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A young volunteer at Warren Murray’s walking desk. Show caption A young volunteer at Warren Murray’s walking desk. Photograph: Warren Murray/The Guardian
Opinion
Contributor image for: Warren Murray

What kills exercise for me is the knowing you are doing it, and the waiting for it to end. My pandemic project changed that

Wed 22 Dec 2021 03.27 GMT

I have been working from home since 2011, long before the pandemic, and getting enough exercise without a daily commute to the office has proven a challenge. I exercise most effectively when it’s just built into my day, like cycling to work was previously.

My home office is also my person-cave and it is rigged out with a small couch and a TV. At some stage I independently discovered the concept of “temptation bundling” before it became a thing. At night I was binging TV shows while doing what I called the Batman Workout – situps, pushups and pull-ups, which was all Christian Bale’s Dark Knight ever seemed to need. By the time all six seasons of The Sopranos were finished, I actually was on my way to getting slightly ripped. But then I must have hurt my back, run out of good TV shows, or got the shits with it or something because I stopped.

I necessarily digress here. I’m a tinkerer and a nerd and some years ago I started pulling apart exercise treadmills that had been abandoned on the side of the road and turning the parts inside into other things. My first effort was converting my old-tech metalwork lathe to variable speed – its name is Frankenlathe. The second effort was a benchtop drill press – its name is just Drill Press.

Meanwhile, to address my lingering home office fitness and ergonomic concerns, my carpenter father-in-law knocked up for me a very simple sit-stand computer workstation – basically some lengths of timber screwed to my workshop bench that cantilever out to support a keyboard/mouse work surface. I bought a gas-lift drafting chair so I would be sitting at the right height, and an elevating arm for my computer monitor. When wanting to stand, I could push the chair aside and raise the monitor up – the keyboard and mouse stayed at the same level.

Just standing up at your desk does burn calories – but as a form of exercise it is dead boring, your feet get sore, your legs want to walk off somewhere else, and eventually you realise that it’s easier to think sitting down. I decided a treadmill workstation or “walking desk” would be the go. You can buy these in various forms but I decided to improvise.

Your average exercise treadmill is too long for what my workspace could accommodate, but on Gumtree I found one shorter than usual and in full working order. I may have gotten it for free – it was a “need it gone” ad – though an exchange along the lines of “$10 and I’ll help you load it” comes to mind.

I started stripping down the mini-treadmill, first discarding the handrails and figuring out the controls, but eventually it just languished in the Land of Unfinished Projects (garage) for several years, being variously shoved out of the way, tripped over, or having things stacked on or draped over it.

Then I got interested in craft beer. Very interested. Then came the pandemic. Then between both of those combined, I was out one belt-hole in my trousers, then two, and it was time to take action.

Since breaking my hand in three places when I fell headlong while trying to take adult tennis lessons(!), a Dark Knight Rises workout regime has been out of the question, at least while the hand is in rehab – a frustratingly longwinded process. So the idea of a walking desk was revived.

Exercise treadmills can be raised to a vertical position so you can move them around more easily or stow them. I decided that mine would fold up in front of me when not in use, with the keyboard/mouse work surface sitting between me and the vertically stowed treadmill. The “arms” supporting my existing cantilevered desk just needed to be moved a bit further apart and screwed down again with good ol’ batten screws. The upright treadmill would then fit in between.

When standing on the treadmill, both the desk surface and the monitor would need to raise up by quite a lot. So my elevating monitor stand now attaches to a Besser/cinder block, which is clamped to the workbench using a bit of hardwood cut into an L-shape and another batten screw going into the workbench.

The desktop was more complicated. In the raised position, it has to be elevated and forward (away from me) in relation to its lowered position, so that I can be further forward, otherwise I would shoot off the back of the treadmill mid-stride. And when swinging the treadmill up and down, the desktop surface also needs to be shifted out of the way.

Those are the basics of how this pandemic project came to exist.

What kills exercise for me is the knowing you are doing it, and the waiting for it to end. Walking is one of the few things that I can do adequately and indefinitely without thinking about it very much. And with a treadmill desk, I don’t need to find the time.

Typing and using a mouse is a challenge when desk-walking, but you adapt, including by going into your computer settings and putting the mouse tracking on low, and sort of bracing your wrists on the desk surface to steady your hands as you type.

The Dirty Secret here is that my home office/bunker/person-cave is air conditioned. I despise the heat of summer, but now I can walk my daily five kilometres or so without becoming sweaty and angry like I would outside. The air conditioner is a repurposed one of those box-type ones that you see hanging out the wall of a cheap motel room. I put a second, outward-swinging door on my office, cut a rectangular hole and hung the air conditioner in that hole, so when I need it, I can just swing the door shut and plug it in. But that’s another story …

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