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Originally published Friday, December 20, 2013 at 5:27 PM

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Guest: How a treadmill desk drove me crazy

Multitasking on a treadmill desk drove me crazy, writes Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak.


The Washington Post

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I’M working from home today, and I am in multitasking nirvana.

I am checking emails, doing interviews, writing columns, paying bills, organizing photos, shopping for last-minute Christmas presents and writing proposals — all while walking.

I am having a little fling with a treadmill desk. And I wonder what else I can do while walking. Can I do a face mask? Teeth whitening? Can I wrap gifts on this thing?

Yes! And log five miles a day in the process, thank you.

Unhealthy? Super healthy? Crazy? All, it turns out.

A spree of studies making the gab circuit say that sitting at your desk all day is as bad for you as smoking. I sit a lot. So when my neighbors quit their jobs to start a treadmill desk company, I begged them to let me try one.

The treadmill isn’t huge and fits neatly under a desk you can raise and lower quickly. The whole set up costs about $1,000 and is designed to never go faster than 2 mph. (Which was fortunate for the cat, who stupidly experimented with it.)

I started with an hour, about 1.5 miles. I had sea legs when I got off, a little wobbly. But it was liberating. To be moving while writing and reading felt so productive. I felt like I had more energy on the days I desk-walked. It was a psychological lift.

In short, treadmill desks are becoming an office status symbol cooler than a juice bar. And definitely healthier. One study said that a year of using a treadmill desk is the equivalent of running 11 marathons. Take that, all you weekend race freaks!

I have hit the multitasking jackpot.

But wait, I think I just booked a mammogram for my 6-year-old. And sent an email about my son’s birthday party to the attorney general.

There is a growing body of research that says multitasking is disastrous. I think I just proved it.

Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, did a study that found brain function addles with all that multitasking, and IQ points drop twice as quickly as when someone is smoking pot.

So I’m basically high when I think I’m being superwoman?

The multitasking myth has become a darling of the neuroscience fields, where doctors hook people up to monitors to prove how poorly we perform when we try to play Candy Crush, answer emails, check Facebook and write a draft annual report.

University professors are becoming dismayed that their students are acting like working moms in the lecture hall, paying bills, booking dates and checking airfares on their laptops and smartphones during lectures.

Now put everyone on treadmill desks and see how that goes.

The folks at the University of Michigan found that the constant switching between tasks can make us 40 percent less productive at each of them, because that switch time takes a good amount of energy and brain power.

“That process of switching from task to task is very taxing,” said Brent Reed, an assistant professor in pharmacology at the University of Maryland who has studied multitasking.

The funny thing he found in his research was that folks who say they’re really good multitaskers are actually not.

Learning when to focus — to close down the email, the Facebook and the phone, and just do one thing for an hour — has become a valuable part of Reed’s academic life.

I learned my lesson in that area before I called him. I figured out that I simply cannot walk on the treadmill and conduct an interview. My brain just couldn’t make the switch to do three things — type, talk and walk — at once.

During one interview I strayed a little off path, hooked my shoe on the side and stumbled off the treadmill, Lucille Ball-style.

There is such a thing as too much.

I still want to keep the treadmill desk though. But can I have a personal assistant to go along with it?

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.




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