UK employee's treadmill desk keeps her fit and alert

She gets in 3 to 7 miles a shift at treadmill desk

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 7, 2011 

Kathryn Cunningham has a desk job at the University of Kentucky. But that doesn't mean she's stationary all day. She walks at her desk.

Cunningham spent about $2,000 on a treadmill desk, which she has been using since moving into her tiny one-person office in the UK Science Library last fall.

"I like this because it goes along with what we do in the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching: break through constraints," said Cunningham, who helps design courses and feedback surveys for the center.

She compares her daily desk walk, which can be 3 to 7 miles a day, to the kind of challenge involved in having a class with hundreds of students, yet making sure that each one stays focused.

She walks about 1.1 miles an hour — not enough to break a sweat, especially in an air-conditioned building — but enough to allow her to keep her metabolism going. Not only does she stay fit because of the constant movement, but she doesn't have to wear layers of clothing in the winter. It also allows her to fight the mid-afternoon groggies that often beset office workers and drive some to energy drinks, caffeine and chocolate.

Cunningham, 47, arrives at work each morning, climbs onto the treadmill and boots up her Microsoft outlook mailbox. She works using two computer screens and a land-line telephone, but she also has a laptop she can use when she needs to sit at her desk — on a stability-ball chair.

"I just try to find a speed that allows me to keep walking without thinking about it," she said. "If I'm not thinking about what my lower half is doing, I know I've got the right speed."

Cunningham and her treadmill desk have become a campus attraction on the fifth floor of UK's former King Building, now the Science Library.

Cunningham thinks more employers should offer treadmill desks that workers may share, giving them a break from the routine of sitting, largely motionless, all day. The treadmill desk has made her more productive, Cunningham said, by eliminating the afternoon slump and reminding her to stay hydrated.

One thing Cunningham said she can't do while walking at the treadmill desk is read. To do that, she steps down from the treadmill and sits on the balance ball at the desk with an Ott full-spectrum lamp, said to keep the blues at bay when there's too little sunshine.

Cunningham said her routine tones her lower body and prepares her for long weekend jogs, such as the Derby Festival miniMarathon in Louisville. She hasn't figured out a similar method to work her core muscles and tone her arms at work but says the daily walk makes her life easier.

And she doesn't have to spend the day recovering from a 4 a.m. alarm or dreading an evening workout.

As a wife, mother of two and Ph.D. student in educational psychology, Cunningham doesn't have a lot of time to exercise. But she found that she enjoyed walking on the treadmill while watching TV. Then she carted it to her office and used it to run during Lexington's long winter and spring rains.

A treadmill desk for an office has to be quiet, which suggests a high-end model. But plans for the desk, for which Cunningham paid about $500, are available online. Using those plans, the desk can be produced for about $45, she said.

As far as Cunningham knows, she is the only UK employee to have a treadmill desk.

Carrie Davidson, UK's wellness coordinator, said she works to assure that university employees get opportunities to be more active during the work day.

Davidson does "instant recess" activities in various departments, showing employees how to take an activity break, hold meetings while walking, take stairs rather than elevators or even get up and do the chicken dance — anything to get out of a chair and move.

Employees also have access to lunchtime and after-work exercise classes, and maps of indoor and outdoor walking routes.

Just getting to the office can be an exercise activity. "It's not hard at UK to park in a far-away garage," she said.

The ability to walk up to 7 miles a day while working at her computer, answering email and talking on the phone has given Cunningham, a longtime vegetarian, an interesting problem: getting enough calories to maintain her weight.

But, she quickly adds, it's a good problem to have — "a dream come true for me." It allows her to eat avocados and peanut butter guilt-free.

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202.

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