The Wheel of the Desk Goes ’Round and ’Round

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 9, 2014
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Hamster Wheel Standing Desk.jpg
Will Doenlen, of San Francisco-based Instructables, likes combining work with a stroll inside the Hamster Wheel Standing Desk he and a colleague created. Photo courtesty of Robb Godshaw/Will Doenlen
Ever feel that you’re like a hamster in a cage, just spinning your wheels? Will Doenlen does, and he loves it. 

Doenlen, a developer at San Francisco-based Instructables, works inside an 80-inch-high, 24-inch-wide plywood Hamster Wheel Standing Desk. He codes and checks e-mail while taking a walk that goes nowhere and burning about 200 calories an hour.

Our office environment is a great place to work, but … you’re just sitting at a desk all day and that’s not really great for your health,” he told SHRM Online. “Standing still and not being able to move all day is difficult.”

Research published in the April 19, 2011, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that prolonged sitting is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and early death, and could be as dangerous as smoking, if not more so. A study published in the March 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine also found that prolonged sitting increases the risk of death.

Some employers, such as Google and health insurer Humana, have standing desks to promote wellness among employees. However, Doenlen found the standing desk he used for several months didn’t meet his need to be less sedentary on the job. “I feel more awake and focused” after a walk, he said.

While he does take the occasional stroll outside for fresh air, he wanted a workstation that required him to exert energy and set his own pace—unlike a treadmill desk, which has its own power source.

“The Hamster Wheel gives you more control, because [it moves at] the speed you walk,” Doenlen explained. His freestanding desk, which straddles the wheel, provides him with something to steady himself, if needed. He doesn't use the wheel the entire work day, though.

"I take breaks from walking sometimes and sit down to rest," he said. 

Doenlen created the contraption in collaboration with Robb Godshaw, artist-in-residence at Autodesk's Pier 9, a San Francisco fabrication facility affiliated with Instructables. Instructables is a website where people post do-it-yourself projects they have created.

Godshaw thinks the Hamster Wheel Standing Desk is more practical, in some ways, than the treadmill desk.

“One of the big advantages over the treadmill desk is you can just mindlessly wander as you code or write or check your e-mail. With a treadmill … you choose a pace, and are forced to continue on at that pace. The Hamster Wheel follows the user’s pace,” he said.

“More and more people are living their lives moving between [computer] screens with very little physical activity in their lives. As a possible solution to that problem, [this is] a step in that direction.” 

The Hamster Wheel is grabbing media attention, with mentions in The Huffington Post and other outlets, including a national health talk show. Some people wonder if the wheel could be used to generate energy for other purposes, according to Doenlen and Godshaw.

“It would be reasonable to expect 50 to 60 watts of output [from] a generator” hooked up to the desk, Godshaw said. “It would be enough to charge your laptop but not much more than that. Humans don’t produce that much power.”

If you want to unleash your inner hamster, you’ll have to make your own desk. Neither Doenlen nor Godshaw has any desire to go into the furniture-making business, but they did post instructions online for the project, which costs several hundred dollars in materials and requires access to a tool that can cut large circles from wood.

“Cutting the circles is probably the most challenging part of the whole project,” Doenlen acknowledged. 

“This isn’t a birdhouse,” Godshaw cautioned. “It’s a life-supporting wood structure. I don’t want to discourage people, but I think it would take people without a woodworking background and access to [special] tools much more than one day” to complete.

It is, to be sure, a feet … er, feat … of engineering.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

Related Article:

The Pros and Cons of Workstation Exercise, SHRM Discipline, Employee Relations, January 2013

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