Getting Fit at the Desk: Health Implications for Work Practices

With a large percentage of us working full-time, it seems remarkably difficult to envision ourselves fitting in 150 minutes of physical exercise per week as recommended by the Chief Medical Office (CMO). Researchers from Indiana University in the States, however, have recently published promising new findings that attempt to resolve this issue. Soon, after leaving the office at 4.30pm on Friday afternoon after a notoriously busy week, will our guilty consciences be cleaner? Kenny Brackstone at EDGE HQ reports.

First, it is notable that obesity rates in the UK are among the highest in Europe. According to the Health Survey for England (HSE), 61.7% of adults (16 years and over) are classified as overweight or obese. This problem is not exclusive to the UK; the World Health Organisation considers obesity to be a global concern, with 500 million adults over the age of 20 being categorised as obese (World Health Organization, n.d.). Despite the efforts of organisations to enact policies that emphasise healthy work environments, one major problem is that employees tend to be almost entirely desk bound. Many employees are immobile at their workstations 5 days a week, and very few calories are burned off throughout the day (Thompson, Foster, Eide, & Levine, 2008). With this in mind, organizations are beginning to endorse policies that emphasize healthy working environments. One exciting possibility for increasing employee physical activity is the “active workstation.”

Put quite simply, the active workstation allows employees to work at their desk whilst being active - normally either by walking or cycling. The general idea of the active workstation is to increase the amount of physical activity that a person does throughout the day and decrease the amount of sedentary activities while at work. And unlike other exercise interventions put in place by organizations, it does not even require individuals to leave their desks (well, apart from to make coffee or use the toilet, of course).

The studies that have been published so far are generally positive regarding the effects of active workstations and health. For example, employees who were equipped with walking workstations took on average of 2000 more steps per day, equivalent to 100 calories (Thompson, 2008). Further, workers who were equipped with pedalling workstations tended to use these around 60% of working days, pedalling on average about 25 minutes per workday used (Carr, Walaska, & Marcus, 2002). Overall, the research indicates that active workstations increase daily activity, and that employees are more than willing to use them – at least, in the short term.

In a more recent study, researchers from Indiana University set out to learn more about what active workstations do for people psychologically. In the study, 180 students were randomly assigned to one of four conditions: (1) seated, (2) standing, (3) cycling, and (4) walking. Participants spent 35 minutes completing computer tasks in their assigned condition. These consisted of web-based search tasks requiring participants to type out written responses. Upon completion of the tasks, participants completed post-study survey measures of mood and attitudes. The researchers expected that the use of active workstations would result in higher levels of psychological arousal (i.e., feelings of activation and reactivity), reduced feelings of boredom, and lower levels of self-reported task stress (and increased satisfaction). They also assessed performance levels of the designated task.

Their results demonstrated general support for the benefits of walking workstations, whereby participants reported higher satisfaction and arousal, and less boredom and task-related stress compared to the passive conditions (i.e., seated and standing). Most importantly, they found that participants in the walking workstation did not make any more errors than those in the passive conditions. Overall, it seemed that the walking workstation did not decrease task performance. Cycling workstations, however, was related to reduced satisfaction and task performance when compared to the other conditions. The researchers suggested that this may have been due to the fact that arms often have trouble remaining independent during leg-cycling movement (e.g., Balter & Zehr, 2007). This may have contributed to the participants’ commonly reported feelings of awkwardness whilst trying to complete the tasks.

The study suggests that the active workstation – particularly walking workstations – holds benefits that go way beyond physical health. Rather, they also have short-term psychological benefits, and task-performance tends to be unaffected. The researchers dictated that walking workstations could be incorporated into organizations as a worker health intervention. However, they suggested that rather than providing a walking station for every employee, a “sharing” program might be a more efficient and cost-effective option, in which several community workstations are available for use and employees take it in turns to complete tasks throughout the day.

Personally, I wouldn't mind a walking workstation located in the corner of my office if it meant that I was able to burn off those four sneaky biscuits that I had with my tea at lunchtime… so I would be keen to find out if active workstations contain long-term benefits. What are your thoughts on active workstations? Send us your thoughts at @EDGEClinical

By Dr. Kenny Brackstone

Sliter, M., & Yuan, Z. Workout at work: Laboratory test of psychological and performance outcomes of active workstations. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20, 259-271.