In April, Oregon state legislators were pursuing a bill that could someday bring treadmill desks to state offices. If passed, the bill would initiate a two-year pilot program to test the “walking workstations,” determine their cost and effectiveness, and define the parameters of a potential larger-scale deployment within state agencies.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Thompson, is expected to pass, according Legislative Director Jim Williams -- and the idea is already attracting attention out of state.

Oregon was one of the first states to opt for a quasi-governmental state-based health insurance exchange following President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. This bill by Rep. Thompson, Williams said, should be a no-brainer given the state’s dedication to public health, and the sedentary nature of the typical office environment.

The bill is currently in committee waiting on funding, Williams said, adding that he feels the votes will come in. "That’s not really an issue,” he said, adding that it’s time to stop talking about improving delivery of medicine and delivering health. “Let’s go ahead and do something about it… If we have a goal of losing weight and obesity is one the leading causes of medical problems, why shouldn’t we do everything that we can to go ahead and reduce obesity?”

When passed, Williams said, this bill will create a more productive workforce and lower the cost of medical care in the state. “We’re going to lower the cost of medicine,” he said.

How Do Treadmill Desks Really Work?

Employees would not be forced to walk on a treadmill all day like a hamster, Williams said, but allowing employees the option of having a desk where they can alternate between walking and sitting -- or putting a few treadmill desks in common areas -- could lead to a healthier, happier workforce.

At the non-profit Association of Washington Cities, CEO Mike McCarty has been using a treadmill desk for the past three months to help fight the degenerative effects of type 2 diabetes.

“It’s a way to stay in motion while you’re working,” he said. “I find that I can do emails for a couple hours walking at two and half miles per hour, and not really break a sweat. It’s quiet, and it allows you to stay in motion while you’re being productive work-wise -- maybe even more productive than you probably would be sitting at a desk.”

Using the treadmill desk over the past few months, McCarty said he’s lost five pounds -- and not sitting all day helps him manage his blood sugar, which can be a serious issue for diabetics.

“That’s really what my expectation was, that it affords me a better quality of life and the ability to control my blood sugar a little bit better -- and hopefully I’ll live longer as well,” he said. “I am an advocate of these things.”

If money and space were no object, he said, he would at the very least start putting the machines in common areas so people who wanted to break up their day could walk while making phone calls or answering emails for a few minutes.

“I’m not sure we’re there culturally yet,” he said, noting that the price of some treadmill desks is comparable to the price of the stand-up desks offered to some employees in their offices.

Treadmill Desks Gain Traction

If the bill in Oregon passes, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (DOLI) may try to piggyback on the pilot study, said Doug Spohn, wellness manager for the agency. “We have a pretty comprehensive employee wellness program, so we’re looking at ways to get people to overcome the sitting all day thing."

The DOLI is like a state government insurance agency, Spohn explained. “The mission of our state agency is to keep Washington state employees safe and at work. Because the nature of our business is insurance claims and trying to prevent insurance claims, we tend to be very conservative as far as risk aversion.”

This climate has made some in his agency hesitant to get people standing up and moving while they work, for fear they could hurt themselves, Spohn said, but he’s confident these machines would be a natural progression to his agency’s Wellness 360° program.

Wellness 360° is the agency’s program intended to provide a holistic approach to employee health, from physical factors in the work environment down to stress-management and the impact of various management techniques.

“I’ve been working about a year on this particular larger-scale effort where we would use these treadmills, and I’ve gotten green lights all across the board so far," he said. "But when the rubber meets the road, we’ll see what happens."

Though there are no official plans in place to use treadmill desks in Washington, Spohn said that if Oregon passes their bill, he would love to be part of the effort.

Photo: Dr. James Levine keeps a 1-mph pace on his treadmill while checking his e-mail in Rochester, Minn. AP/Jim Mone

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.