Sitting at a desk all day is not only bad for your posture, it can be bad for your heart. Exercise desks combine the functionality of a working surface with a lower end that allows the worker to stand, walk, or even cycle while they work. While there could be minor tradeoffs in productivity, these desks could offer tremendous health benefits to office workers who may otherwise be stationary all day.
A study presented at the 2015 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego, Calif., found that previously sedentary workers who walked at a treadmill desk for two hours per workday for two months significantly improved their blood pressure and slept better at night.
While these desks can offer health benefits, they can also potentially hamper work productivity.
Researchers at Brigham Young University studied 75 men and women and compared task performance at a regular desk compared to a treadmill desk. They found those on treadmill desks saw a nine percent drop in cognitive processing speed, attention and working memory, along with a 13-word-per-minute decline in typing speed.
Nevertheless, researchers said the modest losses in productivity were offset by the health benefits and likely "worth it" for those who need the exercise they may otherwise not get.
"For health alone it's great, but if the cognitive decline is small, then you bet it's worth it," says neuroscientist and study author Michael Larson. "The health benefits likely outweigh any slight performance dips you may get from implementing the treadmill desk."
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To get the most of the desk, you'd likely need to walk at a moderate pace. Researchers at Ohio State University found that a treadmill desk doesn't necessarily lead to a significant change in Body Mass Index.
"One of the challenges with the treadmill desk is that it needs to be lower-intensity activity so employees can still perform their work duties," OSU assistant professor John Schuna Jr.
While exercise desks can be better than nothing, they should not be viewed as a full exercise routine.
Biomechanist Katy Bowman wrote in her book "Don't Just Sit There" that there are indisputable benefits of treadmill desks because they allow workers to move in a way that's great for their mind, metabolism and circulatory system. Yet workers should still supplement with other exercise, including even "ordinary" walking.
"Don't log these miles toward your daily walking — this way of walking might not leave you with the muscle distribution the human body requires for optimal biological function. You still need to log your necessary miles over ground once you're done," Bowman wrote.