January 14th 2016
A Healthy Curiosity: Work out while you work
May 12th 2014
Twitter, Getty Images
Victoria Beckham has one, but is a 'treadmill desk' the ultimate cure for our increasingly sedentary lifestyles?
It was considered a slightly flaky invention, a quirky way of combining gym and office - but all that changed when Victoria Beckham posted pictures of herself using a treadmill desk (albeit wearing stilettos). Now we all want a go on the anti-sitting device that promises more burned calories and significantly less bottom spread.
Too much time spent sitting is our biggest fitness sin. Experts are continually warning that we should ‘beware our chair’ as spending too long in it can raise the risk of high blood pressure, sluggish metabolism and weight gain. With the average person sitting down for 8.9 hours a day in the office, home or car, even a daily gym session or run is unlikely to offset the risks of being sedentary for too long.
Physiotherapist Sammy Margo says that everything from our breathing efficiency to our digestion are hampered by sitting. “The body struggles to fill the lungs with oxygen when crunched in a seated position” she explains. “It also squashes the abdominal contents and digestion is slowed down as a result. Energy levels can flag through lack of oxygen and digestion gets sluggish when you sit at a desk too long.”
One scientific study concluded that we’d actually be better off walking about and smoking than sitting down and doing nothing. There’s little doubt about the damaging effects of spending too much time on our backsides.
In order to offset these risks to our health and waistline, scientists say we need to move more - or at least stand up - on the job. In trials, Jim Levine, a British obesity expert who is now Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in the US, has repeatedly shown how the kind of everyday movements we take for granted like walking, standing, fidgeting and even shivering can burn a significant number of calories if we do them often enough. In one study he showed that thin people burn about 350 extra calories a day through these ‘incidental’ movements and the cumulative effect is a potential total weight loss of 36lb (16kg) a year.
That’s where the treadmill desk comes in. His own findings prompted Professor Levine to devise the prototype for what he called the ‘walkstation’. Back in 1999 he fitted a tray table with a telescoping base over a second-hand treadmill that he got for three hundred dollars and began using it himself. He found it helped to offset weight gain and began studying its wider use. Now several companies have jumped on the moving conveyor belt to produce their own commercial versions of the equipment.
Unlike gym treadmills, the desk versions typically move slowly, at a maximum speed of around four miles per hour with most users opting for a speed of around one or two miles per hour. Even this is enough to make a difference when compared with slumping in a chair.
In a year-long study on the effects of walking while working, published in February, Professor Levine and Avner Ben-Ner, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, reported that previously sedentary employees spent an hour less a day sitting down and burned an average of 74 additional calories when they were provided with access to a work-treadmill. There were other benefits as well, despite an initial drop in productivity while they got the hang of typing and using a mouse on the move. Within four to six months of work-on-the-walk, questionnaires revealed that quality and quantity of work, as well as the quality of exchanges with colleagues, all steadily improved.
It’s not all good news, mind you. For starters, you will need a generous boss as these desks don’t come cheap. A LifeSpan office treadmill will set you back at least £1,200 with a top-of-the-range model costing around £3,000. Bike desks, made by the same company, are cheaper and start from around £1000. A Steelcase WalkStation, based on Professor Levine’s designs, is around £3,000.
Then there are the potential pitfalls. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that enthusiasm for treadmill desks installed at Toyota’s head office in North America took a downturn when one employee slipped off a machine. Online forums for desk treadmill workers also feature a catalogue of injuries ranging from achilles tendon soreness to mild electric shocks from the static build-up on the belt.
However, those who master the multi-tasking minefield of walking while typing or calling someone insist the treadmills are a huge stride towards improved wellness. And you don’t even need to be on it all day. “There's a tendency to want to jump on the it and walk for hours and hours a day," Professor Levine says. "You don't need to do that. At the most do half an hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day."
If your office kitty won’t run to a treadmill, you could do worse than stand up. Doing so while you work or read emails will burn considerably more calories than you are probably doing as you read this now.