year-old daughter invades the office, as she loves pressing the buttons and seeing the desk go up and down). So if I were buying again, I would probably just get a mechanical height changer desk and save a bit of money. I would say, though, that you shouldn’t compromise on some features of the desk. You want it to be solid, so that as you rest your hands on it, you won’t cause the desk to wobble. And unless you are very short, you should get a desk that has a decent top height, because the treadmill will add around 10cm. Many budget desks don’t go that high.
And I bought a very cheap treadmill to go under the desk, the Confidence Power Plus model, for £150 (actually, it’s now only £130 on Amazon), and I followed these instructions to remove the vertical handlebars so it would fit under the desk (but I kept the beep so that I could in theory return the machine under warranty).
The treadmill has performed a stellar job over these last 20 months or so and I’ve been extremely happy with its performance. It was very easy to convert it as per the instructions, taking only about 20 minutes. I did get a bit of a shock when I turned it on at the mains and nothing happened – until I eventually realised that the front of the treadmill has a separate power button – enormous dunce moment on my part (though I don’t actually think that this button is mentioned in the crappy manual). Once I finally got it working, though, I haven’t looked back and to date have walked over 4200 km on it (obviously as a scientist, there is a spreadsheet with daily data involved!), and it still works like new. I’m sure it helps that I’m on the small side (1.70 m, about 60kg). But still, I definitely think I’ve got my money’s worth from this machine.
I am extremely conscientious at looking after it though. Given how much I use it, at the start of every week I apply a liberal amount of silicon lubricant under the belt. And every few months, usually when I hear some unwanted extra noise in the machine, I oil all the moving parts (including taking the front cover off and oiling the motor), and that solves the problem.
A small word of warning: when I bought the treadmill, I had powerline (mains wires) based internet in my home office, and turning on this treadmill completely wrecked that. I tried a bunch of things, but in the end the only solution was to use wifi instead, which works fine with the treadmill.
It is by default set slightly uphill, so I’ve put a blanket under the back feet, as you can see, and use a spirit level to make sure it is completely flat. You might think this is silly, and I am avoiding a more intense workout. But I’ve found that spending whole days walking uphill puts too much of a strain on my ankles.
The machine starts at 1 km/h and increments up in 0.1 km/h steps, up to 10 km/h. Occasionally I’ve taken it up to 7.5 km/h and it’s been fine with this.
The treadmill stops after 30 minutes. Initially I thought that this was a pain, but now I appreciate this feature, as it gives me a little break every so often. And it probably helps the machine from overheating.
In hindsight I would probably buy from the same company but the next machine up, which has a few incline levels, a more powerful motor, and a slightly wider belt.
I have in the past suffered from RSI, so I like my system to be as ergonomic as possible. As you can see, I have a tapered keyboard and a vertical mouse. And I have nice thick gel pads for both, which if you’re walking is really useful to dampen down the movement and keep your hands relatively still.
Initial regime and effects
I started slow and easy, just 1.6 km/h in 30 minutes sections, with large standing breaks, walking just a few hours a day for the first few days. Then I built it up to the whole day, although always with a few minutes standing break in between each 30 minute walk session. From the second week I went up to 2.4 km/h. The next month was 3.2 km/h, and finally I reached my current standard speed of 4 km/h for most of the day, with occasional standing breaks in between.
I quickly found that the aches from standing all day disappeared. My back felt stronger and pain-free, and my calves were fine. The only issue was that in the first week or two it was plain physically tiring to spend most of the day walking, and my thighs ached as if I’d been on a good run.
My alertness levels were even better than spending the day standing, and only seemed to occasionally flag right at the end of the working day if I started getting a little tired.
With all this extra daily exercise, I slept better than I’ve done in many years, probably since my early 20s.
Initially my appetite almost doubled, I assume as I was building up new stamina-based muscles. At the same time, I was losing weight. I wasn’t exactly fat to begin with, maybe with a BMI of about 22.5. But within the first month or two this gradually settled to a BMI of 20. And after the first month, even though I was ramping up my activity steadily, my body must have acclimatised to the new system, as my appetite returned to normal.
I realised various things from these initial excursions into office walking:
- Standing all day at a desk is less natural and more of a strain than walking. And if I possibly could, I would always try to spend much of the day walking while working.
- I wasn’t a fan of the really low speeds below 2 km/h. Although it was a tad easier to type, it didn’t feel natural and taxed my muscles a lot more than the slow speed indicated. I was actually happier walking faster. Only if I was doing fine-grained mouse work did the walking interfere with anything, and I’d just stand for those parts.
- Walking doesn’t interfere with my concentration at all – after a short time, I hardly notice I’m doing it and am totally focused on the work (see comments at end).
- With a little pushing, your body can get used to almost anything. During the first month, it was a real struggle to motivate myself also to do gym exercises my usual 3 to 5 days a week after work. But after a month or two I found that a whole day of walking was something I could, if you’ll excuse the pun, easily taking in my stride.
- I came to realise that all this activity is what my body is built for and that sitting all day is just very unnatural. I suppose the body associates sitting and lying with time for rest and sleep.
Current regime and my tweaks
Now I rarely walk less than 4 km/h, in 30 minute chunks, with a minute standing break on average in between. I try to mix up the speeds a little bit, because even marginal changes in speed seem to hit your muscles differently. And constant repetitions of exactly the same movement can cause strains. Most of the day I’m walking. Otherwise I’m standing. The office chair is completely superfluous, and I think it’s been over a year since I sat on it to work.
My default work mode is usually to type on the computer, and for that I stick to around 4 km/h, and can type about as well as standing like this. I sometimes also use voice recognition software, and the treadmill sounds don’t seem to interfere much with this (my microphone is noise cancelling though).
If I’m watching an online lecture, or reading an e-book or academic paper, then I might bump up the speed to 6.5 to 7.5 km/h for that hour, as a moderate workout. I usually do this around the end of the working day. Recently, just to spice things up, I’ve also bought a weighted vest, so that I sometimes add about 5 kg to my bodyweight as I walk.
I have flat feet and a dodgy right knee (cartilage and ACL damage following a football injury), so try to be careful to avoid strains. If I am on the treadmill, I always wear decent running shoes (with orthotic insoles for the flat feet), and replace them regularly.
Nowadays, if I’m working from home, my usual daily walk is between 15 and 20 km, though if there is a lot of reading or online lecture watching, that might get closer to 30 on occasion. I only feel slightly tired by the end, and rarely feel any muscle aches any more.
Walking helps keep me awake and focused on the work. I definitely feel more productive and creative while walking. Occasionally, especially when out and about, I have to sit by my laptop for much of the day, and I’m struck by how lethargic I can feel in comparison.
When meals come, it’s hard to describe, but I feel healthily hungry, rather than eating for its own sake. And although I do eat sensibly, I can probably eat whatever I like and not gain weight, as I’m burning so many calories during the day.
As to sleep, before I started this regime I was resigned to the fact that maybe with my kind of brain and age, poor quality sleep was the norm. I never felt I had a deep nourishing sleep anymore. Part of the problem probably was caffeine intake, and for the last half a year I’ve completely cut out caffeine for the first time in my adult life, and that’s also been transformative (after the initial headaches and exhaustion had faded – I may write another blog post about this). But definitely being physically active for much of the day made an enormous difference to my quality of sleep. Perhaps I sleep a little less now too (6-7 hours, instead of 8-9 before), because when I am asleep I’m pretty dead to the world.
In my daily life, I have so much more stamina. A long holiday’s mountain hike feels like a small stroll. The issue now is more if I have a relatively sedentary day (if I go to the University campus, I have never bothered to sort out a standing desk setup), then I can feel restless, as if my body actually needs all that activity now, and can end up not sleeping so well.
Another major change I’ve noticed is my illness levels. I don’t think in the last 20 months I’ve taken a single day off work, or had a day of a raised temperature. Given that the house has a rampant infection-spreading machine (i.e. my young daughter), this has been even more surprising to me. It’s not the case that I’ve never fallen ill. I’ve definitely been infected, but less than normal, or at least less than my wife, who beforehand used to tease me that she would get ill far less frequently than me. It’s just that when I have been infected since walking most days, usually I wouldn’t actually feel ill. And I’ve always found that staying active, getting on the treadmill and working anyway, has been the best way to shake off any early symptoms of an illness. Although obviously this is all anecdotal, I think there is very good evidence that being physically active does boost the immune system.
A Wider Change?
I wish I’d implemented a treadmill desk 20 years ago. And I definitely plan to carry on with this habit for the rest of my life, not just for the health reasons, but because I can work so much more effectively while being physically active. Spending my office time walking has protected me from illness, and improved my weight and stamina. It has radically aided my quality of sleep. And my alertness and focus at work has significantly increased.
If you have an office job, and if there is any way for you to install a similar system, then I would strongly recommend that you do so. Standing is definitely better than sitting, but it can bring its own problems from being stuck in the same position for hours on end. From my experience at least, walking is actually easier on your body, better at building core muscles, obviously vastly superior at burning calories, and I’ve found it to be the best way to focus your mind on a complex problem.
I also think it’s time we evaluate optimal systems for schools, universities, seminars, conferences, office-based businesses and so on. For concentration, productivity and health, perhaps the default during the day should be to stand. I will be trying to press this for my daughter’s school as a local action, but perhaps there should be a discussion at the wider level, to make standing desks at the very least the standard in any environment that otherwise would require long periods of sitting.