Where workers can walk – without leaving their workstations

'Treadmill desks,' company-sponsored or home-built, energize the desk-bound.

Mary Knox Merrill
Shimon Rura, a home-based software developer in Somerville, Mass., says he covers up to 12 miles a day while putting in eight hours of screen time.

Never mind subsidizing employee gym memberships to combat the effects of the sedentary office lifestyle. One Minneapolis company is helping its workers get fit at their desks.

Enter the offices of SALO, a financial-services staffing firm, and you'll find employees clattering on keyboards while they walk. But they're not roaming the floor. Last fall SALO replaced its office chairs with 16 treadmill workstations, each equipped with shelves for mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Employees can amble at a leisurely one mile per hour, burning an estimated 100 calories an hour. They can also chat during "walking meetings" in two conference rooms equipped with treadmills.

SALO, a six-year-old company, had been seeking ways to incorporate physical activity into its health-and-wellness program when a cofounder, Amy Langer, read about a desk being developed by James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Dr. Levine is a researcher in the field of NEAT, non­exercise activity thermogensis. NEAT explores a person's ability to burn additional calories or stored-up energy by walking or standing, or even moving in a seated position.

Levine collaborated with SALO employees during a six-month study that led to the installation of a handful of the treadmills. Employees tentatively got on board. Then things started to happen.

Craig Dexheimer, director of operations and administration at SALO, participated. At the start of the study, Mr. Dexheimer weighed 223 pounds. He walked on the treadmill desk three to four times each week – and dropped 25 pounds over a six-month period.

"I never joined a gym. I just came to work," he says, talking by phone – while walking – from his treadmill desk on a recent afternoon.

No one expects the cube farms of corporate America to take on the appearance of fitness clubs anytime soon. But walk-while-you-work has gained some proponents.

A firm called Details, a subsidiary of office-equipment giant Steelcase, now sells treadmill "walkstations" priced at $4,000. (SALO now uses the product in its workplace.) Details has sold more than 250 walkstations this year, according Bud Klipa, the firm's president, who calls the category "fit work" – office equipment geared at helping "people to leave work healthier than when they arrived."

Big corporations are Details's prime target, he says, though some individual users are buying in.

Other desk-bound workers have gone the build-it-yourself route. After hearing about Levine's studies, Shimon Rura, a freelance software developer in Somerville, Mass., constructed a treadmill desk in his home office last year. He walks barefoot (see photo), checking his e-mail and chatting on the phone throughout the day. His preferred pace and duration: 1-1/2 m.p.h. for six to eight hours each day. His motivation: simple. "I felt I really wasn't getting enough exercise," Mr. Rura says.

Jay Buster, who works as an arbitrageur in Boulder, Colo., bought a used $300 treadmill on Craigslist, a $20 piece of plywood, and some styrofoam for armrest cushioning.

After leaving a job as a floor trader in Chicago, Mr. Buster had gained 25 pounds while sitting at a desk at home. And after working at his makeshift treadmill desk for four months, Buster found he had lost 20 pounds walking 0.7 m.p.h. for about seven hours each day.

His computer monitor is equipped with a virtual map of the United States on which he can overlay the path of his perambulating, in a kind of virtual walking tour of the Lower 48.

"What I find so amazing is how far you can walk in a normal business day while you would otherwise be sitting at your desk," he says – while walking at his desk.

For people who don't have access to a treadmill, Levine suggests other NEAT activities, such as setting up walking meetings with co-workers, installing six-foot-long phone cords so employees can do some limited roaming while they talk, and meeting with co-workers for a walk or yoga class at the end of the day.

When a treadmill desk isn't available at SALO, employees shoot hoops and play Wii Fit and Guitar Hero in the company's game room.

It's a workplace lifestyle with positive results, says Levine. The SALO Mayo Clinic study monitored 18 of the 45 participants for weight loss and found that after six months, participants had lost an average of 8.8 pounds. Levine is now conducting studies at 10 companies.

Participants have not only shed weight, he says, but most have also altered their workplace atmospheres.

"There's an energy," Levine says. "There's a zing that was palpable." The study, he says, also hinted at some increased productivity – and within the first three months of the study at SALO he even found that the firm's revenue increased by 10 percent.

Levine imagines a future office landscape "completely different from cube land." It starts with walking, he says, right through interactions of all kinds. The reward: a workplace where the energy flows.

"You want your children to be working in a space that's dynamic." he says. "[You] want people to be intellectually challenged rather than pinging e-mails."

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