At Sun Rehab we talk to many businesses who are looking to redesign their workspaces, with the aim of improving the health and well-being of their biggest asset; their employees. Many companies consider it a high aspiration to install treadmill desks as part of a refit, and once installed they envisage significant dividends in worker happiness and productivity. But are these ideals realistic, and why would you consider them?

Diseases of sedentary living are becoming pandemic in our society with the large increase in the number of people who are obese, have heart disease or diabetes occurring in the UK. Diabetes UK estimate on their website that the number of type II diabetes cases in the UK will increase by 700,000 between 2012 and 2020.

In response to these issues the treadmill desk was developed by James Levine at the Mayo Clinic in the USA as part of a research project to define what he came to call NEAT. NEAT is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which in my language means slow movement and standing up rather than sitting down, or going to the gym at the other end of the spectrum.

James Levine calculated that using his walking treadmill that movement at 1.1 mile an hour (very slow walking) is highly effective at warding away the effects of sedentary diseases. He also concluded that two hours and 15 minutes of NEAT activity every day was enough to be effective. It did not take long for furniture manufacturers to realise there was a market potential for selling treadmill desks for employees to use whilst working. We must though consider whether the leap of faith from a research tool to a valid work tool is warranted, or are there better ways to perform NEAT activity within the working day? There is surprisingly little research to help us answer this question.

In one study, (1) 75 young healthy volunteers were allocated randomly either treadmill desks or seated desks to work with. They were then asked to do cognitive tests, memory tests and puzzles. It was found that the seated population substantially outperformed the treadmill walkers, who were slower and more error prone when typing. The authors were surprised about the cognition results as there is a lot of evidence to show that cognition is often improved with movement. They suggest that this may have been because the treadmill walkers were concentrating on balancing on the treadmill rather than the puzzle in hand.

A piece of research conducted in 2009 (2) looked at performance whilst using a treadmill workstation. It concluded that treadmill walking caused a 6 to 11% decrease in motor skills and maths solving problems, but did not affect processing speed or reading comprehension.

But let’s not dwell on the negative side, and let’s look at what the manufacturers say are the benefits.

At Sun Rehab we would agree that walking as an intermittent change to sitting would improve mood. We can find little or no evidence that treadmill walking increases creativity, but could see related positive research that looks at activities such as walking outside that has been superimposed into treadmill walking. As can be seen above the question of whether it improves productivity is doubtful. Walking is shown to decrease stress, and movement is shown to reduce weight, reduce the risk of diabetes, lower blood pressure and maintain strong bones. So far so good.

As far as the above advert is concerned we definitely would not approve of the high heels whilst using a walking treadmill! The question is whether or not these positive health effects can be gained in more effective ways, or not, as part of an Active Working Strategy. The clue lies in the word strategy. There is no 1 thing you can do in a sedentary working environment that will create a happier healthy workforce, whether that be culture change, education or furniture / environment provision. All of these are required.

If the treadmill is to be used in the office it should not be used continuously for hours on end. James Levine recommends that it is used for a maximum of half an hour or two or three times a day.

From a risk perspective, a risk assessment must be performed before one of these units is installed. At Sun Rehab we would recommend that the following issues are considered;

  • Trips and falls. Falling off the back of the treadmill whilst being distracted on a phone call or reading an article we feel is a low risk, but has the potential for significant RIDDOR reportable injury such as fractures.
  • Upper limb disorders. We can already see from the research above that accuracy and dexterity is reduced whilst trying to walk and type same time. To be able to type accurately will require more concentration and more tension held within the upper limb to control the keystrokes. We fear that that this tension would over time increase the incidence of upper limb conditions such as tenosynovitis, tennis elbow and neck complaints. Repetitive injuries such as these are also RIDDOR reportable to the HSE.

Health England guidelines currently states that all sedentary workers should be active for at least two hours a day at work, and be aiming to be either standing or moving for 50% of their working time. There are many ways to achieve this other than treadmill desks, such as walking meetings, sit stand desks, and group standing meetings held around a breakfast bar height desk. All of these have a good evidence base behind them, and in our view have a lower risk of injury. Walking meetings are becoming very popular particularly in London where The White Collar Factory near Silicon roundabout have installed a running track on the roof of the building for walking meetings and lunchtime jogs. I also read this week that the Uber headquarters in San Francisco has a walking track which the CEO Travis Kalanick is rumoured to walk 40 miles a week on whilst holding meetings and on the phone. (Source London Evening Standard)

In conclusion, treadmill desks capture the imagination of many people, and this will inevitably move people towards more active working strategies, which is a great thing. Whether the enthusiasm for treadmill desks would be as strong after one year remains to be seen, and for some we suspect it would be a positive work revelation. However, the risks need to be seriously considered before installation.

As with all technology Sun Rehab would strongly recommend that there is an education process in place when any product is installed, no matter whether it is an ergonomic chair, sit stand desk or a walking treadmill to ensure that the user fully understands how to get the best out of the tool, and how to use it safely.

If you would like any further information please do not hesitate to contact me on