No matter how healthy your lifestyle is after work, if you spend most of your time sitting on the job, you could be raising your risk for a host of ills — including several forms of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 3.3 million people die annually due to physical inactivity, making it the fourth leading cause of death across the globe.
Of course, working at a desk all day can put a damper on the best intentions to exercise. It turns out, however, that technology merged easily with your work space can increase your physical activity and, potentially, benefit your health.
A case in point: Research from the University of Iowa found that being active at work can be as easy as pedaling a bike. That doesn’t mean you have to ride a bike to and from work, either. There are portable pedaling devices that fit under desks so people can work in extra movement, and burn more calories, as they pedal during work hours.
Sitting while pedaling sporadically on the job throughout the day isn’t the same as a gym workout, but WHO points out that physical activity isn’t only structured exercise. Physical activity that can produce health benefits includes anything that moves muscles and requires energy — whether it is housework, jogging, or moving your muscles on the job. And pedaling at your desk fits into that latter category.
Lucas Carr, PhD, assistant professor of health and human physiology and a member of the Obesity Research and Education Initiative at Iowa, has focused his research on ways to get people moving at work. The key, he found, is to change the office environment to make being active easier.
“A lot of companies have gone the route of building expensive fitness facilities that typically get used only by the most healthy employees," Carr said. "The people who need to improve their health the most are less likely to use worksite fitness facilities."
Carr's pilot study of under-the-desk pedaling, presented at the 2015 Society of Behavioral Medicine’s Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas, was the longest in a series of three studies he conducted using a pedaling device designed for the office. He found that having an option to be active right at their desks helped workers who were hesitant to work out in front of people or to visit a fitness facility. The results of the study also suggest pedaling while working could reduce healthcare costs for employers.
For the research, 27 employees working at an Iowa City company, ACT, Inc., agreed to have an activeLife Trainer pedal device placed under their desks. Monitors connected to the devices tracked how much time each participant pedaled. The research subjects received three emails weekly with tips on how to move more at work and why that’s important for health.
At the end of 16 weeks, the study volunteers had averaged almost an hour of pedaling each work day. Those who pedaled the most were more likely to have lost weight, and they also reported improved concentration while at work. They took fewer sick days than co-workers who pedaled less, too.
Some companies have tried placing exercise bikes and treadmill desks in halls as shared devices but, according to Carr, few employees use them. "We are really looking to identify sustainable solutions," he said. "That's what we are working towards — how do we help people engage in healthy behaviors that can be sustained over the long term?"
The pedaling devices could be one solution. The research volunteers liked being able to privately exercise while working, and they reported the pedaling devices were comfortable and easy to operate, too.
What’s more, 70 percent of participants liked using the pedaling devices so much they wanted to keep them. That, said Carr, was an unexpected response, and it makes him hopeful that this type of exercise-while-you-work approach can help sedentary workers.
(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website offers more information on the connection between physical activity and health.)
"This is something that could be provided to just about any employee, regardless of the size of their company or office," Carr said. "It's right at their feet, and they can use it whenever they want without feeling self-conscious in front of their co-workers."
November 23, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN