The Less Sedentary Academic

Old-school comfort. Photo by Charles Williams

Among my goals for 2013 is to be more active on a daily basis, beyond regular workouts. Every day, there seems to be a new study on the health dangers of pure sitting — and every day, I think to myself, I really need to get up and move around more. Unfortunately, though I stand in the classroom, the remainder of my job as a professor calls for seated work.

I have — after years of struggle — finally developed a real craving for exercise and activity, and enjoy running, cycling, hiking or doing yoga just about every day. But most of my work day ties me to a screen, and my leisure time in the evening, after working out, is often spent with a book, an iPad, knitting or a movie…all sedentary activities. Regular workouts don’t undo the negative effects of all that sitting.

And, as much as I am interested in online and hybrid teaching and learning, I must admit that I have a real fear of the effects of still more seated screen time on my physical and mental health. Most terrifying: this finding that suggests that “Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” So…what about every single hour of seated online grading or research? With a batch of papers that takes three hours to grade, am I also losing an hour of the rest of my life?

Like many folks, I’ve also been wanting a standing desk or a treadmill desk after seeing lots of discussion of their benefits (balanced, of course, with the knowledge that standing all day also has its risks). I’m hoping that I can soon adopt a repurposed video editing station from a campus lab to use as a standing desk at the office. At home, we have a new-to-us used treadmill bought from a Craigslist seller.

So here are my efforts so far in 2013 to become a less sedentary academic, and their relative success to date. We’ll see if I’m able to continue these efforts once spring 2013 gets fully underway.


The Fitbit’s iPhone app, which syncs via Bluetooth with the device itself.

Monitoring daily activity: the Fitbit. I bought a Fitbit, which clips to my clothing and is essentially a souped-up pedometer and altimeter for data nerds who like digital gadgets (like me). It also has an iPhone app and connects with Lose It!, where I track my food intake.

I’m trying to meet the Fitbit’s default goal of 10,000 steps per day. So far, I’ve had a good string of days where I’ve met that goal — even walking over 17,000 steps one day! But I’ve also had lows in the 2,500 range during an otherwise terrific faculty writing retreat where I sat all day (and worked really productively, I have to admit).

A cool Fitbit feature is a little digital flower on the device’s screen that grows taller based on your recent and current activity level. One good workout doesn’t keep the flower tall for long, however — the Fitbit demands constant, lower-level activity, beyond intense but relatively brief workouts, to reflect healthy levels of movement. (I learned in researching this post that developing this kind of representation of data is called captology. Cool!) Also, you get fun badges as you do more (gamification!); I just got a badge for having walked 50 miles since starting with the Fitbit on Jan. 2. Yes, digital flowers and badges are ephemeral, but I’m the type of person who finds them motivating.


Goal accomplished!

Treadmill laptop desk. I tweeted recently about using my laptop on the treadmill and “accidentally” walking 5 miles while working. (A few folks expressed interest in how this occurred, which spurred me to write this post.) It’s true — my laptop screen blocks the digital screen on my treadmill, and I hadn’t bothered to peek around it to see my progress because I was engrossed in my work. Magically, though, when I exhausted my laptop charge and quit for the night, I’d covered 5 miles and burned over 500 calories, all while walking at 2 mph and accomplishing a variety of tasks online, including writing paper reviews and emails. In fact, I’m writing this post right now on the treadmill.

SurfShelf on treadmill, holding 13″ MacBook Pro steady while I work. The next improvement: a light in this area!

I’m using a low-budget solution to this problem — the SurfShelf ($39), which is a clear plastic platform that attaches to the treadmill console with easily removable straps and buckles. I can put the shelf on in about 2 minutes. The manufacturer suggests it can be taken to the gym for use on equipment away from home, but I think that would be a bit too involved for me. I also wouldn’t recommend it for running — I use my iPad on the treadmill’s built-in ledge for higher-impact, treadmill-shaking activities — but for slow walking during basic computing tasks, the SurfShelf has been pretty awesome.

There are lots of folks experimenting with other, even cheaper options for using a laptop on the treadmill. @CStuartHardwick sent me this tweet with a photo of his setup:


Pretty cool, and made with easily available materials!

Treadmill and spin bike grading. Toward the end of last fall, I experimented with grading by hand while walking extremely slowly on the treadmill. I found that at 0.8 mph, I could make legible comments on student work while holding a clipboard. Not especially easy, but on days when I felt like I absolutely had to get up and move, this was a feasible option.

I’ll try grading hard copy work on the SurfShelf as well. The shelf doesn’t have an edge to catch the papers from sliding off onto the treadmill belt below, but I can probably attach the clipboard with the same Velcro strap that holds my laptop in place. I think I can also use the clipboard approach on the spin bike we just bought.


The accidental five miles.

Reading. Well, of course, you can read while on either the treadmill or bike. No fancy technology required. My preference so far is to read printed books while pedaling fairly slowly on the spin bike. I pull a folding wooden TV tray up to the bike to hold a stack of materials. Of all options, my favorite is reading Kindle books on my iPad with the typeface enlarged so that my eyes can more easily focus on each line while I’m walking.

Things that don’t work for me:

  • I have tried reminder apps that tell me to get up from the desk at particular intervals. I end up resenting them when they interrupt me at key moments and shut them down after a few days of ignoring their desperate pleas. In combination with the Fitbit’s incentives, I might try this approach again, but having a standing desk at the office will just generally make me more active anyway.
  • “Deep” reading or writing while in motion — like reading or writing serious scholarly stuff. I guess my brain is not powerful enough to do both at once! Reading the news or web articles, catching up with social media, writing routine emails, doing basic grading, etc., are perfect tasks for me to do while moving. Because I spend a significant proportion of my seated time on these tasks, moving while doing them will help a lot.
  • Using dictation software to help cut down on sitting/typing (because I could move around while talking into a headset) and RSI risk. Dragon Dictate for Mac is not really suited for things like typing comments into Blackboard or GradeMark — an activity I would especially like to make more movement-friendly. I think Dragon could be good for other writing, but I found its interface and slowness pretty frustrating, especially considering its cost.

Now, what can I work on while doing yoga? No, no, I’m totally kidding about that one. A major reason I do yoga is that for me, it’s a time and place in which my mind can focus solely on the activity of the moment — and I need that mental space. So yoga shall remain unsullied by any attempt to combine it with grading or reading! But I am recommitting in 2013 to a weekly in-person yoga class, plus a weekly online class through YogaGlo. I have also started getting up during the day and doing some adapted “office yoga” poses like these.

That’s all I have to report for now. I’ll check in with this post in about 6 months and see if I’ve been able to maintain progress toward my goal of being a less sedentary academic. What else are you doing in 2013 to become less sedentary at work?

(PS: I’m now at 14,398 steps for the day!)


    • Thanks, Carol! I looked at the Jawbone UP also — very cool device as well. A colleague of mine (@jmeyert) rigged a standing desk by simply putting a small, low end table that she found in the campus’ furniture surplus on top of a desk. If I don’t get to claim the tall desk I’m eyeing, I’ll probably do the same. An easy and cheap solution.

  1. Pingback: The End of The World As We Know It. « c. stuart hardwick

  2. If you have you MacBook Pro upgraded to Mountain Lion dictation is built in. Just double tap the fn key to start dictation. Tap again to stop and process dictation. It works pretty well. It operates similar to dictation in iOS.

  3. Great post, Susan! One thing it got me thinking about is how much I sit. Arg! Even though I work out nearly every day, I know that I certainly do not take enough steps in my days. I’m hoping your post is motivation for me to get up from my desk during the day and WALK!

    • Yes, it’s the thing about daily workouts still not sufficing for good health that’s got me all fired up now. The Fitbit is proving to be a great investment to keep me moving! I really like it.

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