People of SU

Walking the Talk

Written by Mike Thee

March 24, 2014

students walk through campus on a rainy day

Nursing professor Karen Cowgill incorporates a treadmill into her workspace.

Stepping off the elevator onto the third floor of Garrand, Karen Cowgill's office isn't too hard to find. Just follow your ears to the whirring noise on the east side of the building. There you'll find Cowgill working. And walking. At the same time.

You may have read about Cowgill's treadmill desk in a recent Spectator article. The Commons was intrigued. We had some follow-up questions to ask the assistant professor of nursing, which Cowgill was happy to oblige. She even shared the tale of how she got the treadmill from Mailing Services up to her office, a journey involving a hand cart brought from home, a few timely assists from colleagues, and an air compressor to re-inflate the cart's tires when they went flat. But that's a whole story unto itself.

The Commons:  What prompted you to do this?

Karen Cowgill:  I had been spending hours and hours sitting at my desk. I'd read that prolonged sitting is associated with higher risk of all sorts of things besides the obvious potential for weight gain and injuries-things like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and early death from any cause. So I started setting a timer to remind myself to get up out of my chair every 30-40 minutes and move around, but I didn't stick to it. I had had a standing desk at a previous job, and had heard about treadmill desks, but it wasn't until reading an article in the New Yorker by Susan Orlean last spring that I resolved to "just do it."

The Commons:  On a typical day, how much time do you spend on the treadmill?

Karen Cowgill:  It varies-anywhere from 0 to 6+ hours.

The Commons:  What distance do you typically walk?

Karen Cowgill:  I walk anywhere from 0 to-my current record - 12.91 miles in a day. If I had just had time to walk two-tenths of a mile more that day, I'd have done a half-marathon! Usually I'm happy if I've done at least 5 miles, but some days I'm in too many meetings, and occasionally I just don't feel like walking, though I tend to have more energy and greater focus both on and off the treadmill when I use it. I'm less likely to walk if I'm working on a project that requires spreading out a lot of papers-I don't have the surface area to accommodate them easily. Writing by hand-which I still do sometimes-is also challenging.

The Commons:  Where did you get the treadmill and how did you modify your workspace to accommodate it?

Karen Cowgill:  I bought an Exerpeutic walking treadmill off Amazon, which cost about $400. The treadmill is not specially designed for work spaces, though those exist-they have a built-in desk space on the railing. Because my existing desk was essentially a countertop, I had to "hack" this treadmill so I could fit it under the counter and keep my computer on the desktop. I also bought some shelving to raise my computer screen to standing level, and I bought an extra pair of walking shoes to keep in the office. Very stylish.

The Commons:  Is it difficult to walk and type at the same time?

Karen Cowgill's chart tracking distance and calories burnedKaren Cowgill:  It can be challenging…the mouse is a little tricky, and I've occasionally clicked on the thing next to the thing I wanted to click on! No disasters, though.

The Commons:  What's your treadmill's max speed?

Karen Cowgill:  4 miles per hour, though 3.5 mph is the fastest I've worked so far.

The Commons:  Do you walk while you're on the phone?

Karen Cowgill:  Yes, but usually at a slower speed (say, 2-2.5 mph). I've also recorded lectures for online classes while walking on the treadmill.

The Commons:  Isn't there a danger that you'll read something that's so shocking that it will literally stop you in your tracks and cause you to be ejected from the treadmill?

Karen Cowgill:  I'm not that easily shocked. Plus, the incline is zero and there's a safety cord, so the chance of injury is  pretty much the same as when you're walking down a hallway.

The Commons:  Have you ever tried working, walking on the treadmill and chewing gum all at the same time?

Karen Cowgill:  Not the gum, but I've always got something to drink (it has to have a lid or a straw to avoid spillage) and often eat lunch while treading. The most challenging maneuver is turning around to see who's at the door…often I'll just hop off and turn off the treadmill if I have a visitor. Oh, and I sit down for meetings.

I have to say that my officemate, Lindsay Leeder (nursing faculty member and advisor to the Sullivan Leadership program) is absolutely fantastic and has been really supportive of the whole treadmill thing-she claims it's just white noise in the background while she's working …

The Commons:  What advice would you give a faculty or staff colleague who's thinking about incorporating a treadmill into their work station? 

Karen Cowgill:  I would love to see more of these, though I realize they're not for everyone. Some of us feel that work is enough of a rat race without getting on an actual treadmill! Of course, anyone can take steps to increase low-level activity throughout the day and decrease time spent sitting - even standing improves health outcomes. 

The Commons:  How long have you been at SU, what's your area of expertise and what are you teaching these days? 

Karen Cowgill:  I've been teaching here since 2007, first as an adjunct, and since 2011 on the tenure track. My training is in infectious disease epidemiology, and I also have degrees in nursing and medical parasitology. They have me teach courses the students really love , like statistics and research methods! But I also get to teach fun stuff, like epidemiology to the master of nursing students, a course in global health, and I have two Social Sciences and Global Challenges Core offerings, one on the HIV pandemic and the other on parasites and the people they inhabit. And this will be my third year going to Nicaragua in the summer for a partnership with a nursing school and a center for children with disabilities down there-a colleague and I will be going down with five students in August. I love teaching. I also have the privilege of serving as vice president of Academic Assembly this year. The treadmill desk has been key to keeping me happy!