In which I share my Ikea hack standing desk / Ikea hack treadmill desk made from an Ikea ALEX desk, GERTON legs, EKBY LÄRPEN shelf & CAPITA brackets, plus how I hacked two different treadmills to work with the desk.
1,605.7 miles. That’s just over half the distance from here to New York City.
It’s also how many miles I’ve logged on my Nike+ account in the one year since I bought my Nike+ Sportband, and I logged almost all of those miles while working at my computer (in fact, I’m walking right now as I type this!)
Huh? A Treadmill Desk?
Yep, I don’t just have a standing desk; I have a treadmill desk, and I love my it! Making the switch from sitting to office walking has been an enormous quality of life boost. Since getting my (first) treadmill in May of 2013:
- My back doesn’t hurt all the time anymore. (I have scoliosis, so my back is always in a state of some discomfort, but I had no idea how much sitting was killing me until I stopped! Thanks to office walking — and my brilliant samurai massage therapist — my daily pain level has dropped dramatically.)
- I’ve shrunk the layer of middle-age fat that was rather annoyingly starting to accumulate around my middle.
- My leg muscles are rather impressively hard and toned.
- I have more energy.
- My mood is better.
- It’s easier to maintain better posture throughout the day, which, in turn, helps my back.
- Instead of being a computer chair potato, I’m now walking an average of 3-7 miles a day! Some days as many as 10-15 miles!
In fact, I’ve become something of a treadmill desk evangelist, always raving about the benefits of office walking. The world would be a healthier, happier place if all office workers had treadmill desks!
Sitting is the New Smoking
Sedentary office lifestyles are pretty common here in Silicon Valley, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for us. Human bodies are made to move, not to sit!
They say that sitting is the new smoking — that’s how bad it is for you.
I used to fantasize about living in an area where I could walk everywhere, as I did during the two years when I lived in New York City and in Birmingham, England. I was especially fit during those years, because I didn’t have a car, and so I had to walk a lot. And because of excellent public transportation, I could get just about anywhere I wanted pretty easily without driving.
Now I live in a suburban neighborhood, where most stores are just too far away to make walking realistic, and public transportation is pathetic. And I’m just too lazy and rain-shy to get into biking everywhere.
With my treadmill desk, though, those old fantasies have all but disappeared. I don’t need to live right downtown to walk every day! In fact, I’m quite sure I walk more with my treadmill than I ever did during my two car-free years. Even though I’m not getting a very intense cardio workout (I generally walk between 2-3 mph), I’m moving!
Challenges of Treadmill Desk Walking
Almost everyone who hears about my treadmill desk expresses astonishment that I can type while I’m walking, but trust me, that’s the easy part.
If you can push a shopping cart through a grocery store, you can type while you walk.
The trick is simply to set up a typing surface at the right height. It might take a day to get used to walking on a treadmill, which feels a bit odd at first, compared to walking on regular ground, but believe me, you’ll be typing easily within a few minutes.
The bigger problem, I found, is building up endurance and finding the right shoes.
Yes, walking places different demands on your body than sitting (or even standing). I suffered from blisters, arch pain, and sore knees while my body got used to walking for miles a day.
Part of this was because I was too impatient to start slowly. Take my advice: start slowly! I recommend 20-30 minutes a day max for the first few days, then build up a few minutes a day from there.
I started with an hour a day. Given that a once-a-week 45-minute walk was a Big Deal for me back then, this was not my wisest moment…
The blisters quickly showed me that none of the shoes I had were going to work in the long run, so spent a good two hours at a running store that specializes in custom-fittings, only to take those shoes back a month later because they were causing pain in the outer side of my foot.
Turns out the sole was squishier on the outer side, and my right foot rolls in such a way that it was getting repeatedly stressed. (This is why I’m a believer in patronizing local stores that know what they’re doing: I took the (now used) shoes back, and after another 90 minutes of fit tests, they happily traded them in for a different pair, which worked like a charm (in fact, they’re due for a replacement, I’m sure…))
(That’s when I also bought the Nike+ Sportband, to have an easy way to track my mileage, and with a Polar heart rate strap, it can monitor my heart rate, too, which is pretty nifty.)
Also, be advised that, even though I’m not getting an extreme cardio workout from walking 2-3 mph, I do work up a sweat. Walking in dressy office attire is probably not ideal, so if you’re setting up a treadmill desk at an office, bring a change of clothes to work!
Standing Desk Hack #1
I bought my first treadmill in late May of 2013, and after scouring the internet for cheap treadmill desk / standing desk hacks, I drove to Ikea and bought a LACK side table for $9.99, which I stacked on top of my computer desk to make a standing-desk-height surface.
To get my screen to a good height, I raised my iMac several inches with a few reams of paper, which rested on the end of a long cutting board (one of those pull-out kinds from the kitchen), the other end of which stuck out beyond the edge of the side table to serve as a makeshift keyboard shelf.
For almost a year, this is what my set-up looked like:
Not pretty, but functional. Or rather, functional enough… for the time being.
This rickety contraption was definitely not something that would be approved by OSHA, nor was it ergonomic (the keyboard was a few inches too high for me), but thankfully no disasters befell, and it allowed me to walk for close to a year before I finally implemented a more permanent (not to mention attractive, comfortable, and safe) solution.
More on that below…
The Treadmill Part of the Treadmill Desk
Choosing a Treadmill
I’ve actually used two different treadmills — the Confidence GTR Power Pro (aff link) and the Confidence Power Plus (aff link). I’ll explain why I’ve had two, and the differences between them, in the next sections.
Back in May of 2013 I bought my first treadmill off Amazon, a Confidence GTR Power Pro (I paid $249, but the model has changed, and the price has gone up to $263 on Amazon). I chose this particular model because I’d read about several people hacking Confidence treadmills into walking desks, and this model seemed a little easier to hack than its cheaper cousin, the Confidence Power Plus (aff link – currently $199 on Amazon). Because it also has a little more power than the Power Plus, I reasoned that it might last longer.
In addition, both Confidence models have a particular feature of stopping automatically after a certain length of time — the Power Plus after 30 minutes, and the GTR Power Pro after 60 minutes — and I thought I might get annoyed at being stopped without warning every half hour, whereas every hour might be a good time to stop, stretch, and rest my eyes.
In fact, after using both, I’ve decided I rather prefer the 30-minute auto-stop. Some hackers have figured out how to stop this feature, but I’ve grown to like it, as it serves as a built-in timer, and even though I don’t always take a stretch break, at least it reminds me to do so. 😉
I did look online for other alternatives to the Confidence treadmills, and there are many. A quick search of Craigslist will show you dozens of treadmills languishing in garages and spare bedrooms, but most of these are monstrous machines that take up a lot of space, with chunky, non-removable handlebar setups, which would require a much more extensive hack job than I wanted to undertake — essentially custom-building a desktop around the bulky front part of the treadmill.
Lots of people have done it to great effect, but I wanted something more streamlined.
One of the things I like about both Confidence models is how small they are: the Power Plus platform is only 20″ wide and less than 48″ long! The GTR Power Pro is slightly larger. If you’re a very tall person, and/or if you want to use the treadmill for running, this platform may feel a bit small, but for me (5′ 8″ tall) it’s been perfect.
If you’ve got money to burn, nowadays you can also find all kinds of (expensive!) treadmills that are made explicitly for office walkers, with springy platforms that are easy on your joints. Some companies are now even building all-in-one treadmill desks with adjustable-height desk areas, but these do not come cheap — $2,000 and up is not unusual. Plus beware that some of them limit your speed to 2 mph max (too slow for me!), and many do not offer the option of an incline.
Both Confidence treadmills can be set to a shallow incline (the Power Pro default state is actually slightly inclined, but you can always raise the end on blocks to make it flat if you wish), and I actually prefer a slight incline, as I find it easier on my knees, plus it gives me a better workout.
Hacking the Confidence GTR Power Pro Treadmill
To get the Confidence GTR Power Pro treadmill to work with the desk was relatively simple. This particular model comes partially assembled, with the horizontal handlebars unattached to the vertical arms.
Here’s a pic of what it looks like fully assembled:
We left the handlebars off, which allowed us to fold the vertical supports down alongside the platform, out of the way of my desk.
The console had to be removed with a screwdriver, which was easy enough. The only tricky part was the cable that connects the console to the treadmill — that cable runs through the hollow handlebars, and plugs into an outlet at the top of the right vertical support.
Just in case we might want to assemble the treadmill later, we tied a long string of dental floss to the end plug of the cable, and taped one end of it to the handlebar before pulling it out. That would act as a “needle threader” to enable us to reverse the process later.
The end of the cable looks a lot like a telephone cable, but smaller. Thankfully, MM recognized that it was the same kind of plug used on old fashioned landline telephone handsets, so we went to Fry’s and bought a long, curly telephone handset cable, which you can see in the picture of my first treadmill desk above, stretching from the lower right end of the treadmill up to the cable coming out from the console.
Once the treadmill was plugged in, and the console cable attached with the curly cable, I was up and running! Er, walking.
This treadmill served me well for many months. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t realize that I needed to lubricate the belt platform regularly. Oops…
Several months in, the belt started slipping. Thankfully, I was only walking, not running, or this could have caused a very serious accident.
To solve the slipping problem, first I tried tightening the belt, which helped for awhile. When that stopped working, I discovered I should have been lubricating lo these many months, and I tried lubricating it, which also helped for awhile, but eventually it just gave out.
Luckily, a random Craigslist search landed us a barely-used Confidence Power Plus treadmill for just $70. Sweet! These puppies (basically a slightly less powerful and smaller version of the Confidence GTR Power Pro) normally go for $199 on Amazon, so this was a great steal!
Hacking the Confidence Power Plus Treadmill
Unlike the GTR Power Pro, the Power Plus treadmill has essentially a U-shaped handlebar setup, so folding the handlebars down by the platform was not an option.
Following the advice of some previous treadmill hackers I found online, we initially removed the entire handlebar assembly, by taking out two bolts attaching it to the treadmill platform.
As with the GTR Power Pro, the console unit (much smaller on the Power Plus) had to be removed with a screwdriver, and the cable pulled out of the hollow handlebars. (We used the dental floss trick again, to ensure that we could thread the cable back through later if we wanted.)
Initially, this worked great. However, when you take the treadmill apart in this way, the motor section rests on its plastic housing, which it probably wasn’t designed to do. MM was concerned that the repeated pounding of my feet would ultimately crack and break the plastic housing, dropping the motor onto the floor, which would not be a good thing if it happened while I was walking!
So after a few weeks MM hacksawed the vertical supports a few inches above the bolts, and we reattached the platform. This had (for me) the advantage of giving the treadmill platform a slight incline, which, as I’ve mentioned, I find easier on my knees, as well as a better workout bang for my buck.
Unlike the GTR Power Pro, the cable from the console of the Power Plus is long enough to reach from my desktop (where the console sits) down to the treadmill. Plus the smaller console fits more easily on my desk.
As of this writing, I can’t speak to the longevity of the Power Plus, since I’ve only been using it for a few months. I have, however, been lubricating every week or so, and hope this helps this machine to last longer than its predecessor!
The Desk Part of the Treadmill Desk
My initial $9.99 Ikea hack was tolerable, but for close to a year I was chomping at the bit to come up with a better solution. At first, I thought that would come in the form of a height-adjustable desk — one that would go from standing height to sitting height with the push of a button.
There are plenty of options out there for this kind of thing, but they’re expensive ($800-$1,000 is cheap for a height-adjustable table!), so I held off.
Then there was the question of what size desk to get. My computer desk was six feet long, and my original thought was to simply replace it with a six-foot long height-adjustable table.
But then I saw this post, which had me dreaming of overhauling my studio, replacing the hand-me-down furniture, and finally creating a studio that I really loved!
This dream was limited by the reality that my studio was swimming in clutter. Almost two decades’ worth of stuff that I really didn’t need, but hadn’t been able to let go of. I’d never managed to clutterbust this part of the house because the task was just so herculean!
So I started the Great ClutterBust in order to help me do the impossible. Once the clutter was cleared out, I had the mental space to start thinking about what my dream studio would actually look like.
Meanwhile, after close to a year of using my temporary treadmill desk, I realized that I didn’t really need a height-adjustable table. I’d given my office chair to my husband, and never actually sat in a chair while working anymore! If I feel like getting off my feet, I’ll set a stool on my treadmill and perch on that, but I never have a call to lower my desk to chair-height.
All of which meant that I wasn’t limited by what affordable height-adjustable tables I could find! The world was suddenly open to me!
I spent a few weeks scouring the internet for ideas, drawing out furniture layouts on grid paper, and calculating costs. Ultimately, I completed my studio overhaul with Ikea furniture (and lots of help from MM), and the final piece was finishing up my Ikea hack standing desk / treadmill desk.
I knew I wanted easily-accessible drawers, and legs that could adjust if the height of my treadmill ever changed. I also needed a way to raise my computer monitor to the right height. And above all, I wanted it to be pretty.
I was sick and tired of living like a student (and a slobby student at that!) I wanted my desk area to feel spacious, with clean lines, and lots of white space. And cable management! No more tangled nests of wires dangling every which where!!
Ultimately, I patched together a bunch of Ikea products to create a workstation and storage units that hold everything I need efficiently, and look good while doing it.
This post tells the story of the first part of creating my Ikea hack standing desk / treadmill desk. Here’s what it looked like after part one:
As you can see from the snapshot, my computer was still resting on paper reams, plus the weight of the computer caused a bit of bowing to the desktop, so phase two was to add a monitor shelf — inspired by this pic, and this, and this — and a fifth leg to help eliminate the bowing. We also wanted to somehow attach the desk to a wall stud, to keep it from toppling in an earthquake (this being California…)
I knew this would be a Big Project, so it took us a solid month to get around to it. Then finally we set aside a full weekend to work on this project, and we Got It Done!
First, after taking everything off and out of the desk (naturally), we carefully flipped it upside down and screwed in the fifth leg in the center back. That was the easy part.
(Note: It would have been much more efficient to attach the shelf to the desktop prior to assembling the desk, but the bolts on the CAPITA brackets were so long that they would interfere with the drawer movement if we didn’t have them cut. It took awhile to find a local person who could trim the bolts (without stripping the threading), which postponed the shelf assembly, and in the meantime, I’d sold my computer desk, and needed a desk! So we did things a bit backwards, assembling the desk first, and adding the shelf later.)
Measuring was tricky — we discovered when using a T-square that the EKBY JÄRPEN shelf is not truly square. The really tricky part, though, was figuring out how to mark the drill holes on the top of the desk without scratching it!
We decided to attach the brackets to the bottom of the shelf first, then carefully hold the shelf over the desk, using the black plastic “washers” from the CAPITA brackets to A) prevent scratching, and B) mark the spots where the holes should be drilled. Since the back of the ALEX desk flips up to reveal the built-in cable management, we had to make sure the CAPITA brackets didn’t extend beyond flush with the back edge of the non-movable part of the desktop, and the black plastic washers worked perfectly for this.
In the two pics below, you can see the black plastic washers, taped down with blue painters’ tape, being used as guides for the bolt holes:
Several hours later, ta-da!
Here’s a close-up. In this pic we were using an orange C-clamp to “earthquake-proof” the iMac, but I’ve since discovered that this keeps the screen too close for my aging eyes, and switched to a velcro strap system to lash the “heel” of the iMac to the CAPITA brackets just below it.
You can also see that I’m using a separate shelf, stacked on a couple of CD jewel cases at either end, to raise my keyboard up a couple of inches.
I could also lengthen the adjustable GERTON legs, but I like the monitor at its current height, and am finding this setup to work quite nicely.
And here’s a blurry distance shot, which also shows, at the left of the image, the white LINMON tabletop + 4 short CAPITA legs, which function as a sort of enormous shelf on top of my flat files, providing hidden storage for my many internet-computery devices, a semi-hidden shelf for incoming mail, and a lovely white surface!
Another close-up, showing my treadmill console at the left:
The earthquake safety system: black velcro strap encircling the GERTON leg and a (hidden) eye bolt, screwed into the stud (serendipitously located directly behind the leg!) The steel cable is my computer anti-theft cable.
And again, the final outcome:
And the lovely corner!
There’s still a bunch I want to do to beautify (and finish clutterbusting) — for example, painting the blonde wood tool shelves white to match the rest of my furniture — but walking into my studio now puts a smile on my face, and that is nothing short of a miracle.
Oh, and we did ALL of this for less than we would have spent on a height-adjustable table.
Writing this herculean post (over 3600 words) gave me an appreciation for how hard it is to explain engineering things in writing. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them!
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!