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Sit Up and Take Notice: Office Exercise Equipment Should Not Be Taken Lightly

Jonathan Edelheit, JD

A treadmill desk

Sitting Ducks for Poor Health

Is finding time to keep in shape a job in itself? Then, you might be a sitting duck for poor health.

After all, experts advise at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week to maintain good health, and a least an hour a day or more to control weight.1 Where, then, is the time to exercise when the typical American worker spends 13 hours in a chair each day?2

Keeping fit, once easy to do as kids, is hardly child’s play these days. Setting aside periods to exercise is increasingly difficult to do when schedules that juggle work and family responsibilities cannot always be controlled like a barbell in a conditioning program can.

Sweeping shifts in the labor force in the last half-century — from one out of two American jobs that require moderate physical activity in 1960 to those that crave desk-bound positions today – can partly explain an obesity epidemic in the United States of sizeable proportion.  Since the 1970s, U.S. obesity rates have doubled. Although, these rates have leveled off somewhat or even declined among some groups in the last few years, obesity is a health problem that shouldn’t be taken sitting down.3

It’s a “light bulb” moment for all. Consider that obesity – thought to be a disease itself – has now been linked to other dangerous conditions including heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. The extra pounds are also taking a toll on the American pocketbook, which empties almost $150 billion annually in obesity related costs, or 21 percent of all U.S. healthcare spending.4

More than two-thirds of American adults – most of whom sit on average for 2 ½ hours or more each day than thinner people – are overweight or obese.5 These sedentary positions put tremendous force on body tissues that create fat cells and, noticeably, larger derrieres. There’s more. Too much sitting around can also lead to depression, stress and more lethargy. In other words, that cushy desk job may not be all that it was once cracked up to be. Some say it may actually be the kiss of — premature, but preventable — death.

It’s important to know that any movement – at least 10 minutes each hour — is a step in the right direction.6 Scientists aren’t yet sure of the how and why exercise is so important in maintaining weight loss, but they do know that current levels of physical activity are not necessarily enough to offset a culture of increasing convenience – from drive thru banking and riding lawn mowers to remote television controls and online shopping.

Think about it. Even domestic firefighters – or at least 70 percent of those who carry about heavy hoses, axes and oxygen tanks to challenge emergencies in big boots and weighted jackets – are obese or overweight.7 That surprising rate – slightly higher than the general population – from a group expected to be in peak condition is fueled by a chaotic lifestyle which includes on-the-go eating and regularly disrupted routines. Of course, proper diet and nutrition can shed pounds, but a steady dose of physical activity will help to maintain weight loss.

Activity boosts happiness and satisfaction levels. Inactivity, on the other hand, is a tributary that jeopardizes productivity, challenges attendance practices and makes for one bored employee. In that sense, too much sitting is not only hazardous to an employee’s health, but to an employer’s bottom line as well. Perhaps, then, the time is now for both employee and employer to sit up and take notice.

Researchers recommend strategies to reinforce extra effort. Short walks at lunch and throughout the day, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or, perhaps, park the car further away from the office. But, what if stepping outside isn’t an option? What if going an extra mile induces a cold sweat in even the most willing landlocked employee?

Multitasking – heaven forbid – is an answer worth recycling. Relax: most employees are adept at handling multiple tasks. And remain seated: most employees don’t necessarily have to get off their duffs to get moving anymore. That’s because companies and health experts concerned about the repercussions from the “sitting-all-day blues” have discovered working solutions that minimize health hazards without stepping away from the desk.

An inexpensive investment works wonders. In fact, fitness workstations can pay bigger dividends than, perhaps, purchasing new computers or hiring an intern can do and, at the same time, show employees that their health is just as important as creating spreadsheets and emails. Phone calls still can be made and received. Files can continue to be stored and keyboards can be tuned to the familiar sound of tapping fingertips. Employees, who can’t visit the gym, can workout at work instead.

At the end of the day, exercise equipment – namely treadmill and bike workstations designed to expand corporate wellness initiatives by complementing the traditional desk – can help protect an employer’s greatest asset – employees — reduce health conditions that curtail productivity, and keep today’s home, office or school fit for business.

Picture of Health

Most people don’t have jobs that require physical exertion. For that reason, inactivity is a prime contributor to the nation’s high rate of obesity and residual ill health effects.

Broken down, medical spending is about $1,429 higher than it is for a person of normal weight.8 That should be reason enough for companies, many of whom remain committed to providing healthcare benefits to their employees, to incorporate measures that promote fitness and health. But, there’s a greater challenge. Employer-sponsored healthcare benefit costs are expected to increase by 4.4 percent from a year ago, when rate hikes fell to a 15-year low.9 Do the math. Employers already sweating over uncertainties surrounding the Affordable Care Act can expect their healthcare costs to reach $9,560 per employee this year alone.10

No wonder, then, that businesses are looking at ideas to keep employees fit and lower healthcare costs. Some companies turn to their health insurers and ask them to build wellness — employer-sponsored programs that inspire and encourage workers to sustain healthy behaviors – into their plans to help reduce claims and control premiums. Others seek the advice of consultants, or design their own wellness programs themselves.

Nearly 95 percent of employers offer some form of wellness program aimed at controlling healthcare costs, up from just 27 percent in 2005. The price tag per employee is $594.11 Still, some employers go a step further and make activity part of the furniture.

Activity workstations help employees to burn calories and extinguish listlessness in the space of a cubicle. Standing, walking, cycling or even sitting on a rubber ball at the desk can supplement conventional exercise regimens when trips to the gym aren’t possible.

Office exercise machines, like a treadmill desk or bike desk, allow employees to move around while they work without making much more than the sound of a mouse.

Step into the Past

Treadmill desks entered the national consciousness about two years ago, about a half-century after a British epidemiologist spawned the modern-day aerobics movement from monitoring the heart rates among double-decker bus drivers and conductors. Jeremy Morris not only proved the correlation between exercise and a healthy heart, he lived 99 ½ years to talk about it.

The field of physical activity gained momentum after release of a 2009 book, “Move a Little, Lose a Lot,” based on Mayo Clinic studies that found that people who stayed thin managed to move – fidgeting, pacing, or standing – throughout the day.12 A few years later, an American Cancer Society researcher added fuel to the fire by linking more time spent sitting to high death risks regardless of physical activity levels.13 Further investigation conducted at University College London between 1970 and 2007, confirmed that walking reduced cardiovascular misfortunes by nearly 31 percent and the risk of dying by 32 percent during that 17-year period.14 The idea of converting sitting time into walking time had arrived. Enter treadmill desks.

Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist who while at the Mayo Clinic led a study that showed lean people burn about 350 more calories per day than those who are overweight by performing simple, but extra movements, was an early pioneer in the construction of treadmill desks. His so-called “work-walker” evolved from sliding a bedside hospital tray over a treadmill.

A handful of companies caught onto the idea and began to manufacture treadmill desks. The notion that walking could become a part of everyday life didn’t stop there. Websites added instructions on how to build units with odds and ends bought at big-box stores or found discarded in alleyways. Even social networks dedicated to office walking have sprouted up online.

That’s My Treadmill Desk

Treadmill desks can accommodate even the most cumbersome office space. A slight change to desk furniture doesn’t have to be dramatic, either. The desks can be lowered or raised with the push of a button. Employees choose whether they want to sit, stand or walk at their discretion while typing emails, surfing the internet, or talking to colleagues.

Walking on a desk treadmill isn’t akin to running a marathon or even against a moving airport walkway. An employee who can walk and chew gum is a candidate for a treadmill desk. Inclines are adjustable. Move about at a pace – the recommended speed is less than 2 mph – most comfortable for working out and working. The idea is to stay active – not sweat.

The treadmill itself works, well, like a treadmill at a gym — ramping up slowly to desired speed, about 4 mph maximum — except that it is part of a desk. Rookies need not, nor should they begin aggressively with a treadmill desk. The American Heart Association recommends people walk 10,000 steps a day; ideally, in 90-minute intervals.15 Too much, too tired? The repetitive stride of walking great lengths – even in place — can strain muscles. Brief breaks or alternate movement is suggested. But, remember, with a treadmill desk, walking isn’t even required, just encouraged. Walking workstations can be used either standing or sitting as well.

Don’t expect instant results. Productivity, at first, may even decline until employees get the hang of using a desk treadmill. However, once workers are accustomed to their new routines, studies have reported that performance, in fact, increases when treadmills are used in an office than when they are not.

Walking then augments productivity. These findings confirm other evidence gathered from treadmill desks including one that reported doctors on a walking workstation are 10 percent more accurate at diagnosing patients — up from 88 percent to 99 percent — than when not.16 A simple 10 percent bump in performance when added to healthcare savings is most likely to justify the cost of incorporating treadmill desks into the workplace.

Accidents do happen and online forums for treadmill desk workers have been quick to report them. Typically, they are the remnant of an employee who has engaged the new-found task too fast, too soon. But, there is no need to get discouraged when minor spills and slight aches from desk treadmills are weighed again health benefits and how costly treating maladies from extended sedentary periods can be.

A University of Minnesota and University of Texas at Arlington study measuring the effects of walking and working reported that employees at a financial services firm who were refitted with treadmill desks for just one hour per day lost on average 74 more calories daily.17 Other studies have backed up the health benefits, reporting that integrating walking and work by just 2-3 hours every day could result in a loss of 44-66 pounds per week.18

When those calorie counts can’t measure up against budget constraints, a growing number of employers choose to acquire one treadmill desk for individual work groups. This way, employees can take turns and reserve the walking desks for set periods during the day.

There are anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 treadmill desks in the United States. Look around. However, most people don’t know someone who owns one to try. The good news is there are plenty of public advocacy groups out there that offer reviews and advice on what type of treadmill is best suited for any potential buyer.

Bike Desks are Easy Riding

Bike desks are the fitness cousins to bike treadmills for improving health, cardiovascular, and mood. The pedal revolutions simulate running without the chance of getting shoes dirty. About the size of a standard office chair, the exercise apparatus slips under a desk and is perfect for business space where standing desks or treadmills are not an option. Bike desks – more affordable, portable and practical in size than treadmill desks — work best in conjunction with internet research, reading long documents or making or receiving calls.

Try to type and pedal at the same time. Researchers did and found that people working at a bike desk burned calories at 2.5 times the rate than when they simply sat and typed – say, the Gettysburg Address – without influencing performance. Intermittent pedaling, the University of Utah reported, could even improve cognitive function.19

And authors of another study say just 23 minutes of pedaling could boost health if done regularly.20

Of course, the setup of a bike desk depends on the office environment and the individual. Some employees might find setting the bike alongside a desk rather than under the furniture is a more practical method for taking designated activity breaks away from the computer. The market for desk bikes is not limited to the office. There are attempts underway to convert all that kinetic energy from pedaling into powering laptops in a coffee shop or while waiting for a plane.

Why then put the brakes on there? After all, farmers already put pedal to metal to grind soy grains for feeding chickens. There’s even a group in Guatemala that is converting bikes from the United States into machines used for pumping irrigation water and blending food in underdeveloped countries.21

What App with that?

It’s easy to think that the advent of fitness trackers might be analogous to putting the cart before the horse. But, keeping active isn’t the only component to wellness in the workplace. Motivation – in other words, staying the course – is often energized when progress is easier for individuals to monitor.

Office exercise machines compliment the best of both worlds through apps – desktop, computer, or mobile software applications designed to perform a specific task like monitoring heart rates or calorie counts. So, it stands to reason that there are fitness apps designed to work with Bluetooth-enabled treadmill desks and bike desks as well to synchronize workout results from how long and how far.

A few manufacturers don’t stop encouragement at the press of a button. There are motivational clubs that offer live, online training sessions with wellness teams that might include a registered dietician, behavior coach or exercise physiologist.

Sitting in one place all day can lead to neck spasms or musculo-skeletal problems, weight gain and slower metabolism and vein thrombosis. As 10,000 baby boomers a day turn 65, some experts suggest that many ills once associated with normal aging are, in truth, the result of chronic inactivity. The fewer than 5 percent of seniors who follow recommended guidelines for physical fitness might be interested to know they have plenty of company.22 Idleness transcends all American socioeconomic genres.

Take the “digital divide, in which a Kaiser Family Foundation report found that children and teenagers whose parents did not have college degrees spent 90 minutes more per day sitting than youngsters from higher socioeconomic families. In 1999, the difference was just 16 minutes.23 Combine that motionless lifestyle in front of a television or computer game with poor health literacy and a fast-food culture and the outcomes – although preventable — in productivity and physical condition might seem inevitable.

Restricting then the amount of time spent seated each day – by less than three hours, biomedical researchers say — is one way to combat obesity and boost life expectancy levels by an extra two years.24 Those statistics don’t take much in the way of an app, but it is important to recognize that examining the strengths behind implementing equipment begins and ends with numbers.

Wellness Weighs In

Healthcare costs hit employers where it hurts most: in their wallets.

Businesses in the United States spend nearly $620 billion a year on employee healthcare.25 PwC predicts medical inflation to rise by 6.8 percent in 2015, signifying a growing demand for care and services.26 For this reason alone, employers have every reason to encourage healthy behaviors at work.

Abandoning or cutting healthcare or passing increased expenditures onto workers might save money in the short-term, but doing so could make employers looking to attract top talent and retain healthy and productive employees less competitive. After all, employees next year already face nearly $5,000 increases across the board in premiums, co-payments, deductibles and other forms of co-insurance.

Those same employees are projected to foot the bill for 22.4 percent of the total premium, or $2,499. What’s more, employees are expected to see at least a 10 percent jump in their out-of-pocket costs – which include co-payments and deductibles – to $2,470 from $2,239 this year.27

Faced with rising prices and limited options, employers and employees alike may find wellness programs to be not only a savior for lowering benefit costs, but a key component for fixing a national health crisis beyond their work environments.

Managing employee healthcare behaviors and attitudes is no longer a bone of contention. It’s a real money-saver that proves beneficial for budgets and productivity according to a Harvard study, which found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs are lowered by $2.73 for every dollar spent.28

Employees – whether they work for a large company or a small one — have most likely encountered some sort of wellness pr As employers develop cost-containment strategies that comply with the Affordable Care Act, they are learning that their employees are generally satisfied with those plans that promote corporate wellness.

About half of all working-age people with employer-provided health insurance say their employer offers some type of wellness program, and most – three in 10 — say they participate. In Chicago, the city rolled out a wellness initiative for its workforce. About 38,000 government employees and their spouses have already signed up.29 Many wellness campaigns – about 90 percent — offer incentives or financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward getting healthy.30

However, incentives themselves are not the silver bullet. The trick is for employers to stay current with program designs and strategies that keep employees on their toes. Exercise groups, smoking cessation classes and personal health-risk assessments have become common attempts by employers to lower their medical costs. But setting up a gym in a vacated office, conducting a course on nutrition or encouraging employees to take stairs are not enough alone to influence or sustain changed behaviors.

It’s safe to say that corporate wellness programs are most friendly to those employees who are already in good shape. Organizations that can expect the greatest success are those that are able to manage cost-control approaches on a minority of the population that is less willing to participate in wellness programs, but most likely to contribute most to the costliest of chronic conditions.

Experts believe that when health is made personal, employees are more likely to discover its risks and values and put into place a call for action. One way in which employers can transform irregular spurts of employee enthusiasm – offsite visits to the doctor or gym – into lifestyle habits that are practiced not only at home is to incorporate routines at work that emphasize movement.

Office exercise equipment is only just beginning to whet the personal appetites of employees in the larger context of corporate wellness programs. Treadmill desks and treadmill bikes are gaining the most traction, and will need to do so as long as American calorie consumptions remain steady – as they have — for the last 20 years. That’s not to say that calories don’t count. It’s just that the strong correlation between obesity and the striking drop in the amount of time Americans spend exercising when not at work should not be taken lightly.

Good for Business

Everyone – and for good reason – should be interested in a higher quality of life that can be attributed to wellness. Doctors aren’t the only ones proactive. Rather than simply continuing to cut health benefits they once used to attract and retain talent pools, more companies today are establishing wellness programs as a way of controlling healthcare costs and keeping employees healthy and productive.

A growing body of science suggests that exercise has an important role in weight loss. But exercise by itself, research suggests, can be an exercise in futility toward achieving weight loss and reducing the heavy socioeconomic burden obesity dumps on the nation. Researchers believe it is unlikely that lost physical activity can ever be fully restored to the power it once flexed in the workplace. Considering that Americans aren’t about to give up their desk jobs — and their employers won’t allow them to — anytime soon, where will that misplaced energy once dedicated solely to increasing earnings and trimming waistlines be found?

A starting point should be where Americans spend most of their time aside from sleeping, playing, relaxing and praying – the workplace. It will become increasingly important then for employers to recognize the avenues they have to redirect and increase the physical activity during times on the job – for their sake and that of their employees.

A well-spent investment in employee health is just good business. For that matter, treadmills desks and treadmill bikes – when considered with innovative approaches that broaden physical activity and track and manage employee wellness – can be powerful allies in defense of poor health and rising medical costs. Simply put, it’s about sitting less and moving more. So, move on. Employers and employees alike have everything to lose.

About the Author

Jonathan Edelheit, JD is the Editor-in-Cheif of Corporate Wellness Magazine and CEO of Employer Healthcare & Benefits Congress; jon@wellnessassociation.com


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  • May 15, 2015

    Great article. More companies and organizations need to realize that simple things can generate great results.

    I have a walking/standing workstation in my office in addition to a sitting workstation. I can walk about 4 to 5 miles just reading email and responding with short replys.


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