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Think again before you switch to a treadmill desk

The treadmill desk, the only thing that looks sillier than the standing desk, is gaining popularity, but a BYU study has found workers who use them are not as productive as sitters.
The treadmill desk, the only thing that looks sillier than the standing desk, is gaining popularity, but a BYU study has found workers who use them are not as productive as sitters.
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The negative health effects of prolonged periods of sitting have been extensively chronicled in the past several years, prompting desk-bound workers to find ways to incorporate standing into their workdays. According to a new report, some of the solutions might not be as helpful as they seem.

In 2012, The New York Times wrote the standing desk was gaining favor. Fast forward three years and that small trend has become a full-fledged phenomenon — and accumulating research has affirmed the change. Most recently, a study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded people should stand for at least two hours each day, though four hours is best.

Some health experts take the findings a step further, encouraging workers to not only stand but walk, using treadmill desks that are the ultimate in “ergonomic diversity.”

But the benefits of walking while working — improved blood flow, weight loss, increased energy — don’t guarantee increased productivity.

A Brigham Young University study released last month found workers at treadmill desks perform worse on nearly all aspects of thinking. Compared to sitters, walkers were more forgetful and less able to concentrate.

Researchers recruited 75 men and women, half of whom were assigned a desk with a chair and the remainder a desk with a treadmill. The treadmill was set to 1.5 miles per hour without incline.

Unsurprisingly, walkers were ineffective typists, typing more slowly and inaccurately than sitters: “It’s like typing while rowing,” lead researcher Dr. Michael Larson told The New York Times.

More surprising were the walkers’ lower cognitive scores.

By devoting some of their cognitive resources to maintaining balance on the treadmill, reason and memory suffered, though Larson said it is likely the results would have been different once the participants had grown accustomed to walking while working.

Another report released a year before BYU’s, reached a conflicting conclusion, deciding the “net performance effect of treadmill workstations is positive.” Even Larson can’t argue with that completely, topping his report with a caveat: “The use of treadmill desks has helped address health concerns by promoting simple physical activity in the workplace that fosters participation from employees, which may prove to be more beneficial long term than the decreases seen in productivity.”

The practical resolution to office inactivity, then, might be the humble standing desk. They provide most of the health benefits of treadmill desks without the hits to productivity, according to Larson.

Plus, treadmill desks can be pricey.

Email: oetman@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @OAEtman