Sunday, October 22, 2006

Increasing NEAT - A better way to lose weight?

Several months ago I read this article about Dr. James Levine's obesity work at the Mayo Clinic and I found myself inspired.

Dr. Levine's work is based on the fact that there are three primary ways the human body uses the calories you eat: basal metabolic rate (how much energy you need just to keep your body alive, even when you aren't doing anything), thermic effect of food (just digesting and metabolizing your food takes some energy too) and activity thermogenesis, which is the energy required to do everything else you do during the day. Dr. Levine's group then split activity thermogenesis into two parts: directed exercise (e.g., going to the gym) and everything else. The "everything else" is NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. An extensive 10 year study of NEAT was then performed.

While a large part of our nation's obesity problem originates with our super-sized food culture, the coffin is nailed shut with our low NEAT lifestyles. Most Americans spend the majority of their days sitting on their butts. The NEAT study demonstrated that your daily activities alone can change your caloric requirements by up to 1000 kilocalories (the actual scientific unit referred to simply as "calories" on food packaging) per day. What does that mean? Quite simply, it means a highly active person can eat a lot more food and still stay thin.

Since the conclusion of the NEAT study in mid-2005, Dr. Levine's group has worked on ways of changing our living and work environments such that people's NEAT energy usage can be significantly increased. As part of this work, they have dreamed up an office of the future concept. One piece of this concept is the computer-desk treadmill combination, which allows you to work on your computer while using the treadmill.

This simple innovation is pure genius. Like many people, I spend at least 10 hours every day sitting at a computer. This is a way to have my cake and eat it too; a way to do the sedentary activity I love while also getting enough physical activity into my day to get healthy, all without traditional exercise. I had to try it.

However, there was a slight problem: these treadmill desks are not yet available. So I built my own.

The first step was to buy a treadmill. I bought a Weslo Cadence 78e, which ran about $400 with the extended 3-year warranty. I normally don't buy extended warranties but since the standard warranty was just 90 days and this is a mechanical product which I plan to put a lot of miles on, I figured that it was a smart move in this case.

Once I had the treadmill, the next thing to do was to build the desk to go with it. After pondering this for sometime and coming up with some rather elaborate (and expensive) designs, I decided to start with a very basic prototype instead. The treadmill is still a treadmill without the desk. However, if I were to decide that this whole treadmill desk thing wasn't workable, I would end up with an expensive desk with working surfaces far too high to be of any use.

So, I sketched out a basic design consisting of an adjustable work surface and an adjustable shelf to hold my computer and monitor. Then I made my way to Home Depot to pick up the following:

  1. Seven 2"x3"x8' Studs @ $1.95 = 13.65
  2. Two 4' Shelving Uprights @ $2.95 = 5.90
  3. One 2' Shelving Upright @ $2.17 = 2.17
  4. Five 12" Shelving Brackets @ $1.80 = 9.00
  5. Two 48" Shelves @ $8.27 = 16.94

Adding in the sales tax, all of that came to $51.59. So, all told, this contraption has cost me about $450USD, thus far.

A shot of the frame, without the shelves:

A shot of the frame, with the shelves:

A shot of the completed project, with the treadmill and my Mac mini in place:

So, how well does this scheme work? In the month and a half I've had it, I've had a net weight loss of 16 pounds, without dieting. I probably would have lost a bit more if not for the fact that this time includes a week-long out-of-town vacation where I gained back 4 pounds which then had to be burned off again.

I generally spend between one and three hours using the treadmill every evening. I do confess that this device has led to a slight cut back of my computer use when at home.

From a usability standpoint, I find it to be pretty good, with a few snags. I have no problems typing or reading while walking. However, I did have some difficulty using my optical mouse. Due to the top heavy and slightly flimsy design of the desk, combined with the fact that I'm walking while using it, I have found accurate mousing to be a challenge. My solution was to circumvent this by dumping my mouse for a Fellowes hand-held trackball. After a period of adjustment and tweaking settings, I have found this to be a far more usable mousing solution.

Going forward, I expect to continue enjoying my NEAT desk. This entire post was composed while walking on it. At some point I'm going to replace the prototype frame desk with my more elaborate design but for now the prototype does the job well.


Blogger Jay Buster said...

Great Post,

I have a blog devoted to Treadmill Desks:

I want to post your pictures on my site. If you object, just send me an email and I'll remove them.


Jay Buster

4:53 PM  
Blogger AKG said...

Thanks, Jay.

I've made some improvements to my desk since I posted this, basically just added some diagonal cross bars to stabilize it more, which allowed me to switch back to my optical mouse.

I still use it every day. I often play World of Warcraft while walking on it, if you can believe it. Did 6.5 miles on it that way just last night in fact.

Go ahead and share my pics, it should be exciting to see other people's as well.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

I have recently decided to blow the dust off my treadmill put it to some use. The problem I have always had with the treadmill is that it is so boring.

Now with all the talk about the new treadmill work stations I decided to start reading while on the treadmill. I simply found a board that I set on the handles, put my book on it and walk at a pace that will allow me to read and walk for as long as I want.

I am a computer programmer so I; like you; spend all day on the computer. I try to be active but it’s hard when you like to read, play video games, and write programs at home. I’ve been thinking about getting a laptop to setup on the treadmill. I was looking for ideas when I ran across your desk photos. I’ll have to talk my husband into helping me build something similar.

Are you still using it?

Kelly Gates

3:17 PM  
Blogger AKG said...

Oh yes, I still use it. (July 10, 2007)When I built it, I completely rearranged the room around my treadmill desk.
To stop using it would entail a good bit of work.

I may be the first (and only?) person to ever get fit while playing World of Warcraft.

I rarely program, so I can't really say how that will go for you if you try it while walking.
The few times I tried it, it didn't work for me. I had to stand still in order to think that hard.

It may go better or even be totally fine for someone who is well versed in the craft. Sadly, I'm not such a person.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Jay Buster said...

Hello Alexander,

I've posted your pictures in their own slide show at:

Look over on the right sidebar.

Thanks for your photos.

Jay Buster

PS-Check out my new Google "live" map on my blog. I bet it will raise my Geek factor!

6:21 PM  
Blogger mattack said...

It seems like one big step forward would be to get treadmill companies to sell treadmills with the controls on very short stands -- optionally.. or maybe even at treadmill-level (off the front end perhaps)... that would make making these kinds of desks much easier.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Elena said...

Hey - are you still using the treadmill desk or have you completely vanished from walking too much?

I'm getting ready to build my desk when I move in a few weeks and I'm just looking for some inspiration.

3:42 PM  
Blogger AKG said...

Yep, I still use it. You won't regret building yours.

I think this year I am going to finally replace my prototype desk with my permanent one.


8:53 PM  
Blogger Brad Rhoads said...

I may follow your design. I don't have the 4K for a walkstation.

Also, I've just started up a social network on this topic. Feel free to join me at

8:05 PM  
Blogger Hungry Girl said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:27 PM  

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