Walk While You Work: Do treadmill desks help?

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Treadmill desks help sedentary office workers get out of their chairs and get moving, but researchers at Oregon State University have found that walking while you work will not automatically rectify an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle.

Seth Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley designed a treadmill desk in 1996. Since then, this kind of hybrid workstation — part office furniture, part exercise machine — has been gaining popularity.

How effective is a treadmill desk for weight loss?

In a 2007 study, James Levine of the Mayo Clinic found that standing and walking at a treadmill desk while working can burn about 100 calories an hour more than sitting. Therefore, if obese individuals were to consistently replace time spent sitting with time spent walking by two or three hours a day, they could lose about 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) in one year.

John Schuna, assistant professor of exercise and sports science in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU, recently set out to measure the effectiveness of such desks in changing worker behavior. “There’s been a societal shift to more sedentary work and we are not making it up in our leisure time,” Schuna says.

In a study of treadmill desk use by overweight and obese office workers, Schuna and his colleagues found that workers who used the desks increased their average number of daily steps by more than 1,000, but did not record any significant weight loss or changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) after 12 weeks. Participants in the study participants walked an average of 45 minutes a day while working, but nevertheless failed to meet public health guidelines for minimum daily exercise.

While the participants did increase their daily step count, they tended to walk at about 1.8 miles an hour on average. That speed is considered light physical activity. Public health guidelines suggest adults should take 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity several days a week to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

It seems that consistent exercise and enthusiasm for exercise are key. If office employees want to be active, then treadmill desks can be part of a healthy lifestyle. However, access to a treadmill desk alone probably won’t compensate for a generally sedentary lifestyle or an unhealthy work culture, nor should a treadmill desk replace other forms of daily exercise. If you believe that a treadmill desk is right for you, here is data to convince your employer to provide one.

Schuna’s findings were published in the “Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.” Co-authors include Damon L. Swift of East Carolina University and several researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Levine’s findings were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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