There’s a new saying these days: “Sitting is the new smoking.” Over the last decade, new studies have come out to tell us just how bad sitting is for our health. According to these studies, Office workers who sit for extended periods of time are more likely to be obese, and to suffer from back pain, diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, those who sit for more than 11 hours a day have up to a 40% higher chance of dying prematurely than peers who sit for under 4 hours a day! (1, 2)
“Sitting is the new smoking.”
You might not believe you sit for that long, but if you or your employees work in a traditional office setting and sit at a desk from 9 to 5 each day, that’s 8 hours right there. Then consider all the time you spend at home sitting watching TV, reading, or browsing the internet. If you commute to work either by public transit or car, that’s even more time you spend sitting. When you start to think about all the sitting the typical office worker does during a day, it begins to add up very quickly.
So what can you do to take care of your health and the health of your employees when you have to spend all day tethered to a desk? Rethinking the type of desks that your business uses seems to be an increasingly popular answer. A trend is emerging to encourage office workers to stop sitting all together. Desks that allow workers to stand, and even walk, while working are becoming more and more common.
Doctors recommend you walk at least 10,000 steps a day in order to stay healthy, but between demands at work and at home, it can be hard to find the time to hit that goal. Even for those that do find time to hit the gym, sitting at work for 8 hour stretches is still bad for you. Enter the Treadmill Desk: A lofted desk that’s positioned above a small treadmill to allow its user to walk while they work.
It sounds like a great idea in theory. You get a day’s worth of walking done without leaving your desk. But how practical is it really? Since we offer different lines of standing, height adjustable and treadmill desks, we took it upon ourselves to see what results others were getting by incorporating this furniture into their workspace. We reviewed a white paper from the Mayo Clinic. (https://www.steelcase.com/content/uploads/2015/01/Research_Feasibility_of_Walk_Work_BJSM_0108.pdf ) and two first hand accounts written by Emily Leanan (http://www.phillymag.com/be-well-philly/2012/09/19/it-treadmill-desk/) and Jeff Haden (http://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/review-lifespan-treadmill-desk.html)
What to Expect
Treadmill desks are different than treadmills you find at the gym. For starters, treadmill desks are not made for running. Most of them have a max speed of 4 mph. Some treadmill desk designs are adjustable and allow the user to go from sitting, to standing, to walking. Others are dedicated “walk” stations. Below is a list of the pros and cons of a treadmill desk to help you decide if on might be right for you.
Treadmill desks really do allow office workers to get more exercise.
The Mayo clinic provided the treadmill desks to nurses, assistants, and secretaries, and used a step tracker to monitor their daily activity, in order to see how effective treadmill desks were at promoting workplace health. Those provided with the desks walked an average of 2000 more steps, and burned around 100 more calories, per day! What’s even better is that individuals who participated in the study reported that they really enjoyed using the treadmill desks and would continue to take advantage of the desk if it was available. (4)The results demonstrate how valuable treadmill desks can be. They make it easy for workers to find time to take care of their health during their day. Being preoccupied with work also makes exercising less of a mental effort. Emily Leanan described in her article how easy it was to walk for extended periods of time, saying “Working was the perfect distraction for the physical output. The first day I hopped on, laptop fired up, I walked an hour like that.”
- It increases your concentration and alertness.
Studies have confirmed that walking actually improves cognitive functions in workers; increasing alertness, and ability to concentrate on tasks. Leaman also noticed that walking on the treadmill seemed to perk her up as day wore on, even during the dreaded “afternoon slump”. (3)
- Tasks such as reading, placing phone calls, and even typing are relatively easy.
Most people are used to walking and talking on their cell phones, or bringing a book along to read at the gym, which makes both tasks a breeze to try the desk out with. The option to walk sedately on the treadmill while you make business calls or read emails is a no-brainer. According to Haden’s article, he quickly found that typing was fairly simple too, and observed that “It only took about an hour to feel comfortable at 1.5 mph.”
- Treadmill desks offer a great space to burn off anxious energy or clear your head.
I’m sure many of us are familiar with the urge to pace when we’re anxious, trying to think, or just talking on the phone. When you have a treadmill for a desk, there’s no reason fight those urges when you can hop on and burn calories and anxious energy at the same time. Especially since we already know that walking while you think makes your brain stay alert, and perform better
- Treadmill desks can take up a lot of space.
It might seem obvious, but a treadmill-desk combo is a big piece of furniture. Before you make any purchases, make sure to carefully measure and consider the room or area you have in mind.
- Walking and working at the same time takes some getting used to.
Although the desks themselves are relatively stable, walking while working will definitely make using some fine motor-skills more difficult. Some tasks will be fairly easy from the start, but learning how to do others while on the go will require some practice.
- It can be a distraction for coworkers.
If you’ve ever used a tread mill before, you’ll know that they can be a bit noisy. Although treadmill desks are designed to be quieter than your typical treadmill, your office mates may still find the sound of repetitive steps and a whirring motor annoying. (Personally, I don't mind it. We have a Steelcase Walkstation about ten feet from my desk and I actually find the rythmic sound soothing when coworkers use it.)
- Exercising at work means rethinking your wardrobe.
Sensible shoes that are comfortable and practical to walk in are a must, and you’ll need to be careful that you don’t accidently get a little overzealous and end up sweating in your work clothes right before a big meeting.
The Take Away
Treadmill desks absolutely help to promote better health in the workplace. A desk that lets you walk while you get work done empowers you to the find time to take care of your health, without having to worry about sacrificing time somewhere else (like time with family). But while they’re great for exercise and staying alert, walking at a treadmill won’t be practical for every task that you or your employees have to accomplish during the day. Because of this, a treadmill desk’s best application may be as a communal resource.
“In the case of treadmill desks, two things would make the setup ideal,” Leaman observed in her article, “A common space for it to live where anyone in the office could hop on for a turn, and a space that’s somewhat removed—or at least separated from—the working office spaces of your coworkers so you don’t distract them,” Setting a desk up as shared work station, allows the entire office to take advantage of the desk’s health benefits, allowing individuals to jump on whenever they need to make a few phone calls or read some emails, and then head back to their normal desk.
Other Standing Options
Treadmill desks won’t be for everyone, or every business. Another great option for improving office health is a standing desk. Standing desks are lofted desks that allow you to stand and work, but without the treadmill. They provide many of the same health benefits of a treadmill desk and have few downsides. Standing desks also have the advantage of offering a stable workspace, not making noise, and taking up less space than a treadmill desk.
Many standing desks are actually height-adjustable to allow you to move from sitting to standing, giving you the option to change positions and move around a bit more throughout the day. Some are manual, which can be a little more of a hassle to adjust from standing to sitting, but others are electronic and come with the option to pre-set different heights to let you easily change position. While not quite as good as walking all day, standing is still much healthier than sitting. Standing allows you to engage your legs, back, and core, and at the end of the day you’ll definitely feel a difference. Even making minor changes to help reduce the amount of sitting you do during your day can have major impacts on your health, improving health chronic problems like back pain and poor circulation.