Sit-Stand and Treadmill Desks: Antidote to Heart Attack and Stroke?

Proponents warn of dangers from prolonged sitting at desks

By Dana Wilkie Sep 6, 2013
Most U.S. employees—even if they jog three miles before coming to work—spend so much of their day at desks they might as well be smokers, according to Steve Bordley.

That may sound extreme, but medical research supports Bordley, who got into the business of selling treadmill desks 20 years ago after a hunting-gun accident shattered his right leg and left him largely sedentary for two years.

“Anybody who thinks they can run in the morning and then sit eight hours a day, they’ve more than undone any health advantages of running,” said Bordley, CEO of Phoenix-based TrekDesk. “We’ve been evolving over a couple hundred thousand years to stay in motion, not to sit in one place. It puts undue pressure on the heart, causes varicose veins and puts strain on the back.”

Anecdotal evidence indicates that sit-stand and treadmill desks are becoming increasingly popular in the workplace as employers try to accommodate those recovering from occupational injuries as well as workers who want to avoid the maladies associated with prolonged sitting, said Sue Davis, director of employee safety and health administration at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

Davis was part of an HR team that, two years ago, introduced a handful of sit-stand desks to her bureau for injured workers who needed to stand periodically. Today 60 bureau employees use them (not all have injuries), and there’s a waiting list.

“We have employees who are asking for them because they feel better standing, and everything we’re reading indicates that sitting all day is unhealthy,” Davis said. “It’s literally killing us slowly.”

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that Americans walk at least 10,000 steps (or about 90 minutes at a brisk pace) every day. If every American walked this much, the rate of initial heart attacks in the nation would drop by 90 percent and the rate of strokes would decline by 70 percent, reports the American Heart Association.

Most Americans take about 5,000 steps a day, Bordley noted.

“Think about a garden hose and how freely water comes out when it’s not kinked,” Davis said. “Once it’s kinked, this restricts the flow. The same is true when you’re sitting. Not only are you kinked at the waist but also at the knee. Think what that does to the blood flow throughout the body.”

Sedentary-Lifestyle Health Risks

Research published in the April 19, 2011, issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that prolonged sitting is linked to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and even early death and could be just as dangerous as—if not more so than—smoking.

Another study published in the March 2012 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found that prolonged sitting increases the risk of death.

And in a 2004 study by Intel Corp., four out of five workers said they preferred to work at electric, adjustable stations that allowed them to stand at their computers part of the day. The same study found that people with such stations chose to stand at their computers about 20 percent of the time.

The standard sit-stand desk adjusts to a worker’s position, either electronically or by using a manual crank, and runs from $900 to $1,200. Each desk in Davis’ bureau has an anti-fatigue mat and costs about the same as the bilevel desks that many bureau employees already use. In bureau surveys, employees reported improvements in mental focus and clarity, better circulation, and less back, foot and leg pain.

The treadmill desk typically attaches to a customer’s existing treadmill and can slide out of the way when not needed. Bordley sells them for $479, which doesn’t include installation. According to him, about 20 percent of his sales are to companies and most Fortune 500 companies have them for at least some workers.

There are skeptics, Davis and Bordley admitted. Among them are employers.

“We get so many e-mails from people saying ‘I want to get a treadmill desk, but my boss is saying no,’ ” Bordley said. “Insurance companies seem to be pushing back a bit. They [think] someone’s going to be running on it at six or seven miles an hour.”

Most workers using treadmill desks walk at a rate of 1 to 1.5 miles per hour.

“It’s not about elevating your heart rate,” Bordley explained. “If you’re walking at that pace, not only can you read; you can type well.”

Bordley also notes that workers unaccustomed to walking should use the desks for about only 15 minutes a day, then gradually work up to longer periods on the treadmill.

“A lot of people think this is great, and they take off and do 15,000 steps, and they’re going to get sore,” he cautioned.

Productivity Boost?

Some employers question whether workers can be productive while standing or walking.

A May 2013 study in the journal Obesityindicates that worker productivity isn’t compromised—and might actually improve—when people use sit-stand or treadmill desks. The study of 36 sedentary workers at a Minnesota financial services company found that while there was a slight decline in productivity during the first three to five months, after a year the employees were more productive than when they sat at traditional desks. Moreover, there were no reported injuries, and obese employees lost more weight than their lean counterparts.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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