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Life (and limb) on the treadmill of trends

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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 facemask? Teeth-whitening? Can I wrap gifts on this thing?

Yes! And log eight kilometres a day in the process, thank you.

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

A spree of studies making the gab circuit say sitting at your desk all day is as bad for you as smoking. I sit a lot. So when my neighbours 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 3.2 km/h. (Which was fortunate for the cat, who stupidly experimented with it.)

I started with an hour, about 2.4 kilometres. 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.

Plus I heard the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine uses one. I wondered if the treadmill rig would ever figure into Cosmo's 10 Tips for Bedroom Bliss.

In short, treadmill desks are becoming an office status symbol cooler than a juice bar. And definitely healthier. One study said 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 multi-tasking jackpot.

But wait, I think I just booked a mammogram for my six-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 multi-tasking is disastrous. I think I just proved it.

That takes us right back to smoking, funny enough. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King's College London University, did a study that found brain function addles with all that multi-tasking, 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 multi-tasking 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 the constant switching between tasks can make us 40 per cent 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 multi-tasking.

The funny thing he found in his research was folks who say they're really good multi-taskers are actually not. (This is the part I won't tell my husband, who tells me to "just slow down" when I'm in one of my multi-tasking frenzies, but will go an entire workday without a single thought as to where his children are, who they are with, what they are eating and what activity they have scheduled.)

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 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, Lucy Ricardo-style. I'm still too embarrassed to call that person back.

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?

-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 18, 2013 A9

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