New study: Walking desks superior to sitting for mental, physical health, work productivity

Working at a traditional desk for long periods of time can leave workers feeling lethargic, stiff and distract them from the tasks at hand. Practically anybody who has worked a typical office job can attest to this. Often the solution is to stand up, stretch, take a quick walk or get some form of basic exercise. While this method is certainly better than not moving at all, its benefits are limited. This is where treadmill desks, also known as walking workstations, are increasingly becoming a trendy answer to sitting for nearly the entire workday. Online reviews rave that walking desks are effective in improving a person’s health and productivity, and slowly researchers are backing up these claims.

Walking workstations can improve physical and mental health during the workday, according to a new study conducted by faculty and student researchers from the Department of Psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The findings correlate the positive results from a year-long study conducted by University of Minnesota researchers who found treadmill desks improve physical health and work productivity in comparison to a traditional desk.

In the obese-laden United States, which is still recovering from economic turmoil, keeping employees happy and healthy can be a challenge. Some experts are pushing employers to consider adding walking desks as an office perk, one which can arguably improve productivity and talent retention.

“The healthier an organization can keep its employees, the less it has to pay for healthcare premiums, especially at a time where insurance companies are rewarding members discounts for living healthy lifestyles,” says William Rusnak, M.D., a family medicine resident and consultant for NueMD, a medical billing software company, who did not contribute to the paper. “Not to mention, they will experience less absences from chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Overall, healthier people are more effective in the workplace.”

The study sampled 180 participants who were evaluated on boredom, task satisfaction, stress, arousal, and performance while completing work-related computer tasks across four randomly assigned workstations:  seated, standing, cycling or walking, according to a news release.

The researchers discovered participants who used the walking workstation reported higher satisfaction and mental arousal, while experiencing less boredom and stress than the standing and sitting workstation participants. Contrarily, the cycling workstation led to reports of reduced satisfaction and performance.

Dr. Rusnak says that walking desks result in increased oxygen flowing to the brain simply from increased circulation, and the treadmill will likely lead to decreased back pain since the person isn’t sitting in a chair all day. Additionally, the metabolism will improve since moving requires burning calories, and the immune system will get better.

“Lymphatics depend completely on muscle movement for flow. If a person isn’t moving, the lymph system remains stagnant and the body is less able to develop immunity to pathogens in the environment,” he says.

Lastly, Dr. Rusnak says there is a big difference between standing desks and walking or treadmill desks. Standing in place, he says, in the same exact position all day is actually only a little healthier than sitting. Standing puts prolonged strain on joints and muscles.

“Many people who are on their feet all day suffer from back pain, knee pain, and foot pain. Much of this can be corrected by consciously fixing posture, but overall it would be better to walk than to stand in place,” Dr. Rusnak says. “In my opinion, the best option is to have the ability to sit, stand, or walk. That would seem to have the best mix of avoiding postural strain, burning calories, and increasing circulation, while not overusing any particular joint or muscle.”


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