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Monday, December 11, 2023

My Treadmill Desk Made Working From Home a Cakewalk

A strange side effect of the pandemic year has been the gradual, reluctant adjustment “to a new normal.” Things that would’ve seemed absurd a year ago now seem ordinary: approximating a birthday party over Zoom, covering your face in public, turning the kitchen table into a home office, or greeting loved ones with that weird ghost-hug gesture to maintain 6 feet of distance. It’s strange, but not surprising, how quickly you can get used to things.

Much of my “new normal” has involved moving my inside life outdoors and my outside life indoors. Dinner parties are now picnics, but my office is contained within my apartment. I meet up with friends for weekend hikes but see the doctor for virtual visits through my phone. The most ridiculous example of this is probably that I have now replaced my commute, and the ancillary exercise of being a person in a city, with a miniature treadmill that I walk on throughout every workday. A year ago, the image of myself marching on it from my makeshift “home office” would have seemed like a joke. Now, it seems like a very nice part of my day.

At first, the reasons for buying a tiny treadmill were practical. I wanted to revive my step count, which used to reflect a life of urban splendor but now reflected the laps I took between the bed, the refrigerator, and the dining table turned desk. I channeled visions of Steve Jobs, who liked to take his meetings while strolling around Apple’s campus in Cupertino, and Joanna Coles, who famously ran Cosmopolitan from the treadmill desk in her office, further intimidating colleagues by walking on it in heels. Nellie Bowles, a reporter for The New York Times, described her working life on a treadmill desk as “ideal” in 2018. I imagined how accomplished I would feel after a day of walking, knowing that I had collapsed hours of exercise into the workday.

Like Bowles, I opted for a portable model, designed specifically for walking. (Coles used a standard treadmill, the kind you can jog on.) The WalkingPad A1 Pro is about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. You can fold it in half, and it's still short enough to fit under a couch. That’s an advantage over a full-capacity treadmill, as is the price: Mine came in just under $600. It has no handlebars. A miniature remote controls its speed, which maxes out at 3.75 miles per hour—about the pace of a speed walk. I slid it under a standing desk and stepped on.

At work, I announced the arrival of my treadmill desk on Slack. Reactions varied between skepticism and intrigue. My colleagues watched my head bob up and down in my Zoom square through meetings, like a ship at sea. How can you type on that thing? People wanted to know. Have you fallen off yet? Do you get motion sickness trying to read? One colleague Slacked me to say that the treadmill had a “thumping quality,” like techno playing in the background. Another suggested wearing a helmet.

The first day with my treadmill, I logged 8 miles. The number seemed improbable, not because of the distance but because I had done it while performing the usual duties of my job. I had spent 3 hours on the WalkingPad, averaging between 2.5 and 3 miles per hour, during which I had typed a draft, gone to meetings, and called sources on the phone. I felt as though I had cracked a secret code. When I read that Bowles walks at a pace of 1.5 miles per hour, and Coles only logged a couple of miles each day, I also felt a surge of competitive achievement.

This new habit has had compounding effects. I feel more energetic after a day of walking, which means I’m also more likely to do something after work, like meet up with a friend for an outdoor beer or go for a run. I’m more focused, if only because the treadmill kept me stationed at my desk. People always ask if it’s hard to type while walking, so I gave myself a speed test and found that, improbably, I can type 10 words per minute faster on the treadmill. I’m not saying that it’s given me superpowers, but I’m not saying it hasn’t.

Showing up at the treadmill each morning also forces me to prepare for my workday more like the way I used to—specifically, by wearing socks and shoes—which means I’m more likely to put on clothes separate from the ones I had slept in. (Again, it’s amazing what you can get used to after a few months of working from home.) It also helps to delineate my workday from everything else, a boundary that’s become blurry in the past year. When I step onto the treadmill, I feel like I’m stepping into the office. When I step off, I feel like I’m back at home.

That said, an under-desk treadmill is not a glamorous piece of equipment. It’s not a Peloton or one of those exercise mirrors. It’s not even an especially good form of exercise, if the goal is to get your heart rate up. (It’s not meant to replace other forms of exercise—instead, it replaces sitting.) But it is a decent way to boost creative thinking and get more satisfaction out of desk work. One study, which followed people who used slow-moving treadmills at the office, found that walking on one improved peoples’ physical activity, overall health, and workplace performance. And in a year where I feel like I’ve accomplished so little, the treadmill also makes me feel like I’ve done something every day, as if I’m gamifying the time that I show up at my desk. Every day, I open the app that pairs with the WalkingPad and look at the number of miles I’ve logged. It’s dizzying to see the number climb so high.

By now, the treadmill has already faded into the background, just another part of the work-from-home furniture. But I can imagine, one day in the future, bringing my WalkingPad into the office and working alongside my colleagues again. It will be an adjustment. But humans can get used to anything.

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