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Latest Study: No, Treadmill Desks Don't Make You Dumber

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When I first heard of treadmill desks, I thought they sounded like a terrible idea. Why in the world would you ever try to work and walk at the same time? You’d never get anything done.

Trying one out at work confirmed my suspicions: I couldn’t focus and it didn’t feel normal to be walking while trying to type.

After about 10 minutes, though, I started to notice the treadmill less and less. Pretty soon, I was working at normal speed and getting some much-needed exercise. I don’t think I’ll use it every day (just because I’m lazy) but I like it enough now to use it once in a while.

And apparently, my observations are backed by data: A new study of 58 young and middle-aged adults finds that active workstations like treadmill desks do not impair your cognitive function. So you can work just as well while walking as you do sitting down — maybe not immediately, but after an adjustment period. The study found that both age groups, twentyish and middle-aged, completed various tasks using treadmill desks as efficiently as adults sitting down.

There has been some debate on the issue: a New York Times article from 2015 highlighted a study about the downside of treadmill desks, arguing that they make you worse at typing and memorizing. That may be true, but maybe all it takes is a little more time to get used to working on a treadmill — that’s certainly what happened to me.

I spoke with the paper’s senior author, Rutgers associate professor and exercise researcher Brandon Alderman. Here's our conversation, lightly edited:

How would you summarize your study?

Younger and older adults can use active workstations during the day without cognitive impairments, including impairments of executive function, which is important because we rely on it to engage in very critical aspects of our day.

Beyond that, if we look at the typical guideline of 10,000 steps a day for adults — which, by the way, is debated — the adults in our study accumulated approximately 4,500 steps across a 50-minute window. So you would be well on your way to accomplishing the total steps per day that are recommended in just 50 minutes of low-intensity walking.

How was your study different from previous ones that used treadmill desks?

This is the second time that we performed this type of study. In our initial study, we were really relying on college students, like almost all of the other studies in this area. So one of the questions that we had was, what if we look at real working age adults? When they perform meaningful cognitive tasks while using the active workstation, will there be an impairment?

We looked at three generally accepted domains of executive function. One is inhibition, which is your ability to inhibit distractions, like Facebook or social media. Another component is working memory: Can you hold multiple items or things in your mind? And the last one is shifting or multi-tasking. Across the three domains, there was no real meaningful influence of active workstations on executive function in both the younger and older cohort.

So then why is there still a debate about the benefits or downsides of treadmill desks?

Prior to our initial study in the area, there was no data whatsoever about whether or not using an active workstation might affect job performance. You can measure job performance by looking at things like using a computer mouse or typing at a keyboard, but I would say that those are relatively mundane tasks. What we're really interested in are these aspects of cognitive function that we rely upon when we're working across the 8-hour workday.

When it comes to that, I wouldn't say that the work in the area is debated. There is some debate surrounding the intensity of activity that one engages in and whether or not that might affect executive function — that absolutely is debated. But I think there's a general consensus that active workstations don't really have an effect on executive function. Our work just helps to extend that to real working age adults.

You mentioned in your paper that it takes a while for people to adjust to using these active workstations.

Right. If I were to give some encouragement, it would be not to be discouraged, especially at the outset. Using an active workstation necessarily implies that you’re dual-tasking. You're completing several tasks simultaneously that you typically would not be doing, so that might cause some sort of an initial adjustment period. But the benefits certainly outweigh the cons of using active workstations.

Are there any cognitive benefits of using an active workstation?

We've never really looked at whether or not there is a meaningful positive impact on cognitive function, but that would be really interesting to look at. I am aware that there are emerging randomized control trials of these active workstations: For example, there's active workstation use in classrooms, so you could look at things like classroom performance and on-task behavior.

Those findings remain to be seen, but it's absolutely clear that using active workstations across the workday will improve your metabolic rate and result in an increased expenditure of calories.

And there is some emerging evidence that if you stand more versus sit less, you're going to have a positive impact on bone health. And the jury's still out on things like improving positive mood across the workday, relieving stress, and enhancing creativity. They remain to be studied, but there is certainly a possibility.

Readers? What have you found?

This segment aired on July 5, 2017. The audio for this segment is not available.


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