Walk while you work

Jan 18 2010 - 9:33pm

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(DJAMILA GROSSMAN/Standard-Examiner) Dr. Elizabeth Joy walks on a treadmill at her desk in her office at the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.
(DJAMILA GROSSMAN/Standard-Examiner) Dr. Elizabeth Joy walks on a treadmill at her desk in her office at the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.

When there's desk work to be done, Elizabeth Joy puts her desk to work.

This University of Utah doctor tackles all of her computer chores, phone calls and e-mail while hoofing it on her treadmill desk. Joy typically logs five miles a day -- without ever leaving her office.

The new setup is part workstation and part workout station for Joy, the leading physician on a research team that plans to study the effectiveness of walking while working.

"Walking is much more healthy than sitting," she says during a treadmilling interview in her office at the University of Utah's Research Park in Salt Lake City, where she is director of the Utah Health Research Network and a family medicine and sports medicine physician.

The treadmill desk has been a fixture in Joy's office since October. Since then, the doctor says she hasn't sat down to work at her "regular" desk once and doesn't miss those chair-bound hours.

"It's just so fabulous to not be sitting all day," she says. "I feel so much better. I have more energy; I have less muscle pain and joint stiffness."

Joy sets her pace at 1.2 miles per hour with no incline, slow enough to do tasks she could do at her old desk but fast enough to burn 100 calories per mile.

"I'm not sweating, I'm not wearing gym clothes," she says, adding, "This isn't exercise -- this is physical activity."

The kind of physical activity, Joy adds, that we've nearly engineered out of our daily lives, particularly in the workplace.

Walk it off

Joy and Erica F. Bisson, a University of Utah neurosurgeon specializing in spinal care, are co-researchers who have applied for a grant for a workplace wellness study examining the damage caused to employees' spines on the job.

The project would use MRI imaging to compare the spines of 20 participants after they have used the treadmill desk for three hours and after they have worked in a traditional office chair for three hours, Joy says.

"We want to see whether or not walking on the treadmill for three hours actually promotes the infusion of nutrients in and out of lumbar discs," Joy says.

As a physician, Bisson says in a e-mail interview, she's not only interested in treating spinal disease but preventing it: "At this point, we incompletely understand which environmental factors, if any, impact the development of degenerative spinal disease. This study will help elucidate one of these factors."

Just how a treadmill desk might affect degeneration in the spine or the occurrence of back pain is yet to be determined, Bisson says. But, she adds, "The potential weight loss and cardiovascular effects of walking five miles a day are truly beneficial."

No pain, big gain

Weight loss is one benefit of hitting the treadmill desk, Joy says. Compare burning 100 calories per mile to burning just 25 to 50 calories per hour while sitting.

Our bodies are designed to be upright, the doctor adds; walking helps lubricate the joints in our hips, knees and ankles. For those who have lower back pain, standing and walking are preferable over sitting.

Joy herself says she is no longer bothered by pains she got after a day hunched over her computer.

"That was the first thing I noticed ... was my upper back and neck pain was gone, just like that," she says, snapping her fingers.

Her treadmill desk doesn't replace exercise, Joy adds; she still works out regularly. She uses the desk most of the time on days when she doesn't see patients, unless she has to attend a meeting and is "forced to sit."

Treadmill desks aren't new; they've been used for years at some Fortune 500 companies, Joy says. But most models are costly, running $4,500 to $6,000.

"Certainly nothing my boss was going to buy for me," she quips.

The desk she uses -- and the one that will be part of the proposed study -- is the TrekDesk, an Arizona-made workstation that attaches to any treadmill and sells for about $450. With her $850 treadmill, Joy says her setup cost $1,300, a price comparable to traditional office furniture.

For employers, the investment will be worth it once they discover employees lowering their blood pressure, losing weight and improving their health, she says.

On your feet

Joy got pumped about treadmill desks a couple of years ago when she gave a lecture on workplace wellness. She researched traditional solutions like sitting on a stability ball instead of a chair, using hand weights or using exercise bands.

However, she says, "(These things) may make you feel better, but they won't improve your health."

She stumbled across the TrekDesk and became convinced that working on a treadmill was a key part of a "cultural shift" in the workplace away from sedentariness.

"This is a way of engineering physical activity back into our lifestyle," explains Joys, who says it only took her a couple of days to get used to typing while walking.

Other ways to promote activity on the job include stationary cycles built into desks or in-house walking tracks where employees can meet on-the-go instead of sitting around a table, Joy says. Some companies are creating worksite fitness centers or offering paid time for employees to exercise during the day.

The result is more alert and energetic workers, Joy says, along with a reduction in sick days and lower turnover rates.

Mood booster

Joy says her treadmill desk is popular with co-workers who use it when she's out of the office.

"I'm on it whenever she's not here," says Susanne Cusick, manager of the Utah Health Research Network.

Cusick, who is bothered by low back pain, says her back never hurts on the days she uses the treadmill desk. The walking also makes her more focused and efficient, she says.

"I've noticed the days I'm on it I'm in a better mood," Cusick says, equating the activity with the same "endorphin pump" she gets when she runs.

Joy's proposed study still needs university approval once funding is obtained, so there is no date yet set for it to begin.

The physician admits some folks will be immediately attracted to the treadmill desk and others will be hesitant, in part due to our sedentary-oriented office environment.

"If you give people a chair, they are going to sit on it," Joy says. "If you take away the chair, they will stand. If you plop this in their office and say, 'This is where your desk is going to be,' they will use it."

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