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The Pros and Cons of Workstation Exercise

Treadmill desks and exercise bikes present policy, safety and legal considerations

Employers have plenty of reasons to encourage healthy behaviors at work, but letting employees exercise while they work—using treadmills or exercise bicycles fitted under elevated desks—poses many challenges for HR to consider.

“Anytime we can incorporate wellness into daily work activities, we’re bound to have a healthier employee,” said Beverly Haskins, vice president of human resources for Advanced Testing Laboratory in Cincinnati.

Some feel differently, however. Steven Fiorello, SPHR, human resources director at Swine Graphics Enterprises in Webster City, Iowa, used the word “ridiculous” when asked for his view on treadmill desks. “There’s a lot of injuries to people just walking around with cellphones,” he wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “What’s going to happen when they’re working [while] on a treadmill?”

“A big issue I would see is someone who is multi-tasking, getting distracted and being hurt,” said Paula Dicus, PHR, safety manager and human resources specialist in risk management at Fidelity Communications in the greater St. Louis area. “People don’t always use common sense,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Users Are Sold

Ralph Harik, CEO of the web-based instant-messaging service imo in Palo Alto, Calif., told SHRM Online, “We love workstation treadmills.” Twenty employees share two such exercise desks without problems, he said. “People just get up and get on the treadmills.”

When asked whether that brings certain odors to the workplace, imo developer Erdal Tuleu said, “I don’t think you can sweat that much. It’s more like walking.” The speed of treadmills designed for the workplace is limited to about 2 miles per hour, Tuleu noted.

As for safety issues, the elevated desks “have an adjustable height,” Harik added, “so you get the right ergonomics.”

Denise Bober, HR director at The Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, Fla., said she ordered two workstation treadmills for her department as part of an employee wellness program. She expects there’ll be more: “Quite a few people have tucked their heads in my office and said, ‘I’ll have one of those.’ ”

Workers don’t even need to change before walking at a treadmill workstation. “I wear dresses 90 percent of the time,” Bober said.

Getting Used to Exercising While Working

Tuleu acknowledged that some employees are reluctant to attempt at-desk exercise, especially in the beginning. Asked how long it takes for users to get the hang of working while walking, he suggested it takes about a week.

Bober said that she had to figure out how fast she could go while typing without making any mistakes but that reading, researching and talking on the phone came easily.

Harik said he had programmed software while walking on a treadmill. “I could see other people not liking to program on it, but I didn’t have a lot of problems.”

Bikes Instead of Treadmills

“More and more people are reading online about how their job is killing them, and I think any employer that isn’t considering this kind of option for their employees is missing the boat big-time,” wrote Tucker Robeson, CEO of conflict-resolution firm CDL Helpers in Winona, Minn., in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Robeson liked the idea of workstation exercise for his employees, who spend hours in online contact with truck drivers, but was wary of treadmills. “I decided stationary exercise bikes would be safer, more conducive to staying focused on work and still provide the calorie burn.” To accommodate the elevated desk, Robeson said, “We just leave off the handlebars.”

Bob Orlikowski, a tactical management agent for CDL Helpers, said that the desk has “a monitor at eye level in a good position for posture. We’ll sit on the bike and go to town. … If we need to hop off the bike and sit for a little while, we have adjustable chairs.”

And noise is not an issue. “It’s not the big fan bike you see in most gyms,” Orlikowski reported. “We use a resistance bike [with] a 20-pound wheel hooked up to some belts.”

A well-chosen treadmill needn’t cause a racket, either. “Do you hear any noise?” Bober asked SHRM Online. “I’m walking right now.”

There was no treadmill noise detected during the phone interview.

Safety Guidelines for Exercise Desks

Jody Ensman, manager of the Health & Wellness program in the University of Kentucky’s HR department, said “There are always risks in any physical movement and exercise.” She added, however, that treadmill-desk workstations are “as safe as any treadmill workout.”

With the university’s Occupational Health and Safety, Disability Benefits and Risk Management offices, Ensman’s department has devised comprehensive guidelines for safe use of treadmill desk workstations. They include several common-sense rules:

  • Don’t place treadmills where they will impede access to exits.
  • Keep desk accessories and personal items away from the moving parts.
  • Never walk faster than 2 miles per hour while working, and at a grade of less than 3 percent.
  • An automatic-shutdown key should be clipped to the user while he or she is on the treadmill.
  • The treadmill should be equipped to handle the maximum weight of the heaviest user.
  • An office temperature of between 68 and 79 degrees should be maintained, with humidity between 30 percent and 65 percent.

Ensman advised wearing loose-fitting clothes and, “very important, some kind of tennis shoes or sneakers.” She also cautioned against too-vigorous exercise. “It is not meant for a workout per se. It is made for a very slow, continuous pace.”

Legal Issues to Consider

Haskins said, “I’d love to have treadmill workstations here.” As a precaution, though, she’d have users sign waivers and would provide training.

Fiorello said before he’d endorse a workplace treadmill at his company, he’d get legal advice, “not necessarily our employment attorney but definitely our workers’ comp attorney.” Dicus fears injuries and ergonomic issues “that could be a liability for the company.”

Lawyers advise companies to explore those risks and other concerns. For example, employment attorney Heather Broadwater of Washington, D.C., said in an e-mail to SHRM Online, “Employees who don’t have the option of using a workstation treadmill because of their department, location or position might allege unlawful discrimination if there is some correlation between protected status and eligibility to participate in this program (which might be considered a benefit or perk).”

Workstation Exercise Machines: Yes or No?

“From a health standpoint, I’m very much of a supporter of workstation exercise,” said Ensman. “Any time we can move continuously, it’s a very good thing.”

LeAnn Nienow, PHR-CA, an HR consultant for InterWest Insurance Services in Sacramento, Calif., expressed concerns about how well she personally could handle working and walking simultaneously: “I’m an athlete so that would be great for me, but I’m kind of klutzy, so I could hurt myself.” However, she said she would be willing to be a test case for her company, “But I still think it’s kind of risky.”

Fiorello said: “I have been wrong before. If somebody was passionate about it and willing to try it, and take a ‘no’ if it didn’t work out, I’d be willing to try. I would also ask, ‘Why can’t you take your break and go for a brisk walk around the building?’ ”

Steve Taylor, a Washington reporter for Fox News Radio, is a freelance writer based in Reston, Va.

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