Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Three Ways to Make Your Desk Job Less Sedentary

The lowdown on standing desks, treadmill desks and walking meetings.

feet on a treadmill
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Your desk chair is out to kill you. Sitting for long hours at a desk job may increase your risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, emotional distress and premature death. And hitting the gym or bike trail after work isn’t enough to offset these risks, because the problem isn’t simply a lack of exercise. It’s also an excess of time in your chair.

There’s strong evidence that sitting itself can be harmful, if done for too long. Sitting burns very few calories—even fewer than standing. Plus, key physiological processes that help your body break down fats and sugars seem to stall when you’re seated. Over time, these effects could contribute to weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol, triglyceride and blood glucose levels.

Fortunately, you don’t have to just sit there and take it. Standing desks, treadmill desks and walking meetings are trendy strategies for making desk jobs healthier. But how well do they really work? Here’s what the latest research shows.

Standing Desks

Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov reputedly liked to think on their feet. If you decide to follow in their distinguished footsteps, you’ll probably want a workstation that allows you to easily switch from sitting to standing and back again.

At first blush, standing may not seem more active than sitting. However, holding yourself upright in the standing position forces you to contract certain muscles. This muscle activity triggers the production of substances that help your body use and store fats and sugars. Many researchers believe that frequent standing and walking may be important for keeping your metabolism humming along efficiently.

One study dubbed the Take-a-Stand Project included 34 employees with desk jobs, two dozen of whom were given an adjustable-height workstation for a month. This group reduced their sitting time by an average of 66 minutes per day, compared to the weeks before and after the study when they used a traditional desk. They reported less upper back and neck pain, increased vigor and an improved mood while using the sit-and-stand workstation.

Several companies now sell adjustable-height desks in a wide range of styles and prices. Or, if your traditional desk is large enough, you could simply put a sturdy box on it to use as a work surface when you stand. Whatever setup you adopt, make sure you are able to maintain good posture in both the seated and standing positions. For computer work, your hands, wrists and forearms should be in a straight line, roughly parallel to the floor.

Why not simply stand at your desk all day long? It’s tiring, for one thing. Also, prolonged standing brings its own set of health risks, including sore feet, varicose veins, low back pain and the progression of carotid atherosclerosis. Ideally, you should probably aim for a comfortable mix of sitting, standing and walking.

Treadmill Desks

A step up in sophistication—and often a big jump in price—is a desk that allows you to move while you go about everyday office business, such as typing on a computer or talking on the phone. The best-studied option is a standing workstation that’s designed to be used while walking slowly on a treadmill. There are also desks that allow you to pedal a stationary bike or use an elliptical trainer.

One thing all of these active workstations have in common is that they burn more calories than sitting or standing still. A study from Mayo Clinic found that obese, sedentary office workers burned an additional 119 calories per hour when walking very slowly on a treadmill, compared to sitting. Over time, that could add up to significant weight loss.

Answering emails while on a treadmill isn’t as simple as walking and chewing gum, however. A recent review of 35 studies concluded that, in general, using an active workstation doesn’t seem to interfere with cognitive function. But when it comes to typing or, in particular, using a computer mouse, the effects are less clear-cut. Some, but not all studies, suggest that using an active workstation may be a hindrance when doing these tasks.

One yearlong study at a financial services company gave 40 sedentary volunteers the opportunity to use a treadmill desk whenever they chose for several months. At first, their work performance suffered a bit as they adjusted to working on the move. But over the course of the year, their work performance and interaction with coworkers actually improved, compared to how things were before the treadmill desks were introduced.

If you decide to try a treadmill desk, be prepared for a learning curve. Over time, you’ll get better at optimizing the treadmill speed for the task at hand. For example, you might find that you prefer to stand or sit still when typing; walk slowly when talking on the phone or writing by hand; and walk a little faster when trying to come up with creative ideas.

On the horizon, researchers at Purdue University are working on a system designed to make it easier to read on a treadmill. The system adjusts text on a screen to counteract the bobbing of a reader’s head.

Walking Meetings

In some workplaces, chair-less meetings are gaining traction as an alternative to sitting around a conference table. Besides reducing your seat-time, standing or walking meetings may have other important benefits, based on a pair of new studies.

A study from Washington University in St. Louis, published online this month, asked undergrads to work together in teams on a university recruitment video. The teams met in rooms that had either chairs arranged around a table or no chairs at all. Standing in the chair-less room boosted people’s excitement during this creative collaboration. It also reduced people’s territoriality about their ideas, which may be partly because people were moving about freely rather than staking out individual space at a table.

In the same vein, research from Stanford University, published online earlier this year, showed that walking inspired more creative thinking than sitting. The creativity boost was similar whether people were walking outdoors around a bustling university or indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall. This suggests that there’s something intrinsic to walking—not just a change of scenery—that gets the creative juices flowing.

Walking meetings are nothing new; the late Steve Jobs was known for them. Lately, however, they’ve been embraced by movers and shakers from President Obama to Mark Zuckerberg. If you schedule your own, make sure the route you pick is accessible for everyone in your group. Then get off your seat and onto your feet for better health and creativity.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a journalist who has spent more than three decades writing about health and psychology. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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