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Can You Move It And Work It On A Treadmill Desk?

Nov 19, 2012
Originally published on November 20, 2012 10:38 am

As we've reported, there's a backlash brewing to sedentary office life as more people realize how sitting all day can do a body wrong.

I work at home and often sit in front of my computer doing research and writing. So I thought I'd give a treadmill desk a try.

I went about this in steps. First, I elevated my sitting desk to a standing desk. For about a month, I grew comfortable standing all day. Then I added a discreet treadmill (without handrails) under my standing desk, and voila — a treadmill desk.

I'm into my second week now and walking at a pretty slow, casual pace, about 1.4 miles an hour. When I first started, I thought I'd simply hop on the treadmill and be off walking all day while working. But it turns out it's really hard to walk, talk, think and concentrate.

James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic who came up with the idea of the treadmill desk, told me that my experience was pretty typical. "There's a tendency to want to jump on the treadmill and walk for hours and hours a day," he says. "Don't do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, do half-hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day."

That's a relief. That's about what I'm doing. Levine says that since the 1960s, work spaces have been designed to minimize movement. It's a culturally ingrained mindset, he says, which dominates much of our lives today.

"You could literally spend your entire adult life from graduation to coffin entry without leaving your apartment, without getting up," he says.

Levine is on a mission to get any kind of movement into the workplace and the workday. He's consulted with a number of companies nationwide to help them do this. The most popular activity by far, he says, is the "walk and talk" meeting. "They're generally shorter, more productive, and people don't fall asleep during walk-and-talk meetings."

Take Salo, a financial consulting firm based in Minneapolis. The company has 12 treadmill desks, and encourages walking meetings and a mini-breakaway game — a mixture of pingpong, tennis and a bit of squash.

Throughout the day, employees rotate on and off the available treadmill desks. Craig Dexheimer, Salo's director of operations and administration, loves his. He's lost 25 pounds since he started using it. If employees get distracted while walking, he suggests they stop or slow down the treadmill.

A few years ago, Salo took part in a Mayo Clinic study headed by Levine to see what happened when employees used treadmill desks. The study was small — just 18 participants. For six months, they rotated on and off the desks, walking, on average, about three hours a day. Everyone lost weight. And overall, Dexheimer says, health improved. "Total cholesterol decreased, plasma triglycerides dropped on average 37 percent in total for all 18 participants.

"Remarkable," he says. "We didn't even go to a gym. We just went to work!"

And productivity didn't suffer. In fact, Dexheimer says, during the six months of the study, Salo's revenues were the highest ever. The environment, he says, was simply "more dynamic."

Now, this doesn't mean a treadmill desk or a game of pingpong is for everyone. But even a little bit of activity is better than nothing, says Catrine Tudor-Locke, a researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

"Instead of sending e-mail to a colleague two doors down, try actually walking over to them," she says.

As for me, I'm still getting used to my treadmill desk. I can write e-mails, read, have phone conversations. But I haven't yet written a story while walking. Levine and others say certain complicated or creative tasks are often still done best while sitting.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Today in "Your Health," we hear about how caffeine is fueling many high-performance athletes. But let's begin with the benefits of a lower level of physical effort - exercising while you work. Study after study shows the dangers of sitting all day. Sitting increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, even certain cancers. So some companies, and some employees, are trying to figure out ways to get moving while on the job. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: I have to confess, I'm one of those people. I sit too much. And I recently bought a treadmill desk. I'm into my second week now. Let me turn it on. And now, I'm going to hit the speed button; get up to 1.2 miles an hour. And this is a pretty slow, casual pace. When I first started this, I thought I was just going to walk all day. But it turns out, it's not so easy to walk, talk, think and concentrate. So I decided to call Dr. James Levine with the Mayo Clinic, who came up with the idea of a treadmill desk.

DR. JAMES LEVINE: There's a tendency to want to just jump on - as we were talking about - and walk for hours and hours a day. Don't do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, half an hour on, half an hour off, two or three hours a day.

NEIGHMOND: That's a relief. That's about what I'm doing. Levine says it's challenging for most of us to move while working. After all, since the 1960s, work spaces have been designed to minimize movement. Think the chair on wheels, that allows you to zip back and forth around an L-shaped desk, all while sitting down. It's a culturally ingrained mindset, says Levine, that dominates much of our lives today.

LEVINE: Now, you can find a wife online, you can order your food online. You can send out your shopping, to be done by somebody else, online. You can work from home. You could literally, spend your entire adult life - from graduation to coffin entry - without leaving your apartment, without getting up.

NEIGHMOND: By the way, during this interview, I'm walking on my treadmill desk, and Dr. Levine's walking on his. Levine consults with companies, to help them figure out how to get movement into the workday. Most popular, he says, walk-and-talk meetings.

LEVINE: They're generally shorter. They're more productive; people do not sleep during walk-and-talk meetings.

NEIGHMOND: And as research shows, the more active you are, the more healthy; mostly because diseases caused by high blood pressure, high blood sugar and other metabolic problems, can be prevented.

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER #1: Five down...

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER #2: Whoa, what are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER #3: Go, go, go, go, go!

NEIGHMOND: The game room at Salo, a financial-consulting firm based in Minneapolis. Five people race around a table; playing a game they made up, and call jungle pingpong. Employee Jake Schwartz:

JAKE SCHWARTZ: So it's kind of a mixture between pingpong, tennis; and you can maybe put in - a little squash in there, too.

NEIGHMOND: Salo also offers treadmill desks to its employees. Chief Operating Officer Craig Dexheimer loves his. He's lost 25 pounds since he started using it.

CRAIG DEXHEIMER: I'm walking right now - talking to you - going two miles an hour. You probably have no idea that I'm even walking. You shouldn't have any idea. And when our sales force is on the phone, or I'm on a conference call, the person on the other end of the phone should have no idea that we're even walking. It should not be a distraction at all. And what we say is, if it's ever a distraction, then you should stop - or slow down the treadmill.

NEIGHMOND: Salo recently took part in a Mayo Clinic study headed by Dr. Levine, to see what happened when employees used treadmill desks. The study was small - just 18 participants. For six months, they rotated on and off the desks; walking, on average about three hours a day. Everyone lost weight and overall, health improved.

DEXHEIMER: Total cholesterol decreased; and, you know, plasma triglycerides dropped, on average, 37 percent in total. So again, that's for all 18 participants. And when you think about how remarkable that is - we didn't go to a gym; we did this all while going to work.

NEIGHMOND: And productivity didn't suffer, either. In fact, Dexheimer says during the six months, the company's revenues were the highest ever. The environment, he says, was simply more dynamic. Now, this doesn't mean a treadmill desk, or a game of jungle pingpong, is for everyone. But even a little bit of activity is better than nothing, says Catrine Tudor-Locke, a researcher at the Pennington Bio Medical Research Center.

CATRINE TUDOR-LOCKE: Instead of sending an email to the colleague who is just two doors down, actually go walk over to them; and at lunchtime, if it's a full hour, you know, spend at least a part of the time walking to the place that you're going to have lunch, and walking back - those sorts of things, to add in activity at any point during the day.

NEIGHMOND: As for me, I'm still getting used to my treadmill desk. I can write emails, read, have phone conversations. But I haven't yet written a story while walking. Dr. Levine, and others, say certain complicated or creative tasks are often still done best while sitting.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.