Wellness needs to begin at the building level

Adjustable desks are only a small part of the solution to sedentary behaviour
Monday, October 29, 2018
By Linda Miller

Technology continues to make everyone’s life much easier, but it’s also making everyone more sedentary. At work and at home, people aren’t moving as much as they used to.

This is a major factor, along with high stress, less sleep, and poor nutrition, in the obesity epidemic in the developed world.[1]

More than 50 per cent of adults in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are now overweight or obese.[2] Most campaigns against this target food labeling and education about nutrition.[3]

But these numbers won’t come down to where they should be until people start moving, especially at work.

Simply put, it’s more challenging for people to achieve an active lifestyle if they spend 40 hours per week at a sedentary job.

Increasing workplace movement

Recognizing the need to get employees moving, many workplaces have been purchasing sit-to-stand workstations, as well as movement-based workstations, such as treadmill and bicycle desks.

These desks can increase movement at work, but they haven’t been too successful in doing so.[4] Let’s start with movement-based workstations. The idea behind them is great; workers can work and exercise simultaneously.

In practice, though, many job tasks just aren’t compatible with walking or pedaling. Sure, it’s possible to talk on the phone or look through some emails, but typing and visually intensive work will be a challenge.

Treadmill and bicycle desks usually have a height-adjustable work surface on which users can place their laptop on at elbow height. This addresses one problem — awkward typing posture — but creates another one. With the laptop in line with the elbows, the screen will be very low, leaving the user with poor neck and back posture as they tilt down toward the screen. Furthermore, walking with the arms in a fixed position increases loading on the lower back.

There is also evidence to suggest that reading while moving can strain the eyes,[5] and that overall productivity may decrease.[6]

Considering these desks can cost up to $15,000, the health gains have been very modest to date. Getting people to use movement workstations is another thing. There is usually an initial enthusiasm when treadmill desks are installed, but after a few weeks, they tend to start collecting dust.

For employers, purchasing a treadmill desk is a considerable investment of funds and valuable office space, not to mention the potential for distracting noises or movements. Most employers choose to purchase a small number of units and place them in a closed room. Staff can sign them out. Yet, in the long term, few do.

Corporate nutritional and office fitness initiatives generally have greater uptake, and increase awareness around the need for healthy choices. But the jury is still out on whether the desired outcomes are being achieved in overall health and well-being.

Sit-to-stand workstations, conversely, do have tangible benefits and are great for supporting postural changes while working.[7] It’s recommended that people stand for 10 to 20 minutes per hour; the remainder should be split between sitting and short movement breaks. This can be effective in reducing the risks for musculoskeletal discomfort associated with chronic sitting.

Still, spending part of the day standing at work alone will not be enough to help workers reach the goal of getting 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise five days a week, or taking 10,000 steps daily.

The importance of posture

Proper posture is absolutely critical to overall well-being and injury prevention, yet is all to commonly a mere afterthought.

Hunching over a laptop or resting wrists on the edge of a desk all day can cause musculoskeletal injuries — as can a staggering number of other problematic working postures.

These injuries can further deteriorate a person’s health and make it harder to exercise or even continue working, so it’s important to ensure proper posture is supported when increasing movement.

Ergonomics programs are very effective in improving posture and encouraging movement at work. But these programs are more impactful when wellness is considered one step earlier: with the building itself.

Improving workplace wellness

There’s been ample focus in recent years on making buildings environmentally friendly. But, if the needs of occupants aren’t always considered, this can create unhealthy work environments.

Good building design can go a long way when it comes to movement and overall wellness.[8] It’s possible to design work spaces and communal areas in a way that encourages natural movement; more people will take the stairs if they see them when entering the building.

Providing bike racks, as well as showers and lockers, will make it more convenient for those wanting to bike to work or exercise during lunch breaks.

These are only a few of the possible ways to work toward improving workplace wellness. If done in combination with an ergonomics program, they’re likely to generate vast improvements in worker health, productivity, happiness, and well-being.

Now, many buildings that are pursuing LEED certification are pursuing WELL certification too, bringing environmental and human well-being together — ergonomics is a big factor in this.

Workplace culture needs to change to fully embrace ergonomic values. People can still be working when they aren’t hunched over a computer typing away. Employers should encourage staff to have walking meetings, take their breaks away from their workstation, or at least pause to incorporate a stretch or change of posture. Along with providing healthier nutrition options, this can boost productivity and overall satisfaction.

Movement-based workstations aren’t the answer to a healthy working life, but they can be a small component in it.

Buildings need to facilitate overall health and wellness, and employers need to implement ergonomic programs — including the selection of adjustable furniture — in order to facilitate healthy work environments. This is how everyone can achieve a healthier lifestyle, while, at the same time, increasing productivity and keeping workers safe.

Linda Miller, OT (c), OTD, CCPE, is president and certified ergonomist for EWI Works International Inc., Clinical Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Alberta. Linda also recently became a part of WELL’s global concept advisory on movement. She can be reached at lmiller@ewiworks.com.


1-3. OECD. Obesity Update 2017. https://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/Obesity-Update-2017.pdf. 2017.

4, 6. Tudor-Locke C, Schuna JM, Frensham LJ, Proenca M. Changing the way we work: elevating energy expenditure with workstation alternatives. Int J Obes. 2013.

5. Blehm, C., Vishnu, S., Khattack, A., Mitra S., Yee, RW. (2005). Computer vision syndrome: a review. Survey of Opthamology.

7. Tissot F, Messing K, Stock S. Standing, sitting and associated working conditions in the Quebec population in 1998. Ergonomics. 2005;48(3):249-69.

8. Miller, Linda. Why I am working with WELL. EWI Works. 2018.

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