Are active workstations actually better?
When John Osborn’s treadmill desk arrived in his corner office last August, the New York CEO of advertising firm BBDO spent nearly 80% of the day working while walking. But soon colleagues began pointing out rampant misspellings in his emails.
“You quickly realize how difficult it is to type anything longer than a sentence,” he says. And while he had hoped to drop some weight, he found that after a few weeks, his appetite increased. “The big joke around here was I got the treadmill desk and I put on 6 pounds,” Mr. Osborn says.
Office furniture that allows employees to stand, walk, cycle or sit on a giant rubber ball come with health-boosting claims such as relieving lower back pain or stimulating blood flow to the brain. Ergonomic specialists cite injury risks. User complaints include lower back pain. Employers are just beginning to deal with issues of hygiene, etiquette and liability.
While the health advantages of sitting less are well established, helping to cut the risk of obesity and heart disease, the productivity benefits of so-called active workstations are less clear from the results of the small studies to date. A 2011 Mayo Clinic study of 11 medical transciptionists found that typing speed and accuracy slowed by 16% while walking, compared with sitting. And a 2009 study from the University of Tennessee, with 20 participants, found that treadmill walking resulted in an up to 11% deterioration in fine motor skills like mouse clicking, and dragging and dropping, as well in as cognitive functions like math-problem solving.
Steve Bordley, founder and CEO of TrekDesk, which makes desks designed to fit with any treadmill, says such studies don’t account for the added benefits for workers, such as feeling less lethargic after lunch or less absenteeism.
Ergonomic experts say that overuse, combined with too much or not enough air in the ball, may contribute to lower back strain. Since keeping the ball stable requires abdominal strength and concentration, distracted workers may not maintain good posture or end up rolling onto the floor.
Gabriel Gaster, a data scientist for a Chicago-based tech startup, has never fallen off his office stability ball, but says he has a “close call” about once a month. “That keeps you on your toes,” says Mr. Gaster.
A 2009 British study concluded that the posture of 28 employees who sat on a stability ball was just as poor as those who sat in a chair. A Dutch study published in Applied Ergonomics the same year found that, compared with chairs with armrests, the balls produced 33% more “trunk motion” in its 10 subjects, but they also produced more “spinal shrinkage,” or compression of the vertebrae.
Kentucky-based insurance giant Humana says it is planning to add to its current inventory of 40 treadmill desks, while Google now has about two dozen between its New York City and San Francisco Bay area offices.
When Toyota Motor began allowing employees to bring in their own treadmill desk or stability balls, both fell out of use pretty quickly, says Chris Burton, who until recently led Toyota North America’s office-ergonomics initiatives. Things quietly soured, he said, as one woman fell off her treadmill within the first few weeks and another employee claimed the stability ball didn’t achieve his desired goals. Mr. Burton’s conclusion as to the benefit of these alternatives? “The jury is out,” he says.
To be sure, balls and treadmills won’t be replacing the desk chair any time soon. Shelly Wolff, a health-management consultant for Towers Watson, a global human-resources firm, says a half-dozen of its client companies tried rubber exercise balls in lieu of chairs—but only briefly.
“It was a terrific idea, but it just really didn’t work because they really were not very safe,” says Ms. Wolff. Clients who tried them have reported “many” employee falls and were concerned about workers’ compensation risks, she says.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission maintains the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which tracks product-related harm. In 2011, the past year for which data is available, treadmill injuries in any context (home, office or gym) comprised 37% of all exercise-equipment mishaps, which numbered nearly 62,000, a Wall Street Journal analysis of the database found. Reported treadmill injuries included foot lacerations, knee sprains and chest contusions.
At Office Walkers, an online community where people discuss treadmill-desk issues (the group motto: Working @ 100 calories per hour), complaints range from crippling Achilles tendon pain to painful shocks from the machine’s static buildup.
A Steelcase spokeswoman says safety was the “primary driver” in the development of its Walkstation, which comes with safeguards like a shock absorption base to reduce the risk of joint injury and an automatic shut-off feature.
Manufacturers say shock reports are rare and recommend customers ground treadmills with a rubber mat. Pain and soreness, they say, is frequently a result of newbie overuse. “People get excited and walk for eight hours the first day,” says Mr. Bordley.
Some manufacturers cap machine speeds between 2 and 4 mph.
Some companies have asked their employees to sign waivers before using the equipment, say treadmill desk manufacturers. Issues include whether it is OK to drink hot beverages while walking on a motorized machine and appropriate footwear. The LifeBalance Station is designed to be used with high heels, says its developer Christoph Leonhard, a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
After a handful of University of Kentucky employees began requesting treadmill desks for their offices, the school brought in specialists from different departments—occupational health and safety, risk management, workers’ compensation and legal—to devise rules for the equipment’s use. Among their suggestions: Treadmills should have noise-muffling technology to minimize disturbance to office neighbors. Users should avoid high heels, walk slower than 2 miles per hour, practice “proper hygiene” and keep a regular desk and chair to give themselves a break. “Our guidelines are pretty stringent,” says Jody Ensman, who manages the university’s health-and-wellness program.
TreadDesk sold 2,800 workstations in 2012—50 times more than when it launched in 2006, according to CEO Jerry Carr. Sales of the TrekDesk increased tenfold in the last two years, says Mr. Bordley.
As with other exercise regimens, people tend to lose interest in workstation fitness products over time. A recent study from the University of Iowa found that when stationary bikes were offered as an alternative to desk chairs, only 19% of employees still used them after four weeks. Lucas Carr, author of the study, says reasons include lack of motivational support and anecdotal evidence that participants’ knees were hitting the underside of their desk.
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