Desk work may be unavoidable, but being inactive shouldn’t be, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. If it’s not feasible to take time out of the day to exercise, then being active while at work might be the answer.
Lucas Carr, assistant professor of health and human physiology and member of the Obesity Research and Education Initiative, has found a way for workers to increase physical activity without ever leaving their desks. Ease and comfort, he said in a university press release, are the most important elements to making a workplace exercise regimen sustainable.
In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Mr. Carr gave devices that resembled bicycle pedals to 27 overweight or obese office workers to put under their desks, and found that those who used the devices most often reported weight loss and increased productivity at work.
The key, Carr said, is to make exercise as easy and un-obstructive as possible. Since participants in the study had their own pedaling devices, there was no need to take turns or to use them in a public, central location. The comfort of the device’s design was also a factor.
"This is something that could be provided to just about any employee, regardless of the size of their company or office," Carr said. "It's right at their feet, and they can use it whenever they want without feeling self-conscious in front of their co-workers."
Carr is not the first one to try and fix the problem of sedentary employees; many companies either provide employees with gym memberships or have on-site fitness facilities employees are encouraged to use. The problem with these plans, Carr said, is that people often don’t have time to leave their desks during the day, and the ones who do make it a priority are generally not the ones who need to.
"A lot of companies have gone the route of building expensive fitness facilities, that typically get used only by the most healthy employees," Carr said. "The people who need to improve their health the most are less likely to use worksite fitness facilities."
Perhaps the closest existing at-work exercise method to Carr’s pedaling machine is the “treadmill desk,” which allows employees to walk in place with their computers or office materials perched in front of them. But treadmill desks are expensive and large-scale implementation would require significant office reorganization, so the innovation has been considered better in theory than in practice.
Business Insider’s Alyson Shontel spent a whole day working on a treadmill desk in 2013 – though it is only recommended for a couple of hours’ use at a time – and said the trade-off for increased activity was decreased focus and productivity.
“The downside is that your level of productivity does suffer at the treadmill desk,” she wrote. “Your concentration is split between the physical activity, muscle pains and mental grind of actual work. While sitting, two of those are eliminated.”
On the other hand, participants in Carr’s study found they were more focused on their work when they used the pedaling devices. They also took fewer sick days. Employee use averaged 50 minutes a day – more than the recommended minimum 30 minutes a day of physical activity – and at the end of the 16-week study, 70 percent of participants elected to keep the devices.
"We are really looking to identify sustainable solutions," Carr said. "That's what we are working towards – how do we help people engage in healthy behaviors that can be sustained over the long term."