Tread Lightly: The ups and downs of integrating exercise workstations into your office

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The benefits of incorporating exercise into your routine are not newsworthy. From reducing the risk of obesity and heart disease to improving mental well-being, exercise is regularly acclaimed across the media, throughout the medical field, and, probably daily, in our own personal lives.  What’s interesting is that the achievement of these fitness goals has now come into significant focus in workplaces across the country. Through enhanced support, resources and tools, employers are taking on a pro-active, increased role in helping employees raise their activity levels and awareness.  This broader attention to worker health and wellness leads to the potential for reduced healthcare and workers’ compensation costs.  Along with these, financial benefits studies have also shown a reduction in absenteeism, increased productivity, and less turnover.

In conjunction with workplace-sponsored exercise and fitness activities, wellness committees, and health-related initiatives, unconventional options are now being considered to help improve employee well being.  However, as employers move to encourage the physical activity of their workforce, they must think about how and when employees participate in these activities and the possible implications. 

Consider the “treadmill desk,” which allows an employee to walk slowly while working at his/her desk.  When contemplating this trend, employers must evaluate the nature of the work being performed, the work environment, the personal abilities of the employee, and any potential impact on the productivity of the worker.  The benefits are clear – employees are able to fit in exercise during work hours, alleviating scheduling constraints.  Unfortunately, there may be unintended effects on productivity, accuracy and cognitive functions. 

Many studies have been conducted to review the use of treadmill desks or workstations and the practice has received mixed results.  In 2011, a Mayo Clinic study analyzed the productivity of eleven transcriptionists using a treadmill desk. The results found that while walking, as compared to sitting, accuracy was not affected and the transcriptions expended 100 calories more, but typing speed was slowed by 16%.  Additionally, a 2009 study from the University of Tennessee, with 20 participants, found that treadmill walking resulted in an up to “11% deterioration in fine motor skills like mouse clicking, and dragging and dropping, as well as in cognitive functions like math-problem solving.” 

It’s important for organizations to consider the potential business impacts – both positive and negative - as they take steps to implement physical activity initiatives, including treadmill desks, in the workplace.  In addition to the productivity, accuracy and quality issues, employers should also reflect on the following:

  • Should we require that the employee obtains a physical prior to allowing them to use the treadmill desk?
  • Should we limit the amount of time that the employee uses the treadmill desk?
  • Should we have the employee sign a waiver stating that they understand the risks of utilizing a treadmill desk?

The answer should be “YES” to all!  While these questions are specific to the use of treadmill desks, they are relevant to any employer-sponsored or promoted activities in the workplace. 

RCM&D’s risk control team works closely with our wellness staff to plan, implement and manage healthy workplace initiatives.  If your organization is considering implementing options such as treadmill workstations or you want to learn more about promoting wellness among your employees, please contact me. 

Additional links:

CDC: Workplace Health PromotionCognitive Function During Low Intensity Walking: A Test of the Treadmill Workstation (Exercise Science and Sport Studies, Rutgers University)

The Energy Expenditure of Using a “Walk-And-Work” Desk for Office Workers with Obesity (British Journal of Medicine)

Stacey L. Markel, CHSP, CHCM, HEM

smarkel@rcmd.com

410-905-1993

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