treadmill desks

Treadmill desks gain traction in the workplace

Long-term health benefits may outweigh short-term productivity dip
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

Just as the height-adjustable desk rose to the challenge of fighting sitting as the new smoking, the treadmill desk is adding movement to the mix. But is it possible to walk and type at the same time?

That’s the question Peter Schenk, president of LifeSpan, hears most often at trade shows. He would say yes, but it can take practice, which is why he recommends starting with simple tasks, such as phone calls.

Take, for example, “Cognitive and Typing Outcomes Measured Simultaneously with Slow Treadmill Walking or Sitting: Implications for Treadmill Desks” by Michael J. Laron, James D. LeCheminant, Kyle Hill, Kaylie Carbine, Travis Masterson and Ed Christenson. The study, published in 2015 in the Public Library of Science’s scientific journal PLOS ONE, reinforced earlier research that found individuals assigned to treadmill workstations typed slower and less accurately than individuals assigned to seated workstations. The study also found that the walking group performed marginally worse than the sitting group in tests designed to evaluate attention, learning, memory and processing speed.

However, the authors suggested that the health benefits of using a treadmill desk may be more important than the slight dip in learning and typing outcomes compared to using a seated desk. Plus, they added, their study was limited in that it examined only the short term.

“Additional research is especially needed to determine if adaptation to a treadmill workstation occurs and to what extent this influences cognitive and work-related performance,” the authors concluded.

Based on anecdotal evidence, including customer feedback and his own personal experience, Schenk affirmed that this does indeed occur.

“The positive thing that we’ve seen is that the research has gotten more robust, and maybe more clinically accurate in recent years,” he said. “When we first got it, it was such a novelty that very little training was given to people, and then they would do something like test productivity without anybody having gone through a learning curve, but most of the more recent studies are showing that people are in fact more productive, more creative.”

A year-long study, “Treadmill Workstations: The Effects of Walking while Working on Physical Activity and Work Performance,” published in 2014 in PLOS ONE, demonstrated just that. Authors Avner Ben-Ner, Darla J. Hamann, Gabriel Koepp, Chimnay U. Manohar and James Levine concluded that after an initial decline in work performance, using a treadmill workstation had a positive effect on both work performance and physical activity.

Alan Steele, director of the Discovery Centre for Undergraduate Research and Engagement at Carleton University, commented that working while walking puts him in a slightly different state of mind. Steele uses the treadmill desks located within the post-secondary school’s MacOdrum Library for writing. In fact, he was the person who procured the two workstations, which were introduced as part of the larger transformation project that produced the Discovery Centre.

“It’s an informal space for students to come, study, work in groups,” said Steele. “We wanted to make it a dynamic space, so in looking around at the range of furniture and thinking about the types of furniture that we were wanting for the space, we came across the treadmill desks.”

The literature on the ill effects of prolonged periods of sitting was a factor in the decision to purchase two of those workstations. Their application at Carleton University, which saw them installed side by side, facing a window overlooking the Rideau Canal, is similar to that of other organizations.

As Schenk recounted, when his company got into the treadmill desk business four years ago, roughly 70 per cent of its clients had at least a Master’s degree, such as professors, attorneys and CEOs. Since then, the highly educated, health-conscious, sedentary professionals who first adopted these workstations have typically rolled them out to their employees a few at a time in common areas.

“Within those group, in terms of how the companies are using them, we definitely get the more sedentary workers — from programmers, to technology [workers], to engineers — but there are also sectors” he said. “For instance, 911 call centres are one of our bigger customers because they have workers that are highly sedentary, that are required to stay alert, and they can use walking as a means of staying sharp.”

Schenk advised that employees should be given basic orientation before working from treadmill desks, which Carleton ensures happens by requiring users to obtain the keys from staff. Proper posture, for example, mimics a walking posture, meaning the spine needs to be aligned, any screens should be positioned so the user is looking straight ahead and the desk should be set at a height at which the arms are not reaching up or down.

Prospective buyers or users also express concerns about what level of noise the treadmill workstations will produce. Schenk observed that the motor is actually fairly quiet, but that if users don’t pay attention to their gait, the noise of their feet dragging may be disruptive. Steele echoed the sentiment that the motors on the Discovery Centre’s treadmill workstations are quiet, although he said that some users may be shy about drawing attention to themselves with the beeping that is generated when they’re adjusting the speed.

Unlike fitness treadmills, treadmill desks are engineered to sustain a slow pace for long periods of time without overheating the motor and causing premature wear and tear. Given that treadmill desks are not intended for vigourous exercise, they come with max speeds of either two or four miles per hour; an upper limit of two miles per hour is appropriate for most employees.

“As a rule of thumb, the more complicated the task, the more people slow down,” Schenk said.

As for how much time people should spend using treadmill desks, Schenk offered a few hours a day as a rough guideline. However, he added that it may be more practical to step onto treadmill desks for particular tasks than to set a timer. For example, Schenk uses his treadmill desk for phone calls (including for the interview he had with CFM&D for this article, during which time he indicated he was walking at a pace of 1.6 miles per hour).

In addition to maximum speeds, safety features can include a mechanism by which the belt automatically stops turning if a user falls or steps off the workstation while it’s moving. Other safety measures can include a marking on the belt to indicate when it’s in motion; Carleton University uses stanchions to prevent passersby from tripping on the desks.

Based on his company’s work in the fitness space, Schenk anticipated that, with proper maintenance, treadmill workstations should have a lifespan of five to seven years. His company prescribes a cleaning and inspection schedule of once every three months.

Although people aren’t exactly lining up to use the treadmill workstations in Carleton’s Discovery Centre, Steele considers their application a success.

“I’m pleased with the level of acceptance that’s gone on with this; it’s not viewed as a white elephant,” he said. “Students use them and we have had faculty and staff come in and use them.”

Some faculty members have even bought treadmill desks for their offices after taking the shared workstations out for a test run — er, walk.

When Schenk’s company checked in with a group of its customers at the three-month mark and again at the 15-month mark, customers reported reduced lethargy as an immediate benefit at the first check-in and improved health metrics as a long-term gain at the later follow-up.

In some cases, it may truly not be possible to complete a particular task on the treadmill workstation, he acknowledged.

“I might be doing a spreadsheet, graphics work, where it’s more difficult to move small distances,” Schenk said. “That’s probably the opposite extreme where you may want to pause it and just use it as a standing desk.”

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

Photo: Ottawa’s Carleton University procured two treadmill desks for its new Discovery Centre in MacOdrum Library. The space was created as part of a redesign completed in joint venture by Diamond Schmitt Architects and Edward J. Cuhaci and Associates Architects.

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