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Redefining the Desk Job

The growing body of evidence on the health risks of sitting for hours on
end has a lot of exercise pros wondering: Should we encourage clients to
use standup desks or workstations that allow moderate physical activity?

Emerging research suggests it’s worth a try.

This requires some rethinking of our traditional focus on developing
exercise programs to improve physiological health and musculoskeletal
strength. Just last month, this magazine offered an in-depth research
review linking higher levels of exercise with reduced risk for nearly
three dozen harmful conditions and life-threatening diseases (Morton &
Kravitz 2016). Focusing on formal exercise programs is fine, but in
recent years we’ve also seen a paradigm shift toward improving health by
boosting lifestyle activity and physical movement throughout the day
(Pate, O’Neill & Lobelo 2008).

Now, exercise professionals are adding strategies for combating
sedentary behaviors like watching too much TV or playing too many video
games. Indeed, one of the best targets of these efforts is the hours
employees spend at a seated workstation. A relatively new area of
research, presented in this column, explores workstation alternatives to
the traditional office chair and desktop.

The Work Chair: 
Dependable and Lethal

Levine (2010) points out that while our bodies are made to move, we live
in a chair-dependent society. Sitting is not bad in moderation, he says,
but modern lifestyles have made sitting excessive and harmful.
Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) also note that the U.S. shift toward
desk-based, sedentary occupations in the past 50 years is associated
with weight gain trends.

Levine says the research shows that daily, sustained chair dependency
correlates with shorter life spans, metabolic diseases and
cardiovascular disease. His solution is simple: People should get up
more during their waking hours. Levine asserts that repeated, frequent
bouts of “low-intensity meandering-style activity” can effectively
combat the ill effects of sitting all day.

What Are the 
Workstation Alternatives?

There are four main alternatives to the traditional, computer-based

  1. Replace the office chair with a stability ball.
  2. Change the desk height, mechanically or electronically, to allow for
    periodic standing (with an adjustable sit-stand desk) or continuous
    standing (with a fixed standing desk).
  3. Change the desk height to create a treadmill desk.
  4. Incorporate an under-desk elliptical/stepper/pedaling device to make a
    pedal desk (Tudor-Locke et al. 2014). The pedal desk design requires
    little to no desk adjustment, as the worker can either pedal and sit
    or just sit and work.

Stability ball seats and standing desks are classified as “static”
workstations because movement is mostly confined to body weight shifts
and postural adjustments (Tudor-Locke et al. 2014). Treadmill and pedal
desks are categorized as “active” workstations because they promote
low-intensity rhythmic movement.

Do Workstation Alternatives Increase Energy Expenditure?

Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) reviewed the research on whether alternative
workstations effectively increase energy expenditure. The data show
there is very little difference in energy expenditure between sitting in
an office chair and using a stability ball or a standing desk (the
difference ranges from 0.99 kilocalories per minute to 1.46 kcal per
minute). While Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) note that people should
therefore not expect weight loss from static desks, Levine (2010) says
alternative workstations still provide enough benefits to physiological
and metabolic health that they far outweigh the lethal consequences of
prolonged chair sitting.

Active workstations have more potential to help people manage weight.
Even the little energy-expenditure research completed on a pedal desk
(pedaling at 45 revolutions per minute) indicates an average energy
expenditure of about 2.14 kcal per minute (Tudo-Locke et al. 2014). In
contrast, treadmill desks with users walking 1–2 miles per hour can
increase energy expenditure by more than 100 kcal per hour compared with
traditional seated workstations. Thus, the influence on body weight
could be quite consequential—depending on how long a person can keep
using an active desk every day.

How Do Workstation Alternatives Affect 
Work Performance?

To date, we have no well-defined evidence that alternative workstations
help or hinder work performance. Most of the productivity research has
used active workstations rather than traditional seated workstations. An
active workstation requires dual tasking: walking, pedaling or stepping
while reading, thinking, speaking, typing or texting. This is not an
automatic process, and it requires quite a bit of information processing
(Tudor-Locke et al. 2014).

Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) say it is not clearly known how the divided
attention of walking safely on a treadmill while performing office work
ultimately affects a worker’s productivity. The researchers note that
the majority of studies with workstation alternatives focus primarily on
simulated tasks (such as reading, clicking, math problems, mouse
pointing and speaking). These studies do not show any significant
difference between the active workstations and the traditional seated
workstations, except with mouse-related tasks (such as dragging and menu
selection). Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) explain that mouse tasks represent
fine motor skills, which may be more impaired by the extraneous movement
of an active workstation.

Will Workers Keep Using 
a Workstation Alternative?

No doubt, before recommending a workstation alternative for a client,
personal trainers want to know if the client will actually keep using
it. Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) say a workstation alternative is
acceptable if the worker finds it tolerable. It cannot be burdensome,
inconvenient or uncomfortable.

For now, we have no standardized approach to confidently research this
question. Researchers tend to use questionnaires, interviews and focus
groups and then report the results as exploratory findings (Tudor-Locke
et al. 2014). That said, studies using stability balls have commonly
reported that users find them more uncomfortable to sit on than
traditional chairs. However, as personal trainers know, stability balls
are unstable by nature and clients often take quite a bit of time to
become familiar with them and learn the proper sitting posture. People
who are not guided progressively in this are likely to find that sitting
on a ball becomes awkward and perhaps uncomfortable.

Studies report that the sit-stand workstation alternatives are easy to
use—and that people like using them. Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) say the
thrust of the published research suggests that workers report improved
perceptions of energy, health, happiness, posture and productivity.
Furthermore, many sit-stand workstation users report much less body
soreness, less back pain, less shoulder pain and decreased wrist and
elbow pain. Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) add that people really enjoy the
option of switching between sitting and standing.

Users report that treadmill desks can boost creativity and break up the
workday (Tudor-Locke et al. 2014). The one major divisive research
question about active workstations is whether people feel more fatigued
by the end of the day. Overall, the research is mixed and inconclusive.
But personal trainers can bring their experience to bear, helping
clients understand how the active workstation should be gradually
introduced and progressed. This will certainly make a difference in
clients’ perceived levels of fatigue.

According to Tudor-Locke et al. (2014), the research on pedal desk
workstations indicates that they are comfortable, are easy to use and do
not affect productivity or quality of work. The authors note that pedal
desks may be the best option for people with balance challenges.
Tudor-Locke et al. (2014) say sit-stand workstations and pedal desks are
equally popular, while treadmill desks are the least popular.

Last, and very importantly, no studies have reported that users have
acute or chronic injuries associated with active workstation
alternatives (Tudor-Locke et al. 2014). This is probably attributable to
the low-intensity nature of these workstations and the workers’ ability
to switch from a traditional seated station to an alternative

Final Thoughts

Helping clients become less sedentary has become a priority for most
exercise professionals. Changing the way people sit at work is
definitely one major area to target (see Figure 1 for things to consider
when choosing an alternative workstation). It is quite likely that
several new alternative workstations will be introduced within the next
few years.

Goodbye to chairs!

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