Do Treadmill Desks Actually Help You Move More at Work?

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Do Treadmill Desks Actually Help You Move More at Work?

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About once a week or so I find myself hollering at the internet like a cranky old man shooing kids from his yard. This week it’s media coverage of a study on treadmill desks out of Oregon State University that has me riled up.

Each and every one of these headlines about that study misunderstands both the point of the study itself and the principles of “office fitness”:

  • Treadmill Desks Are Pretty Ineffective
  • Do Treadmill Desks Really Work? Not As Well As We Hoped They Do, Unfortunately
  • You Know That Treadmill Desk You Just Installed? That Might Have Been A Mistake
  • If You Bought a Treadmill Desk, the Joke’s on You
  • Even Treadmill Desks Don’t Make Up For Too Much Sitting

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Treadmill Desks

John M. Schuna, a physical-activity researcher in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, and his colleagues recently conducted a study to “evaluate the effectiveness of a 3-month treadmill desk intervention in eliciting changes in objectively monitored physical activity and sedentary behavior among overweight/obese office workers” in a paper entitled “Evaluation of a Workplace Treadmill Desk Intervention: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

This study falls right in line with current “sitting disease” research. Now that the epidemiological hazards of sitting all day have been identified and the physiological mechanisms underlying inactivity physiology have been sketched out, more researchers are conducting studies like this, which look at specific interventions to help desk workers cope in the traditionally sedentary office environment.

Here’s how the Schuna and his colleagues summarized their findings: “Shared-treadmill desks in the workplace can be effective at promoting favorable changes in light physical activity (specifically 40 to 99 steps/minute) and sedentary behavior among overweight/obese office workers.”

These findings echoes the conclusions of several other recent studies: Providing treadmill desks at work helps people get up and get moving throughout the day, exactly what we need to stem the tide of afflictions that result from sitting all day.

A Good Study Presented Poorly

Schuna and his team conducted a valuable study – the first randomized controlled trial comparing seated vs. treadmill-using office workers – and presented their findings well.

So why, then, did the press office at Oregon State choose to contextualize the announcement of this research with this headline?

  • Treadmill desks offer limited benefits, pose challenges in the workplace, study shows

. . . and then open the news release with this sentence: “Treadmill desks can help overweight or obese office workers get out of their chairs and get moving, but a 12-week study by an Oregon State University researcher found that the increase in physical activity was small and did not help workers meet public health guidelines for daily exercise.”

The staff in the OSU press office for some reason chose to emphasize the fact that walking on an office treadmill isn’t exercise. Arrrgghhh! That’s the whole point of “office fitness:” to incorporate more routine, non-exercise movement into your work day. The researchers know this – in fact, that was the point of the study – but the press office chose to emphasize the observation in one brief passage, buried deep in the “Discussion” section of the study: “Therefore, it is clear that the use of treadmill desks in the workplace does not fulfill public health recommendations to engage in physical activity that is of at least moderate intensity.” And then the media followed suit, resulting in those headlines.

The Difference Between Exercise Goals and Sitting-Disease Interventions

Yes, we should all be striving to meet the government recommendation for 5 30-minute sessions of moderate physical activity per week, but no one has ever proposed doing that during work hours. Interventions like walking slowly on a treadmill desk at work are meant to break up sedentary work styles, not meet exercise goals.

This points to a common misunderstanding about “sitting disease.” Not getting enough exercise and sitting too much are two entirely different problems, and study after study has shown that doing more of the former (exercise) can’t undue the harm of the latter (sedentariness).

Going Behind the Headlines: What We Can Actually Learn From This Study

The point of Schuna’s study was to determine whether people who worked at a shared treadmill desk for part of the day would move more. And indeed they did, taking about 1,000 more steps during each work day than their sitting counterparts. This was fewer steps than the researchers predicted, given how much time the experimental group spent on their treadmills. The research team suspects that the difference could be due to measurement difficulties and/or virtuous treadmill walkers choosing to sit more than usual during their non-treadmill-using work hours. In any event, their hypothesis was born out: If you give desk workers a treadmill desk, they will move more during their work day.

The study also took before-and-after measurements of the control and experimental groups and found no significant difference between them in their body mass, body fat percentage, and body mass index (BMI). These were the only measures they reported. There are other ways to measure fitness besides weight and mass calculations (blood-sugar, lipid, and hormone levels, for example), though, and it will be interesting to see if future studies look at more than just weight loss as a goal for office fitness.

If you do want to lose weight, then you might try simply walking more at work. Over the course of this study, the participants averaged only about 40 minutes per day walking. Even if you’re sharing your treadmill workstation with co-workers, you should be able to walk more than that each day. We don’t have data to dictate precisely how much you need to move during the day to get past the point of weight maintenance and into weight loss, but James Levine and other weight-loss researchers predict that you should be able to lose 10 pounds or more over the course of year with regular treadmill-desk use.

One final office-fitness lesson is hinted at in this study. Just as regular exercisers can undo the weight-loss benefits of their workouts by virtuously binging on junk food, it appears that some treadmill-desk users may feel like they’ve earned a free pass to sit more after they have taken up treadmill desking. As always, your goal in your office job should be to sit less.