The Problem with Shared Treadmill Desks

A treadmill desk can do a lot for your health. But only if you have access to it.

That’s the main lesson I take away from a new study published this week in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Office workers shared treadmill desks for 12 weeks. They each only averaged 45 minutes a day on their shared treadmill desks.

That wasn’t enough to make fat people skinny. So some observers have said this shows that treadmill desks are useless.

Not Enough Exercise

“Treadmill desks aren’t an effective replacement for regular exercise, and the benefits of the desks may not justify the cost and other challenges that come with implementing them,” said the study’s first author, John M. Schuna, Jr, in a press release.

But I don’t think that’s what the study showed at all.

The study targeted overweight and obese office workers whose jobs at a private health insurance company required continuous desk work. About 40 overweight employees participated, with half using the treadmills and the other half serving as a control group for comparison.

The participants who used treadmills increased their daily step counts, moving at about 1.8 miles an hour. That speed that would generally be considered “light intensity physical activity.” Public health guidelines suggest adults need 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity several days a week. So the workers didn’t lose any weight.

“This was not moderate-intensity exercise,” Schuna said. “One of the challenges with the treadmill desk is that it needs to be lower-intensity activity so employees can still perform their work duties.”

He admitted that there may be cardiovascular or other benefits when people begin increasing their steps, even in small amounts at low intensity. But he said reversing the effects of a sedentary lifestyle would likely require more activity, including moderate or vigorous exercise.

The Point of a Treadmill Desk

Well, yes. No one ever said that treadmill desks could provide all the exercise that anyone needs.

The point of the treadmill is that it puts movement into your day. A lot of research has shown that short bouts of exercise don’t undo the damage of 40-80 hours a week of sitting. And conversely, a little light walking doesn’t take the place of bouts of intense exercise. They complement each other.

I use my treadmill desk every day, and I still run and lift weights, in addition to the sports I play.

Still, the workers would probably have made better use of the treadmills if they had better access.

In a previous study in the journal Obesity, workers whose sitting desks were replaced with treadmill desks for a year lost an average of  3 pounds. (Obese workers lost 7.5 pounds.)  That study and others also showed improvements in cholesterol levels. But the key is that these workers each had unrestricted access to their treadmills.

Headaches with Shared Treadmill Desks

By contrast in Schuna’s study, 21 people shared eight treadmill desks for 12 weeks. They had to sign up in advance. And often when their scheduled time slot came around they were on the phone, or in a meeting, or on deadline. They couldn’t pick up what they were doing and move it to a different workstation.

So they ended up only getting half their allotted time on the shared treadmill desks. And it seemed to the researchers that the workers treated their treadmill time as a break from work, rather than a different way of working.

One point of Schuna’s study was to see if health benefits could come cheaply with shared treadmill desks.

But the insurance company in the study bought top-of-the-line Steelcase treadmill desks for $4000-$5000 each. I paid $2300 for my setup, and I could get it for less now.

That’s why I disagree with Schuna’s conclusion in the press release that “future research on exercise in the workplace should focus on interventions that avoid some of the pitfalls that come with treadmill desks.” (He didn’t respond to my questions about the study, so I’m assuming the press release accurately reflects his opinion.)

Rather I think the conclusion is that employers shouldn’t bother with shared treadmill desks. Buy one for every worker who wants one. Or if that’s too expensive, buy one for every worker who is willing to share the costs.

Judging from the results we’re getting on situations where access is unrestricted, treadmill desks will ultimately pay for themselves in reduced sick time and increased productivity. A study published in Computers in Human Behavior earlier this month showed that using a treadmill desk can improve your attention and memory.

The problem is not with treadmill desks, it’s with shared treadmill desks.

The photo on this page is courtesy of TreadDesk.