How Libraries Can Have a Bigger Impact on Health in Their Communities

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How Libraries Can Have a Bigger Impact on Health in Their Communities

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Recently some of the social media groups that librarians congregate in online have been all atwitter with the debate about whether treadmill desks belong in libraries. For such a well-read group we were frankly a little surprised at the clashing of mythology versus fact, reading some of these posts, so we thought we might try to shed a little truth on the subject…

Sure, at first blush, treadmill desks may not seem a perfect fit for the classic conception of a library.  Then again, the modern reality of libraries isn’t exactly a perfect fit for it either – infinite bookshelves and musty quiet are being replaced with digital workstations and the casual ambience of an Apple Store as libraries across the nation react to new technology and new knowledge.  The idea of pairing treadmill desks and libraries is clearly gaining traction. Treadmill desks have been finding homes in forward-thinking universities – and their libraries – across the nation.

Treadmill Desks in Libraries

NPR: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., has opened a Digital Commons that features rows of desktop computers, portable electronic devices and even a 3D printer.

By now you may have heard the term “sitting disease”, read one of many articles or seen one of the many TV news stories on the subject.  If you have, skip ahead to the next paragraph. If you haven’t, you might be surprised to learn just how much damage a chair can do.  We’ll start with the starkest fact – those who sit more die sooner, period.  Excess sitting slows metabolism, constricts blood flow to the lower extremities, and places strain on the lower spine, to name a just few effects.  Even the fittest among us can still suffer from sitting disease, as seen in a recent Runner’s World article that compared the negative effects of sitting for an hour to those of smoking a cigarette.  Spending too much time on your rear can result in metabolic system shutdown – stand or walk instead; you’ll live longer and more comfortably.

But why not restrict all this movement to the gym? Running and reading never made for great bedfellows, and the prospect of picking up a book covered in its last reader’s sweat is just unsettling.  Here’s the thing: treadmill desks are not “exercise desks”.  Proper treadmill desks operate in a speed range of only one to two miles per hour, not nearly fast enough to constitute aerobic exercise.  And sweating? That’s actually a sign you’re busting the speed limit.  The virtue of a treadmill desk is based instead on Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).  By walking at a slow, constant pace, a treadmill desk user raises her rate of caloric consumption – and not by any small amount, the most leisurely of gaits burns far more calories than time in a chair.  This metabolic jump becomes even more important in a location that encourages sitting, such as a library.

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It’s a little ridiculous to label libraries hazardous, but there’s absolutely no doubt that they contribute to sitting disease more than they combat it.
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Library users are, almost by definition, static and seated.  A pacing, mobile individual with his nose in a book would be booted out, and rightly so.  Treadmill desks let visitors walk while reading – indeed while working online, even typing fluidly – without becoming a roving annoyance, making them perfect for a health-conscious library.

Those worried about the possible dangers of using a treadmill while concentrating on a monitor or books can rest assured – we have yet to hear of anyone hurting themselves on a properly set-up treadmill desk, with hundreds of thousands of them already in daily use.  Laying out an ergonomically correct workstation requires some research, but time invested pays for itself a hundred times over in improved health.  Consumption of media is especially risk-free.  Indeed, readers will find it easier to concentrate while on a treadmill, thanks to the cognitive benefits of movement (try Smart Moves by Carla Hannaford for more information).

But what about the noise, noise, noise? Most everyone can imagine the sound of an operating treadmill – the screechy hum of the belt, the thudding footfalls of the runner, and loud wheezing from the same.  These are, by and large, not an issue with treadmill desks.  A well-maintained walking treadmill operates at around just 50 decibels, the same approximate noise level of a whisper.  Laying a few acoustic foam panels around the treadmill base is an easy fix that cuts sound even further.  The beeps made by consoles can often be silenced via the “engineering mode” accessible on some treadmills (or muffled with a little duct tape over the speaker). But with an increasing number of libraries now sporting dedicated rooms for digital media, music and video games, there are more suitable spots available for a treadmill desk than in the past.

If you’re still unsure about treadmill desks, then by all means consider the benefits offered by adjustable-height standing desks.  A simpler option, standing desks are ancient, effective weapons in the fight against sitting disease.  Getting out of a chair always helps, and standing desk users are all the healthier for the time they spend on their feet.  However, movement is vital, and standing for too long can also be hazardous to one’s health.  We at WorkWhileWalking always believe that your next position is your best one.  Switching between sitting, standing, and walking is by far the healthiest way to work.

Long hours in the library are a clichéd trade-off between health and learning that every academic sufferer or zealous bookworm knows all too well.  There’s no longer any need for this compromise; physical and mental improvement go hand in hand on a treadmill desk.  Our message to progressive librarians everywhere is this: let your visitors walk, and let us help you – WorkWhileWalking is more than happy to aid you in making a case for adding treadmill or standing desks to your library’s amenities.