Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Think you're too busy to get some exercise, huh?

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WASHINGTON -- Glued to your desk at work? Cross that off the list of reasons not to exercise.

A growing number of North Americans are standing, walking and even cycling their way through the workday at treadmill desks, standup desks or other moving workstations. Others are forgoing chairs in favour of giant exercise balls to stay fit.

Walking on a treadmill while making phone calls and sorting through emails means "being productive on two fronts," said Andrew Lockerbie, senior vice-president of benefits at Brown & Brown, a global insurance consulting firm.

Lockerbie can burn 350 calories a day walking four to six kilometres on one of two treadmill desks that his company's Indianapolis office purchased earlier this year.

"I'm in meetings and at my desk and on the phone all day," he said. "It's great to be able to have an option at my work to get some physical activity while I'm actually doing office stuff. You feel better, you get your blood moving, you think clearly."

Treadmill desks designed for the workplace are normally set to move at 1.5 to 3.5 km/h, enough to get the heart rate up but not too fast to distract from reading or talking on the phone comfortably.

It's been a decade since scientific studies began to show that too much sitting can lead to obesity and increase the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Even going to the gym three times a week doesn't offset the harm of being sedentary for hours at a time, said Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic.

"There's a glob of information that sitting is killing us," Levine said. "You're basically sitting yourself into a coffin."

More companies are intrigued by the idea of helping employees stay healthy, lose weight and reduce stress -- especially if it means lower insurance costs and higher productivity, said Levine, an enthusiastic supporter of the moving workstations.

"Even walking at one mile an hour (1.6 km/h) has very substantial benefits," Levine said, such as doubling metabolic rate and improving blood-sugar levels. "Although you don't sweat, your body moving is sort of purring along."

Sales at Indianapolis-based TreadDesk are expected to increase 25 per cent this year as large corporations, including Microsoft, Coca Cola, United Healthcare and Procter & Gamble have started buying the workstations in bulk, said Jerry Carr, the company's president.

At LifeSpan Fitness, based in Salt Lake City, sales of treadmill desks more than tripled over 2012, said Peter Schenk, company president.

With bicycle desks or desk cycles, workers can pedal their way through the day on a small stationary bike mounted under their desks.

Treadmill desks can range from about US$800 to US$5,000 or more, depending on the manufacturer and model. Desk cycles start as low as US$149 for models that can fit under an existing desk but can run US$1,400 or more for those with a desk built in. Standup desks can run as low as US$250 for platforms that can rest on an existing desk.

Some workers have opted for lower-profile -- and lower-cost -- ways to stay fit at work, such as sitting on giant exercise balls instead of chairs. Using the inflatable balls can help improve posture and strengthen abs, legs and back muscles.

"I've got nurses in my operating room who will use one of those balls instead of a chair," said Michael Maloney, a professor of orthopedics and a sports-medicine specialist at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Maloney said anyone trying an exercise ball, treadmill desk or other moving workstation should approach it just as they would any new exercise regime. Those who have not been working out regularly should start using the equipment in small time increments to avoid injury, he said.

Georges Harik, founder of the Web-based instant messaging service imo.im in Palo Alto, Calif., bought two treadmill desks for his 20-person office to share three years ago. Employees tend to sort through email or do other work while using the treadmills.

"I do it when I can," he said. "Sometimes it's not possible if you're really thinking hard or programming a lot. But this sort of low-grade activity that keeps people from being sedentary probably helps extend their lives by a few years, and we're big fans of that."

The office has also purchased standing desks for most of its employees. The desks can be raised up or down with the touch of a button, and Harik says at least three or four workers can be seen standing at desks to stretch their legs at any one time.

Levine said he was at first skeptical that a standup desk would offer improvements in health comparable to treadmill desks or other moving workstations.

"It appears I was completely wrong," he said. "Once you're off your bottom, it's inevitable that you start meandering around. Within two minutes of standing, one activates a series of metabolic processes that are beneficial. Once you sit, all of those things get switched off."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2013 D8

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