Walk While You Work

Treadmill Desks Help Offset a Sedentary Lifestyle

Treadmill desks, also known as treadmill workstations, are devices that allow an individual to exercise while still performing office tasks typically accomplished while seated at a traditional desk. In a study published in February 2014 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from four U.S. institutions assessed the effectiveness of using a treadmill desk in an everyday office environment. These researchers found that regular use of this type of desk can substantially improve office workers’ baseline level of physical activity while simultaneously contributing to increases in office productivity.

The Basics

A sedentary lifestyle is an established daily routine that includes little or no participation in regular exercise. Public health officials and doctors are well aware that people who lead this type of lifestyle have substantially increased risks for a number of serious health problems, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity or morbid obesity, certain forms of mental illness and a range of heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) diseases. People who lead sedentary lives also have increased chances of dying at a relatively early age. Figures compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the odds of living a physically inactive lifestyle vary somewhat according to where you live. The highest rates for physical inactivity appear in portions of the southern U.S. that don’t border the Atlantic Ocean. The lowest rates are spread across portions of New England, the upper Midwest and the West.

Treadmill Desks

As their name suggests, treadmill desks and workstations combine the features of a standard treadmill with the features of a standard desk or computer workstation. In order to accommodate both exercise and office work, these devices typically have an elevated work surface that allows an individual to simultaneously perform workplace tasks while maintaining the upright posture needed to properly use a treadmill. As a rule, the treadmill portion of a treadmill desk will go fast enough to support a variety of walking paces, but not fast enough to support jogging or running. As with a regular treadmill, each user can pick a comfortable speed setting from a number of options. In addition, users can adjust the height of most desks as needed. In order to limit the potential for injury, treadmill desks also commonly include a safety clip and a means of rapidly turning off the treadmill in an emergency.

Potential Benefits

In the study published in PLOS One, researchers from the Mayo Clinic, Arizona State University, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities used a yearlong project conducted at the offices of a financial services company to assess the effects of regularly using a treadmill desk in an office setting. All participants in the study were volunteers from the company; 50 percent of these volunteers started using a treadmill desk at some point in the project’s first 60 days, while the other 50 percent started using a treadmill desk halfway through the project. Each study participant could pick a speed (up to a maximum of 2 mph) or even stand still instead of walking. In addition, each participant could determine how much he or she used a treadmill desk on any given day.

The researchers looked at two basic outcomes to determine the effectiveness of using a treadmill desk in an office environment: improvements in physical activity levels both inside and outside the workplace and impact on the ability to meet an office’s established standard for work performance. Physical activity levels were tracked by counting the calories burned by each participant. Work performance was determined through a combination of weekly and quarterly surveys, as well as the records kept by the company’s supervisors and administrators.

The researchers concluded that, over the course of the study, the average participant reduced his or her baseline level of physical inactivity by more than 60 minutes per day. This decline in physical inactivity equated to the daily burning of over 74 calories. The researchers also concluded that the work performance of the average participant improved substantially, both in terms of the amount of work accomplished and the quality of the work submitted.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in PLOS One note that the adoption of treadmill desks or workstations does not produce instant positive results in the workplace. Before improving, the work performance of the study participants actually declined during an initial adjustment period. They also note that the results of their project, which only included volunteers, might not be fully repeated in a less selective work environment.

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