Treadmill Desks Can Lower Productivity. But…

Move more at work (Startup Stock Photos)

A new study indicates that, while treadmill desks do much to improve health, they may actually reduce productivity.

A recent article published in the Herald Tribune cites a study, conducted by Brigham Young University, which uncovered some potential undesirable side effects related to walking at the desk.

The researchers used 75 volunteers who were divided and each outfitted with either a treadmill desk or a conventional desk with chair. Both groups were given a series of tasks to perform, beginning with simple manual tasks and building up to more analytical tasks.

Not surprisingly the manual tasks were easier for those standing. Some of these simple tasks consisted of typing words which flashed on the computer screen.

As the tasks became more challenging, however, the performance gap between those at the treadmills and those in chairs began to widen. Tasks involving the use of working memory and delayed recall required more concentration and were thus more difficult for those at the treadmill than for those seated. In one such test, participants were instructed to memorize a list of words and add up numbers in their heads, while new numbers were added. No small feat to be sure!

The results, in a nutshell, found that those workers who sat while completing the tests were substantially more accurate than those who used the treadmill while completing the tests. Even typing accuracy was higher while seated than while standing.

While the results clearly favored chairs over treadmills, the researchers were quick to note the overall health benefits of treadmill desks; benefits which continue to be corroborated by studies.

One such study, recently conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego, found that sedentary office employees who walked at a slow pace on a treadmill at their desk for two months were able to significantly reduce their blood pressure, as well as sleep better at night.

Is there a happy medium? According to Gavin Bradley, director of Active Working, the real point is to get up off your feet regularly doing the work day. “Our first order of business is to get people to spend two hours of their workday not sitting. However you do it, the point is to just get off your rear end,” he said.

So, by all accounts, don’t throw out those treadmill desks yet. Use them strategically and balance your standing hours for less brain intensive work with sitting hours for those more brain challenging tasks.

Ultimately, according to Bradley, it’s about using common sense. “Taking your calls standing. Walking around. Pacing. Holding standing meetings. Walking meetings. Walking over to a colleague’s desk instead of sending an email. Using the stairs instead of the elevator. Taking a lunch break. Simple stuff.”

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