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Notes on 416 Days of Treadmill Desk Usage (nealstephenson.com)
122 points by dmnd on Mar 9, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments




Didn't capture the images...


I'm irrationally annoyed that Neal freaking Stephenson is using such a shItty host.


No kidding. The lesson: never ever use Hang Left Hosting. When you get popular, they replace your content with their own, um, whatever page that is.


I guess it's true then that none of that Clang Kickstarter money is left.


While he is correct that slow walking doesn't burn many calories in itself, there is also evidence[1] that even mild levels of exercise act to increase your metabolism significantly.

This means that the benefits outweigh the simple measurement of calories burnt, especially for people who are otherwise sedentary.

[1] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal....


A lot of contradictory comments on this thread:

> This means that the benefits outweigh the simple measurement of calories burnt, especially for people who are otherwise sedentary.

> It was my understanding that if you're largely sedentary, no amount of exercise can "make up" for that, and that the correlation with increased morbidity and mortality remains.

Some say that even a little helps, some say that even large amounts of exercise still isn't enough.

As a largely sedentary person, I wish there were more concrete studies done to show how to mitigate the risks of long-term problems for those of us that are sedentary for a (relatively) big part of the day.


I don't think these are contradictory at all.

If you're largely sedentary, getting an hour of exercise per day doesn't counteract the fact that you've been sitting for 12 hours per day. [1]

Simultaneously, walking slowly all day does not burn many calories compared to a proper workout. But that's fine, because the goal of walking slowly all day is not to burn calories, but simply to keep you from sitting all day.

It seems to me the best approach is to simply do both.

[1] http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2091327


So, this guy isn't doing much good, with 2.5-3 miles walking a day at 1.8 miles/hour (1h25m to 1h40m of walking)?

I expect that, in 10 years or so, we will SE more nuanced publications about the health effects of sitting less.

Looking at chimps in nature, I expect the optimum will be something where you don't sit in the same position for hours at an end, but hobble a few meters every half hour or so and grab some fruit or groom a colleague (the latter would require significant changes in workplace ethics and law)


"hobble a few meters every half hour or so"

I get up every hour almost without fail, and walk all the way across the building to get a drink, or bathroom break, or any excuse, sometimes I do nothing at all. Often I walk to a different floor. This was on dr advice a long time ago WRT back probs and general health. I'm a heck of a lot more productive in the 10 minutes after I get back than the 10 minutes before, so its almost certainly a substantial net gain to my employer.

I do the same daily mileage as the author but compressed into my lunch hour, in addition to the above, weather permitting. I'd be interested to see shoe wear stats. When I slack off in the depths of winter or the peak of summer I can see my shoe soles not wear when I don't do a couple miles of pavement at lunch hour.

Its also interesting to look at financially, I can only get a couple hundred miles out of a pair of shoes, and I need to buy decent walking shoes not cheap junk solely based on appearance. I would guess shoe wear on a rubber belt is very low compared to concrete... then again I don't pay for whatever wear I cause to the concrete sidewalk and someone is paying for his treadmill wear directly or indirectly.

When I worked in a suburban office building I walked the nature trails and shoe wear on shredded bark was approximately zero, and it was more emotionally satisfying than dodging panhandlers in the city.

Related to above I tried wearing trail hiking boots and the wear was high on pavement. Lunch hour walks would probably be a good strategy for breaking in new boots, but it doesn't work long term for exercise.

It was an interesting article although there's plenty of space for further study.


Similarly, simply standing has been shown (by some studies, though I don't know how far these are through the peer review and such processes) to be beneficial. This is why some use standing desks. The differences (to posture, circulation, a few more calories burned, & so on) may be small - but a small positive is still a positive.


There are multiple issues and they are closely related, which makes things confusing.

1) In terms of weight management, calories burnt is what is important. Mild exercise won't burn huge numbers of calories, but it can increased your basal metabolic rate which means you burn more calories sitting still. This can be a significant contribution to weight loss.

2) There are other, non-weight related unhealthy effects of sedentary behavior. Current recommendations for managing these involve 15 minutes of non-sedentary behavior every 2 hours (ie, stand and possibly walk for 15 minutes every 2 hours). Realistically, many people can do this by having a standing meeting in the morning, walking at lunch, and a standing meeting in the afternoon.


> Some say that even a little helps, some say that even large amounts of exercise still isn't enough.

Something is always better than nothing. It might not increase your long-term longevity, but will be of great help in an altercation or simply playing with a child.

And here's the kicker: IF YOU DO LARGE AMOUNTS OF EXERCISE YOU ARE NO LONGER LARGELY SEDENTARY.


Wouldn't largely sedentary refer to the amount of hours sedentary?

I spend 8 hours in a chair, minimum. It's unlikely that I spend 100% of the remaining waking hours standing, so I'm already largely sedentary.

Factor in sleep and it's not even close.


Would you call a professional athlete who works out for two to three hours a day sedentary? They spend 21 hours a day resting and recuperating from working out.

"It has been established that the average world class athlete trains approximately 23 hours a week. Interestingly, the average athlete in America trains approximately 12 hours a week." (3h/day)

Source: google first result


Out of curiosity, could you provide a link to your search terms or to the result you used?



I'm really not sure, and was hoping someone had some good insight. I don't know if there's a specific medical definition, or if sitting for 21 hours but being very active for 3 cancels out.

I just took the meaning to be "sitting/non-moving," which I do for nearly my entire 24h lately. (I used to be very active, before programming, but I have work and side projects and...youtube...lately keeping me in a chair).

Anyway, to specifically answer your question, I would describe the athlete's day as "largely sedentary." Again, I'm not making medical judgments or saying that person is harming their body. I'm in this thread gain insight into how badly I'm damaging my body and how likely it is I can mitigate that damage.


Why do you need to "burn" any calories and boost your metabolism? If you care about longevity, you need to actually slow down your metabolism and restrict your caloric intake. Walking 30-45 minutes a day in the park is good enough - most geniuses in the past had the evening walk (30-60 minutes) as a common theme. Also, you don't need a fancy desk. Just take breaks and walk.


"Why do you need to "burn" any calories and boost your metabolism? If you care about longevity, you need to actually slow down your metabolism and restrict your caloric intake."

That's why it's called the exercise paradox[1][2], or the athletes paradox. Or whatever. The point is, you are correct - exercise increases your total metabolism and you eat more and burn more. But exercisers live longer and healthier and do not seem to pay the oxidative price for their increased metabolism that it appears they should.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10334116 [2] http://www.aspetar.com/journal/viewarticle.aspx?id=10


What is the definition of "exercise" though? Running marathons and tens of miles a day? I never said that sedentary lifestyle is good, but more (when it comes to exercise and anything) is not necessarily better. Strength exercise is nice, but my concern with it is increased caloric needs (due to increased basal metabolic rate) and also - growth factors such as IGF-1. When I see people jogging next to cars exhausts for "health" here in Orange County under the skin-burning sun, I really get the feeling that most people are out of their minds nowadays.


Living extra long on a restricted caloric intake sounds like the definition of a lose/lose to me.


There are alternatives. Once you get use to it, it's actually not a problem. The only issue is people who are prone to temptations. I have trained myself to seek pleasures outside of food and food to me is just a necessity, not a source of pleasure, and I don't have any internal struggle anymore and the only problem now is people who don't know me and who keep insisting that I try this or that. And, of course, the wasted time to explain my eating habits to people - 2 meals a day within 8 hours, and so on.


> food to me is just a necessity, not a source of pleasure

Right, that is exactly my point.


This is all true.

However, many posting here are interested in the weight-management effects of treadmill desks.

If you are doing heavy caloric restriction then you probably don't have a weight management issue. It's worth noting that the longevity-effects of caloric restriction seem to start occurring at very restrictive levels of consumption, and few have the self-control to stay at that level for decades (which seems to be what is needed).


Intermittent Fasting and the 5:2 diets are good compromises. My concern with too much exercise is the tissue wear and the oxidative stress associated with aerobic exercise. There are studies that walking for 2 minutes every 20 minutes negates the negative effect of sitting. I personally tried 25 minute sitting work + walking for 5 minutes (which actually increases productivity when you stop staring at the screen without a break).


Here [0] is a very good podcast that covers the issue. A must-hear!

[0] http://thequantifiedbody.net/cancer-as-a-mitochondrial-disea...


There's an awfully optimistic bit in REAMDE about an overweight fantasy author transforming into 'Skeletor' via a treadmill desk.


As I recall, the character in question was constantly at a brisk walking pace and was rather obese with bad eating habits.

I agree, Skeletor is an oversale of the health benefits but as common knowledge, the further you are from your ideal weight, the easier to is to lose weight and balanced with proper eating habits, its not unreasonable to suggest that a walking desk is would slim someone down, especially if aided in other exercise outside of work.


Very OT, but did you find REAMDE to be a bit weak? I found the plot became more and more contrived, and seemed to miss the imagination and scale of Stephenson's other books. The number of highly unlikely coincidences in the plot is incredible, and I got the feeling that he got bored writing it, and just wrapped everything up neatly in a ridiculously unlikely end-scenario.


I really enjoyed it though I thought it ran a bit long. Your point on the plot is valid but he did such a great job developing the characters that I didn't care.

Disclaimer: his books are like crack to me. Once I start one I can't put it down and now have carefully choose when to pick one up. Quicksilver is next up over the summer.


I'm curious to know how hard it is to focus on a concentration intensive task such as programming (or novel writing in the case of Neal Stephenson) and walk at a reasonable pace on a treadmill; not to mention how do you effectively type on your keyboard?

I personally feel like I wouldn't be able to write software while on a treadmill as I already find it hard to do sometimes while standing up at my desk.


Yes, this is the major problem with OP: daily miles logged and a gait problem are some basic preliminaries, but ultimately are irrelevant to the question of whether one should use a treadmill desk and don't really mean anything.

If one doesn't have that specific problem, should one use a treadmill desk? Dunno. He presents several graphs of daily mileage, is that evidence for or against usage of treadmill desks? Dunno. The calorie count is small (compared to what?) when he calculates out, does that mean treadmill desks are not helpful? Dunno.

More relevant would be stuff like: how many emails did he send each day correlated against mileage? How many words did he write in his novel, or how many words did he edit? Did he at least lose some weight? Was his mood better on treadmill days? Did he consider running a simple randomized test (just flip a coin for each day whether to use a treadmill) for anything? Heck, what was his subjective experience, even, about the effects of treadmill - did he feel unable, as many people do (not just you), to do anything requiring real concentration?

OP reminds me a lot of Stephen Wolfram's big fancy QS post about metrics like typing: he had measured an impressive number of things, but nothing that ever mattered.


I assumed at 3mi a day he's walking for about 1-1½ hours and so was doing that at times when he's normally be reading back work, dictating, reading forums or watching a video or what-have-you.


Good observation, I hadn't realized that.


I personally find it difficult to do anything mentally taxing. I walk at a 3.5mph pace, and I can hardly stay concentrated. I can code and do grunt work, but I can't solve complex problems while on a treadmill desk.

I find a solution in splitting my time and do complex coding while sitting grunt coding while on the treadmill. The switching is distracting. I don't get as much done this way comparing to sitting all day, but overall I think the health benefit is worth it.

There is also the possibility my pace is too fast, though.


I would like to see someone make a treadmill desk for less than $1000.

If you can buy a poor-quality treadmill with rails for $200, why can't you buy a poor quality one without rails to put under a standing desk which you've made out of PVC, lag bolts, and IKEA parts?

I would love to know where to get a cheap treadmill without rails though...


I got one for $25 at a garage sale (and passed up many others because they didn't have features I wanted like incline, folding, brand name etc) and laid some cut plywood across the arms for the desk portion, my monitors are mounted over it on a shelf. Works perfect (this is my second), just vacuum it every once in a while and use a treadmill maintenance kit (code for grease it). Non-pro treadmills are like pianos in that some people will just give them away.

You don't need anything fancy.

Also, like the author says, faster is better, I also find a slight incline to be helpful. Normally I do a few hours (2-3) at 4.5% incline and between 2.2 and 2.6 mph.


Check out this treadmiller[1] who documented his very affordable setup and results. I've done the same for around £100 using the tripod-stand from previous standing-desk efforts.

It reversed a slowly creeping weight gain for me. Then we had our first child and the data was skewed, i.e. weight plummeted, but it's back on the trendline now and steady with limited use of the treadmill.

Concentration, noise, typing (I type a lot for a living); none adversely affected. You can adjust and it's surprisingly easy to do so. Besides, as a person with a relatively healthy BMI already (whatever it truly means for health, I was just into the overweight section before), I don't use the setup all day on those days when I do have it on.

A mixture of standing, walking and sitting works fine, switching as and when it feels needed. I understand that doing any one of those all day can be detrimental in the long term so I keep moving. The muscular effects of standing/walking can easily be felt after a few sessions. That's enough of a result for me to know it's worthwhile.

--

[1] http://www.treadmilldeskdiary.com/introduction


You can, but most of those poor quality treadmills are meant for light use (i.e. running at high RPM for 30-60 mins per day, 3-5 days a week). If you try to run the same treadmill at low RPM for several hours per day every day, you'll burn out the motor pretty quickly.

That's not to say that people don't try though, there are plenty of DIY treadmill desks made out of exactly what you describe.


I would venture to guess that powered ellipticals might be a better solution here. Much less erratic, impactful structural loading.


I remember reading REAMDE which has a protagonist who uses a walking desk, and attributes his massive weight loss to it.

Science fiction it would seem, but still a good idea!


However, there are people who have lost a lot of weight by making their video-games dependent on continuing to pedal/walk. I think there is even a sub for it, but I can't think of the name.


Didn't answer they question everybody really wants to know: what is up with Enoch Root??


Well if you buy into the idea that an authors work is part of "one big universe" then Enoch Root is obviously an "incanter" who practices polycosmic manipulation.


Time traveler.


I dunno. Every time we meet him he's older. I would say he's a near-immortal.


Surprising how few calories it burns, seems like a simple 30 minute walk would be better and have less of an impact.


I think the appeal of a treadmill desk is mostly avoiding sitting or just-standing at a desk, both of which have been shown to do damage to a body. It seems like the article kind of indicates to me that the ultimately the damage might be neither sitting nor standing nor walking but simply being absorbed in the computer while you let your body deteriorate.


From what I've read, exercising before or after work does NOT negate the negative health effects of sitting all day. It helps, but continuous sitting is still just terrible for us.


Care to expand? I thought the relationship between poor health outcomes and sitting was a correlation requiring further study to demonstrate causation? Interested to read any research that says otherwise


I don't remember coming across any research proving causation over correlation.

From a quick Google search, there are a couple news articles (with direct links to the journal articles) about extra-curricular exercise not removing harms (which is all I meant to note in my OP):

- http://qz.com/223160/why-not-even-exercise-will-undo-the-har...

- http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/21/health/sitting-will-kill-you/


Can't pass the mention of "do you know your revenue per mile": http://walkingworking.com/english/do-you-know-your-average-r...

6000 km is a lot of walking.


Probably the most articulate and persuasive piece analyzing treadmill desks is Neal Stephenson's "Arsebestos" in his book of various essays Some Remarks. If this is a link to said essay I wouldn't know, the server is crushed...


People think that sitting is very bad for you because it is correlated with all kinds of undesirable health outcomes. Does anyone know whether these effects disappear when controlling for level of activity?


It was my understanding that if you're largely sedentary, no amount of exercise can "make up" for that, and that the correlation with increased morbidity and mortality remains.


What does largely sedentary mean?

So, for example, running a marathon doesn't take much training. It averages about an hour per day, according to this [1]. The runners seem to be living "largely sedentary" lives, playing video games, watching TV, sitting for work, etc. It sure seems like running has some positive effects [2]. Are you saying that Stephenson's approach of walking slow most of the day is pretty much the only way to unlock an extra year or five?

My argument is, of course, argument via google. There's so much contradictory information and economic motive to, well, lie that it's hard for me to get a grip on what's actually sensible. Some regular exercise sounds like a good argument, and there's some evidence to back that up ([2] for example), but it sure has the feeling of folklore.

[1] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/30/the-marathon-runner...

[2] http://www.hs.iastate.edu/news/2014/07/28/iowa-state-profess...


Sitting is new smoking. It's okay to not be active all the time, but when you turn it to habbit then it starts to be dangerous.


I see aspects of neopuritanism WRT sitting, but its not working well because walking isn't torturous enough and sitting isn't enjoyable enough.

The best way to puritan-ize it is probably to greenwash the thermostat up to 85F in the summer and require treadmill desks for the proles, then let management sit in separately air conditioned individual offices at 70F. Guarantee you're going to see this at the "trendy" offices real soon.


Not the most scientific of articles, but it references some interesting data: http://chriskresser.com/how-sitting-too-much-is-making-us-si...


I wouldn't be able to read or concentrate if I was walking on treadmill. And how noisy is it?


I find that it actually helps my concentration a bit to be able to stop typing and just walk for a bit when I'm thinking about something, but I'm a pacer to start with. When I'm actually typing I don't notice it much; it's only a major impediment when I'm doing a lot of mouse work.

It's audible but not noisy. I'm in a cubical environment where most people have headphones on all day and my coworkers immediately surrounding me can hear it with headphones off but those with one cube in between cannot.


You walk whilst typing?


It's much easier than you might think and the noise isn't too bad. I commonly take a conference call while walking and typing, a good headset alleviates most noise issues (better than folks in there cars).


I had problems initially but it turned out my keyboard shelf was not at the right height. Since I've corrected that I no longer have problems.




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