You’re probably using your treadmill desk wrong

Walking it off.
Walking it off.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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For this generation of office workers, sitting is the new smoking. In a recent analysis of all the evidence available, British health officials warned of consequences to a sedentary work life that include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and muscle pain.

To fit in more activity every day, standing desks are becoming more common. And another solution gaining popularity is a treadmill desk. But a new study has found productivity downsides to walking or running at a computer.

Researchers at Brigham Young University divided a group of 75 people and measured their performance on a number of tests, while either sitting at a standard desk or walking at 2.5km per hour at a treadmill desk. The tests were designed to test manual and mental dexterity—such as typing words on a screen or learning and recalling a list of words.

The results, published in the journal PLOS One, showed that, on both sets of tests, those on treadmill desks performed worse than those who were sitting. While it’s perhaps not so surprising that typing while walking is hard, the researchers were surprised that the walking workers performed poorly on cognitive tests. The poor performance might be the result of participants devoting some thinking resources to keeping themselves balanced, and thus becoming less able to reason and remember, the researchers think.

There are limitations to their study. First, the sample size of the study is rather small to draw definitive conclusions. Second, while they were consistently worse, those on treadmill desks performed within the normal range.

So how could you use a treadmill desk better? Michael Larson, the lead researcher of the study, suggests that those planning to use treadmill desks should take it slow. It is likely, even though there are no studies to back this claim yet, that habituating slowly might help overcome some of the drawbacks.

If not, Larson said, the health benefits of such desks probably outweigh the decline in productivity.