Work-Desk Treadmilling Has a Long Way to Go
A new 12-week study looking at the real-world efficacy of treadmill desks in the workplace has found that challenges remain in truly making a good idea great. Conducted by the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences with co-authors from East Carolina University and researchers from Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, the findings were published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
The group set out to evaluate the effectiveness of a three-month “treadmill desk intervention” in changing fitness behavior among overweight and obese office workers. The group’s mean age was 40 years. Twenty subjects were assigned their usual working conditions, and 21 received a shared treadmill desk intervention. Physical activity level was determined using accelerometers, and measured along with sedentarism both before and after the intervention.
Compared with the control group, the intervention group increased daily steps and light physical activity, as well as decreased sedentary time, but only modestly. For example, the treadmillers only sat less by 3.6 minutes per hour during working hours.
The increase in physical activity did not help workers meet public health guidelines for daily exercise, and the machines posed logistical challenges that might lead companies to conclude they are not worthwhile enough to offset their expense. For example, the researchers found that work considerations often kept employees from using the desks, even though the company had approved and encouraged employees to participate in the program. And employees were required to share the treadmill desks, which meant scheduling the time they would be using them.
Ultimately, even though workers who used the desks increased their average number of daily steps by more than 1,000, they benefited little by way of weight loss or change in BMI.
Treadmill desks have been gaining popularity as a solution for helping sedentary workers out of their desk chairs during the work day. This study was concerned specifically with whether the availability of these desks helped change employee behavior. It turns out the employees only used the treadmills about half the time they were asked to, averaging one session of 45 minutes a day on the machines.
Another issue is that the subjects who used the desks tended, on average, to walk at about 1.8 miles an hour, a speed considered only light physical activity, and a far cry from a brisk 3.5 (or more) mph walk many people comfortably achieve when the focus is entirely on the exercise session. One of the challenges with the treadmill desk is surely that it needs to be used at a low enough intensity for employees to still perform their work duties.
Public health guidelines suggest adults need at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity several days a week, with some recommendations flatly stating 60 minutes at this level, and on most days. Yet there is value even in standing at your desk. The ACSM’s 2011 physical activities tracking guide gives up to three times the energy expenditure of sitting (i.e., 3.0 METs) to “standing and talking at work” (“up to” because the older, 2000 compendium value was just 2.3 METs).
There may be cardiovascular or other benefits when people begin increasing their steps, even in small amounts at low intensity, but reversing the effects of a sedentary lifestyle requires more activity.
Though this is a separate, more challenging issue from simply whether the prospect of at-work treadmilling could possibly improve lifestyle fitness behavior, this latter issue of just altering habits presents ample challenges, as noted above by the fact that participants underperformed by half. Even more disconcertingly, initially more than 700 employees of the company were targeted for recruitment, with just 10 percent of them in the end even expressing interest in participating.