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The day of the walking worker

Using a low-speed "treadmill desk," you can burn up to 130 calories an hour. But would you want to? Depends on whether you want to be healthy . . . or productive.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 17, 2013 5:21PM

A new study published in the journal Obesity suggests that using a "treadmill desk" may improve office workers' health without affecting their job performance. Three dozen sedentary employees used the desks for a year and lost an average of 3.1 to 7.7 pounds during that time.


The study's authors reported a minor drop in productivity for the first few months, but by the end of the year "workplace performance actually exceeded baselines."

A treadmill desk is a workstation high enough to allow users to operate a computer while walking. Just about any treadmill can be retrofitted with a desk, but a number of manufacturers create models solely for workplace use, including at least one that was designed for workers in high heels.

Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., popularized the walking workstation back in the mid-2000s. An endocrinologist, he's an expert in a field called "inactivity studies." Levine told National Public Radio that in today's world "you could literally spend your entire adult life, from graduation to coffin entry, without leaving your apartment, without getting up."

It's tempting to joke about your job being its own treadmill: a slow, endless trudge with no reward in sight. But devotees say that an "active workstation" is a good way not just to improve health but also your job performance. (Not everyone agrees, though; more on that later.)

Users walk at one to two miles per hour. This isn't an eight-hour workout, however. Levine recommends doing 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off for no more than three hours of the typical workday.

'A kind of hibernation'

Even at that leisurely pace a "work-walker" can burn up to 130 calories per hour, according to Mayo Clinic research. Companies such as Humana, Best Buy, GlaxoSmithKline and Mutual of Omaha make the work stations available (but optional) to employees.

Logo: Businesswoman working at computer (Jose Luis Pelaez Inc, Blend Images, Getty Images)In an interview on National Public Radio, author and treadmill desker Susan Orlean noted that people who sit for six hours a day or longer are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes.

"It's not only that they're not getting aerobic exercise. It's that sitting actually puts your body in a kind of hibernation, drops your metabolism down to practically zero. It's only slightly higher than if you were dead," says Orlean.

Before purchasing a walking workstation the writer "suffered from that mid-afternoon slump where I would sometimes think I could stick a pin in my hand and I wouldn't respond. I was just in such a stupor." These days, she's more likely to want to take the dog for a walk after working all day.

Can't or don't want to walk while you work? At least get up from time to time during the day, Orlean says. Walk around while making phone calls. Even standing up for part of your shift can boost that sluggish metabolism.

Not everyone's a fan
The Wall Street Journal recently reported mixed reviews for nontraditional workstations, including those that incorporate stationary bikes or elliptical trainers.

"Ergonomic specialists cite injury risks. User complaints include lower back pain. Employers are just beginning to deal with issues of hygiene, etiquette and liability," notes writer Jen Wieczner.

"While the health advantages of sitting less are well established, helping to cut the risk of obesity and heart disease, the productivity benefits of so-called active workstations are less clear from the results of the small studies to date."

For example, a 2011 Mayo Clinic study of 11 medical transcriptionists found that walking workstations caused a 16% drop in speed and accuracy. A 2009 University of Tennessee study indicated that fine motor skills (mouse clicking, dragging and dropping) and cognitive functions dropped by up to 11% among the 20 participants.

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Those are small studies, as Wieczner points out. Your mileage may vary, so to speak: If your job doesn't require top speed, and if you adopt smart work habits, treadmill desking might be right for you.

Just as with ordinary exercise, you need to stick with it and modify routines if necessary. A recent University of Iowa study noted that when exercise-bike workstations were offered, just 19% of employees were still using them after a month.

The reasons, according to the WSJ? "Lack of motivational support and anecdotal evidence that participants' knees were hitting the underside of their desk."

Would you use a treadmill desk or other active workstation?

More on MSN Money

Jul 18, 2013 9:59AM
I put a mini-exercise bike under my desk and use it while doing things like listening to conference calls, sifting through emails, etc. It's certainly not high-impact or going to make me break a sweat, but it's better than just sitting there. 

Jul 18, 2013 11:51AM
Our company offered these to employees 3 years ago and while they were not a hit at first, they certainly have become one. We are becoming healthier and more productive as a result of the 12 Treaddesks that our company has purchased. In addition to loosing weight, everyone believes that they are more creative, alert and productive as a result. We share them and most employees use them 1-2 hours each day. Now I can't imagine having to sit sill at a desk all day. I highly recommend them to anyone that is stuck at a desk all day. 
May 16, 2014 4:14AM
Yes, even better. I am using a treadmill desk, right now, whilst typing this comment. I have walked over 3100 miles since I bought my Treadmill Desk. I love it and I cannot imagine a sedentary lifestyle anymore. My treadmill desk has changed my life,
Jul 18, 2013 9:21AM
Interesting my boss on at my second  job designed his office so that he could do his work standing up.  Interesting thing is every time I go in to the office to work he is always sitting at my desk  working.  So I am guessing that this is not a practical option for most people.
Jul 18, 2013 10:45AM
No thank you. If I wanted a job where I had to do physical labor I wouldn't had majored in business.
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