New Study: Treadmill Desks Boost Productivity
If you use a treadmill desk, will it make you better at your job? Sales of the $4,500 set-ups are on the rise, but until now there has been scant evidence that they increase productivity. Avner Ben-Ner, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, has published a yearlong study in the science and medical journal PLOS ONE, showing that the desks boost job performance. Other studies have already established that they’re good for workers’ long-term health. “We know that being cramped and still isn’t good for anybody,” he says.
That’s also the view of Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix who has been a longtime advocate of the need for office workers to get out of their chairs. Levine approached Ben-Ner to do the productivity study in part because Ben-Ner himself works at a standing desk and when he’s in his home office, punctuates his day with vigorous 10- or 20-minute workouts on a treadmill. A former marathoner, Ben-Ner, 63, says he finds his routine invigorating rather than exhausting.
Through Levine and a colleague, Ben-Ner connected with Educational Credit Management Corporation, a student loan company in a St. Paul suburb that agreed to invite its 400 sedentary workers to participate in the study. The company bought 40 Walkstation treadmill desks from Steelcase, the office furniture supplier, and then asked for volunteers. (Levine collaborated with Steelcase in the past on its Walkstation design; the first desks came out in 2007.)
Forty-three workers (including three alternates) stepped forward and Ben-Nur tracked them for a year, with half the group starting in June 2008 and the rest joining in December. Ben-Ner found that workers’ productivity dropped at first while they got the hang of typing and using a mouse while walking. The treadmill doesn’t move too fast. Its maximum speed is two miles per hour. But it’s still a change from sitting totally still.
Within four to six months, workers had become accustomed to their new routines and the three performance metrics that Ben-Ner measured, quality of work, quantity of work and the quality of exchanges with colleagues, all steadily improved, according to a weekly survey the workers filled out. The surveys measured performance on a 10-point scale. Walkers scored their productivity at the end of the study as increasing by 0.69. Supervisors also filled out weekly surveys that rated both treadmill users and those who sat at traditional desks. By the end of the year, study participants scored a point higher when the treadmill desk was in their office than when it was not
The results are striking because previous studies haven’t shown a productivity boost. A 2009 study showed that treadmill desk users suffered a loss of as much as 10% in the ability to perform fine motor skills like typing and mouse-clicking and they also did worse on solving math problems. Also, though a slew of studies have documented weight loss and other health benefits, accidents can happen. A story last year in The Wall Street Journal reported that Toyota North America had given permission to workers to bring in their own treadmill desks, but employee enthusiasm waned after a woman took a spill. The Journal story also reported on an online forum for desk treadmill workers, some of whom complained of Achilles tendon injuries and electric shocks from the static build-up in the machines, though manufacturers say those problems can be fixed by using a rubber base and building up slowly to full-time walking.
The new study shows that given a few months, workers master the fine motor challenges and perform better than their sedentary colleagues.
As for worker health, using the same data set in the productivity study, Ben-Ner, Levine and five other professors published an April 2013 article in the journal Obesity, showing that study participants lost as much as eight pounds over the course of a year. Ben-Ner points out that weight-bearing and increasing circulation can also prevent osteoporosis, diabetes and vascular disease, with obvious benefits to employers, given how costly those maladies can be to treat. “You can wipe out the cost of the fanciest treadmill in half a year of treatment,” he points out.
What does this research mean for the future of the workplace? Ben-Ner predicts that companies will realize that it’s healthy and productive to keep their workers moving, and may even elect to install moving floors underneath desks, so they don’t have to buy individual treadmills. He also points to a paper by Carlson School of Management colleague Joan Meyers-Levy who found that high ceilings can make workers more creative, and to research showing that exposure to natural light improves workplace performance by enhancing workers’ sleep (those with office windows slept 46 minutes more per night than those who had no windows).
Will we all soon walk through our days on moving floors in high-ceilinged rooms bathed in natural light? “Companies and individuals are shortsighted,” Ben-Ner concedes. “If we can make a buck today, we will give up two bucks next year, whether it makes sense or not.” But in his mind, it makes infinitely more sense to give treadmill desks a try. “The benefits are clear.”