Ask the Doctors: Treadmill desk way to avoid sitting at work all day

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Q: I graduated from college last spring, and I just got my first full-time job, which I love. But it means that I'm sitting for more than eight or nine hours a day, and I hate it. Would one of those treadmill desks be a good way to stay fit?

A: Congratulations on your new job! The transition from the free-form life of college to the structured schedule of full-time work can be bumpy. We think it's great that you're looking for a creative way to mitigate this particular challenge in your new work routine.

Research has repeatedly shown that sitting for long periods of time is bad for your health. Your heart rate drops, circulation slows and muscles quickly lose their tone. Many of us tend to lean or slump, which puts necks, shoulders and spines at risk of injury. Add in the fact that all those hours spent in a chair each day have been linked to high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and a decline in insulin response, and long-term sitting is risky business.

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last year ups the ante. Researchers analyzed data collected in 54 different countries regarding people who remained seated for three or more hours per day. They found a link between how long someone stays seated each day and an increased risk of premature death.

Although additional exercise didn't diminish that increased risk, replacing the time spent sitting with either standing or walking did. Which is where your question comes in about the growing trend in the treadmill desk -- that's an elevated desk with a treadmill in place of a chair.

The short answer is that yes, a treadmill desk can be a very good solution to too much sitting. Rather than spending your time immobile as you read, type or talk on the phone, you're moving at a steady, gentle pace. Walking not only can lower the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, it can also strengthen muscles and bones, and may help you stay in a healthy weight range.

But there are caveats. First of all, the components of the treadmill desk have to be strong, stable and ergonomic, or you risk injury. You can't just throw a thrift shop treadmill under an elevated platform and go. Secondly, it takes practice -- certainly weeks and maybe even a month or two -- to learn to walk and work at the same time. Productivity drops at first, as does concentration. But according to the National Institutes of Health, over the long term, the gain in well-being is worth it.

If a treadmill desk isn't something your new employer is willing to invest in, you can still incorporate specific behaviors to counteract the damage done by prolonged sitting. Get up every 15 minutes or so to stretch and take a quick walk. When you sit back down, reset your posture. Take your phone calls standing up. Instead of emailing, walk over to your colleague to speak in person.

We wish you good luck in your new job. And if you do get a treadmill desk, please let us know how it goes.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and primary care physician at UCLA Health.

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