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Sit Up and Take Notice: The Case for Treadmill Desks and Bike Desks

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The trend in workplace wellness programs is increasingly moving towards the implementation of exercise desks such as treadmill desks and bike desks. With sitting commonly being deemed as being as detrimental to workers as smoking, it’s time to stand up and take notice of active corporate wellness programs that both trim waistlines and reduce healthcare costs. These growing innovations in workplace environments have proven to concurrently tackle obesity and the ensuing health issues caused by excessive weight. Benefits are dynamic, with in-office activity found to both motivate employee productivity and sharpen skills.

corporate office active workstations

A National Health Crisis

Today, American business is facing a critical situation with regard to the health of its workers. U.S. obesity rates have doubled since the 1970s, causing a creeping growth in associated health concerns and healthcare costs. Increasing evidence displays that obesity is linked to other dangerous and exorbitant conditions including heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

The problem is taking a toll on the American pocketbook, collectively costing almost $150 billion annually, or 21 percent of all U.S. healthcare spending. With expenses outpacing solutions, corporations are searching for new, effective remedies to confront this problem.

According to a survey by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, nearly 50 percent of adults in the U.S. admit that they don’t engage in suggested levels of physical activity. In short, about half of Americans are sitting too much and moving too little.

activity levels chart

Experts advise at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week to maintain good health, and at least an hour a day or more to control weight. The question is asked, where, then, is the time to exercise when the typical American worker spends a minimum of 40 hours a week motionless at their desk?

Most people simply don’t have jobs that require physical exertion.

For that reason, inactivity in the workplace is a prime contributor to the nation’s high rate of obesity and residual ill health effects.

Broken down per individual, medical spending is about $1,429 higher for an overweight person than it is for someone of normal weight. Employer-sponsored healthcare benefit costs are expected to increase by 4.4 percent from a year ago. Compositely, employers can expect their healthcare costs to reach $9,560 per employee this year alone. Sitting in one place all day can lead to neck spasms, musculoskeletal problems, chronic weight gain, slower metabolism, and vein thrombosis.

medical spending chart

Biomedical researchers suggest that increasing daily activity can help improve employee health and reduce these costs. Additionally, it is believed that reducing the amount of time spent seated each day by less than three hours can boost life expectancy an additional two years.

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. Traditionally this is completed through wellness initiatives. Some companies turn to their health insurers to build programs into their insurance plans, hoping to inspire and encourage workers to sustain healthy behaviors and help reduce claims and control premiums. Others seek the advice of consultants or design their own programs.

Basic suggestions include short walks at lunch and throughout the day, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or, perhaps, parking the car further away from the office. For most institutions, however, these humble additions are not enough to benefit the bottom line and more impactful remedies are required.

Some of the most effective and calculated implementations have come in the form of professional active workstations. These desks utilize activity equipment such as treadmill desks and bicycle desks to help employees improve health and extinguish listlessness, all in the space of a traditional cubicle. Standing, walking, or cycling can reduce the stagnation of long-term sitting, improve health, and boost employee productivity.

wellness programs facts chart

Step It Up

Scientific comprehension of the correlation between health and activity has grown appreciably in the last fifty years, specifically following British epidemiologist Jeremy Morris’ proved correlation between exercise and a healthy heart half a century ago. More recently, the Mayo Clinic demonstrated in 2009 that people who stay thin manage to move – fidgeting, pacing, or standing – throughout the day. Similarly, an American Cancer Society researcher linked more time spent sitting to high death risks. Additionally, longitudinal 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.

While it has long been known that walking is good for the heart and general health, it is only recently that we have begun to see the accumulation of hard data on the effectiveness of in-office activity stations. The idea of converting sitting time into productive walking time has arrived. Enter treadmill desks.

Researchers recently conducted a 12-month-long experiment to determine how the availability of treadmill workstations affects employees’ physical activity and work performance. The researchers enlisted sedentary volunteers from a financial services company, half of whom received treadmill workstations during the first two months of the study and the rest in the seventh month of the study. Participants could operate the treadmills at speeds of 0–2 mph and could use a standard chair-desk arrangement at will.

Weekly online performance surveys were administered to participants and their supervisors, as well as to all other sedentary employees and their supervisors. The study revealed that overall work performance, quality and quantity of performance, and interactions with coworkers improved as a result of adoption of treadmill workstations and improved levels of activity. The notion that walking can become a viable part of everyday work life is gaining traction, with the demand for in-office workstations clearly growing.

That's My Treadmill Desk

A growing number of companies nationwide are now using treadmill desks, such as Humana, Mutual of Omaha, GlaxoSmithKline, Nike, Google, and Best Buy.

Active workstation implementation is designed to be intuitive and accommodating to even the most cumbersome office space. Some desks maintain traditional office components, such as customary desk chairs beside their new, healthier counterparts, allowing employees to choose whether they want to sit, stand, or walk all while typing emails, doing research, or talking to colleagues.

Treadmill desk and bike desk use has been found to be highly instinctive. Users can move about at a comfortable pace, easily gaining proficiency with continued use (the recommended speed is less than 2 mph). The idea is to stay active, be comfortable, and improve health without breaking a sweat.

The treadmill itself works like a treadmill at a gym, ramping up slowly to desired speed. It is recommended that new users should begin conservatively, gently approaching the American Heart Association recommendation of 10,000 steps a day, ideally in 90-minute intervals. Brief breaks or alternate movement is suggested. Walking isn’t mandated with a treadmill desk, just encouraged. Walking workstations can be used for standing as well.

treadmill desks

Since July, Mutual of Omaha has been conducting a treadmill desk study in their 150-person call center. The study is designed to determine whether walking employees can maintain productivity while reducing cholesterol and blood glucose. “Sixteen subjects of different ages, body weights and fitness levels work at treadmill desks two hours a day,” says Peggy Rivedal, manager of employee health services. The results have thus far been impressive on an individual level. Kirk Hurley, 40, a customer service representative, gained 75 pounds in two years after leaving the military. In two months of walking while working he has lost 16 pounds. “You don’t really feel the physical strain on your body because your mind’s occupied with your work,” he said.

Don’t expect instant results. Productivity, at first, may even decline briefly until employees get the hang of using an under 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 rather than when they are not.

These findings coincide with other evidence gathered from treadmill desk studies, including the discovery that doctors on a walking workstation are 10 percent more accurate at diagnosing patients -- up from 88 percent to 99 percent – than when they are stationary. When added to potential healthcare savings, this 10 percent bump in performance is likely to justify the cost of incorporating active workstations into the workplace.

A University of Minnesota and University of Texas at Arlington study reported that employees at a financial services firm who used treadmill desks for just one hour per day burned an average of 74 more calories. Other studies have backed up the health benefits, reporting that integrating walking and working by just 2-3 hours every day could result in a loss of 4-6 pounds per week.

When reported health benefits can’t measure up against an institution’s budget constraints, a growing number of employers choose to acquire one treadmill desk for multiple employees. This allows numerous individuals to take turns and reserve the walking desks for set periods during the day.

Bike Desks are Easy Riding

Bike desks are the fitness cousins to treadmills for improving cardiovascular health. The pedal revolutions stimulate similar benefits to treadmills, but with unique benefits. About the size of a standard office chair, the exercise apparatus slips under a desk and is perfect for business spaces where treadmills are not an option. Desk exercise bikes– more affordable, portable and practical in size than treadmill desks -- work best in conjunction with performing internet research, reading long documents, or making or receiving calls.

LifeSpan Bike Desk

Try to type and pedal at the same time. Researchers found that people working on a desk exercise bike burned calories at 2.5 times the rate than when they sat and typed at a traditional desk. Intermittent pedaling, the University of Utah reported, could even improve cognitive function. Authors of another study say just 23 minutes of pedaling could boost health if done regularly.

It doesn’t end there. With mobile apps now at our fingertips, office exercise machines are conveniently complimented by technology that can monitor heart rates and count calories, and track activity. These apps are designed to work with Bluetooth-enabled treadmill desks and desk exercise bikes to synchronize activity results and track effort variable. A few equipment manufacturers go even further, offering live, online training sessions with wellness teams that might include a registered dietician, behavior coach or exercise physiologist.

c3-dt5 bike desk

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. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts medical inflation to rise by 6.8 percent in 2015, signifying a growing demand for care and services. For this reason alone, employers have every reason to encourage healthy behaviors at work.

Faced with rising prices and limited effective options, employers and employees alike are finding wellness programs to not only be 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 source of budgetary contention. It’s a real money saver that, according to a Harvard study, proves beneficial for finances and productivity alike. The study found that medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs and that absenteeism costs were lowered by $2.73 for every dollar spent.

About half of all working-age people with employer-provided health insurance say their employer offers some type of wellness program, and many say they participate. Many wellness campaigns – about 90 percent -- offer incentives or financial rewards or prizes to employees who work toward getting healthy.

However, incentives themselves are not the silver bullet. The trick is for employers to stay current with program designs and strategies that keep employees engaged. Exercise groups, smoking cessation classes and personal health-risk assessments have become interactive attempts by employers to lower their medical costs.

Experts believe that when health is made personal, employees are more likely to participate. One way employers can transform irregular spurts of employee enthusiasm into consistent lifestyle habits is to emphasize highly-beneficial workplace movement.

Treadmill and bike desks are quickly gaining the most traction, finding good favor with employees and executives alike. Professional design and sustainable benefits make the implements a win-win solution to the wellness quandary.

Executive Summary

Is finding time to keep in shape a job in itself? More than two-thirds of American adults – most of whom sit on average for 2 1/2 hours more each day than thinner people – are overweight or obese. These sedentary positions put tremendous force on body tissues. There’s more. Too much sitting 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. Scientists have determined that current levels of physical activity are not enough to offset a culture of increasing convenience.

Inactivity is a tributary that jeopardizes productivity, challenges attendance practices, and makes for under-stimulated employees. In that sense, chronic sitting is not only hazardous to an employee’s health, but to an employer’s bottom line as well. Conversely, activity boosts happiness and satisfaction levels. The time is now for both employee and employer to sit up and take notice.

Today, 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 typically $594, but benefits are thought to eventually reimburse the company by triple that amount. Still, some employers are now going a step further, making activity part of the furniture. 

A Simple Solution

An inexpensive investment can work wonders. Purchasing active workstations may pay bigger dividends than initially meets the eye. Employees can increase their physical activity while simultaneously benefiting their work productivity. Active workstations, such as treadmill desks and bike desks, can complement traditional desks and reduce health conditions that curtail productivity and financial solvency, keeping today’s office fit for business.

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