You’d better stand up – I have some bad news. Sitting is killing people. Even among those who exercise regularly, science is showing that prolonged periods of sitting can contribute to incidences of heart disease and diabetes.
Some people are using standing desks or treadmill desks to continue their work while staying active, but questions remain about the technology’s practicality and cultural acceptance.
Scattered examples throughout government demonstrate cases where treadmill desks work well for their adopters, but a lack of widespread acceptance amid an overweight nation presents the question of why they aren’t more popular.
Lifespan president Peter Schenk wrote in an email to Government Technology that sales of treadmill desks and bike desks increased 171 percent year over year since 2013, which indicates that the technology is becoming more mainstream.
“Studies keep reinforcing how movement helps prevent everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease, while offering the side benefits of being more alert and energetic,” Schenk said. “The appeal of treadmill desks is their ability to replace time spent sitting with time spent moving, without adding a single minute onto your existing schedule.”
Schenk noted that progress may be relatively slow, but because the idea of an active workplace is still in its infancy, the coming decades will likely bring more technology of which his company is on the forefront.
“After medical research showed how bad it is to be still all day, we’ve seen that trend flipped on its head. Now, offices are being designed to bring as much physical movement as possible into a person’s day,” he said.
U.S. Air Force test supervisor George Burrell’s group shares two Lifespan treadmill desks as staff members observe equipment and computers around the clock to ensure everything is working properly. The crew, which started using the desks in December 2014, has been more productive and made fewer mistakes since adopting the technology, Burrell wrote in an email to Government Technology.
“Our techs are operating computers and systems that cannot be left unattended, so they don’t have an opportunity to move around much during the shift. The treadmills give them that opportunity,” Burrell wrote. “They have definitely changed the attitude and morale of the crew members. … I can’t speak from a medical perspective, but I have observed that standing up and getting the blood flowing has improved the quality of work produced by the techs. They are more focused on the job at hand, and complaints about the shift hours and the lack of sleep have virtually disappeared.”
The desks also help his crew stay awake during the night shift, he added, noting that the 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. period is the most difficult period for people to stay awake, regardless of how much sleep they got during the day.
“Max speed is 4 mph, which is actually a little too fast to allow for error-free work while walking. The techs were walking at 2.5 – 3 mph, which is still a fairly good pace, and were averaging 10-12 miles per shift,” Burrell said. “They aren’t required to walk, and since they are voluntarily logging this many miles, it tells me that there was a void that is now being filled.”
Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach announced his move to a treadmill desk in a tweet.
At my new treadmill desk. I'm gonna live for freakin' ever! pic.twitter.com/KWZBnY9PRp— Daylin Leach (@daylinleach) September 25, 2014
Leach explained that he started using his treadmill desk after reading studies suggesting that sitting can be as unhealthy as smoking, like the 2013 Runner’s World article titled Sitting is the New Smoking.
The Los Angeles Times ran an article highlighting recommendations by the American Medical Association (AMA), including one by AMA board member Dr. Patrice Harris, who said, “Prolonged sitting, particularly in work settings, can cause health problems, and encouraging work places to offer employees alternatives to sitting all day will help to create a healthier workforce.”
Martha Grogan, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic said, “For people who sit most of the day, their risk of heart attack is about the same as smoking.”
CNN cut right to the chase in a January 2015 headline: Sitting will kill you, even if you exercise.
Another feature published by The Washington Post showed the manifold health problems that often result from long periods of sitting, which include muscle degeneration, heart disease, an over-productive pancreas, “foggy brain,” a strained neck, an inflexible spine, spinal damage, poor blood circulation and soft bones.
“I have a sitting desk as well,” Leach said. “I don’t do it eight hours a day. I think that would be too much, but I do it an hour or two hours a day. I think it helps. I don’t know. I’m still alive.”
Some people think that standing while working is distracting and would make it hard to concentrate, perhaps explaining at least one reason why treadmill desks aren’t more popular.
“I used to think that, but actually once I’m on it, I don’t find it difficult to concentrate on other things,” Leach said. “I can write letters, I can write memos, I can write an editorial, whatever I need to do, I can do it on there. It’s easier than you think to get adjusted to it, and then once you do, I would like to think I’m never going to go back to a desk where the situation is completely sedentary.”
A failed legislative effort to pilot treadmill desks or “walking workstations” in government was introduced by former Oregon Rep. Jim Thompson in 2013. The bill would have brought 12 treadmill desks to Oregon state government to test their usefulness and gauge further investment. Proponents of such legislation like Doug Spohn, wellness manager for the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (DOLI), said they were excited to find new ways to overcome workplace sitting, before the bill failed.
DOLI, which employs 2,900 workers across 19 cities, will upgrade all worker desks within the next year from standard sitting desks to electric sit-stand desks, Spohn said. They considered treadmill desks, but the expense was too great, so instead, the department is going to build their own treadmill desk by combining a treadmill with an existing electric desk and offer it in a communal area for people to try out, starting in July.
“In the private sector and if the company is small enough, I think it could be integrated 100 percent. But these things run three- to five-thousand bucks a desk,” Spohn said. “In government, I think you’ll see more of an approach that we might take where we’ll test it and we’ll set up some communal work areas.”
In response to one Fox news article announcing that bill, many Facebook users commented negatively, noting that it would be a waste of taxpayer funds or that people would fall off the treadmill and sue the state. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the U.S. population is classified as obese, with no resolution of the problem in sight.
In Michigan, Rep. Anthony Forlini said he bought his treadmill desk before Christmas, and in two months of use, it’s kept him more active at work, typically logging two and a half miles before anyone else arrives at the office. Forlini described himself as in decent shape, but “a big guy.”
“We all have the option, we just have to choose to do the right thing,” Forlini said. “But you give me a menu, I’ll make the wrong choice every time. I’m not trying to win any marathons or anything like that. All I’m trying to do is keep moving. That’s all it’s about.”
When asked if he thinks treadmill desks will ever take off in offices and become more widespread, Forlini was doubtful.
“I see it being a niche. I don’t see it being widespread. Those who want to use it will use it, and those who don’t won’t," he said. "You have to be committed to it, and I think I’m pretty committed. It’s been now two months for me, and for me it’s not really a thought. That’s where my laptop is, so I get in there and do it.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.