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Standup desk that fits over treadmill lets workers walk while they work

TORONTO (CP) - There's no doubt that sitting on one's butt all day at a desk or in front of a computer is hardly conducive to weight loss. But what if employees could exercise while they work?
That's the aim of a specially designed vertical workstation that can be locked in place over a treadmill, allowing employees to work at a computer while simultaneously walking on the spot at a speed of their own choosing.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic who designed the standup "walk-and-work" desk suggest it could help overweight workers shed pounds as they perform what are traditionally sit-down tasks. "This so obviously pertains to the obesity epidemic and the hundreds of billions of dollars of cost associated with it," principal researcher Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, said Monday from Rochester, Minn. "However, you can't become obese without becoming overweight," he said. "Secondly, it's now normal to be overweight, therefore this is already . . . an issue germane to more than half of the workforce."

In a small study, published online Monday ahead of print in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers had 15 obese volunteers use the treadmill-cum-desk and measured how many calories they burned compared to sitting at a conventional desk. All of the participants had sedentary jobs and none did regular exercise.

The scientists measured the energy expended by the 14 women and one man with an average body mass index of 32 (a BMI of 25-plus is considered overweight) while they worked and walked for 35 minutes out of an hour, compared to the number of calories used as they worked seated at a normal desk.

In all, they walked the desk treadmill for about 90 minutes over the course of a day, said Levine, noting that there were no injuries, falls or unsteadiness while using the device. Participants burned an average of 191 kilocalories an hour while at the vertical workstation, walking the equivalent of 1.6 kilometres an hour, compared to 72 kilocalories per hour while working sitting down.

Levine said that by using the vertical workstation a couple of hours per day - and boosting energy expenditure by 100 kilocalories an hour - an obese employee could shed 45 to 65 pounds over the course of a year. This 2006 study did not measure weight loss, just the calories burned, said Levine, who spoke while walking the treadmill-desk in his chairless office.

"Our current studies are much more involved in the former, namely losing weight," he said of new research for which official results have not been compiled. "Suffice it to say it's a very powerful way, it would seem, to potentially lose weight."

Commenting on the study, obesity expert Dr. Arya Sharma of McMaster University said the vertical workstation is an appealing idea for incorporating physical activity into the workplace.

"I would love to have a desk like that," Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network, said Monday from Hamilton. But he cautioned that the study results shouldn't be misinterpreted. Because exercise increases appetite, employees using the device would have to guard against eating more, "which would bring them back to zero," Sharma said. As well, a person would not keep on losing weight at the same rate by keeping to the same level of exercise, he said.

"For the first 10 pounds, you might have to do two miles (3.2 kilometres) a day, and once you've lost 15 pounds you might have to do three miles (five kilometres) a day . . . etcetera, because your body as it gets lighter uses less energy (calories)."
"If you think this is the solution to make all fat employees thin, you're wrong," Sharma said.

Shrawan Kumar, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Alberta, said what the study cannot show is the long-term effects of the walking-and-working desk on the spine, shoulders and ankles, especially among obese people. "We don't know what happens to the rest of the body and what posture a person uses in doing their work, so what will be the consequences of posture on long-term use?" Kumar said from Edmonton. "The other thing is also I don't know what it would do to the work efficiency and how does that affect the concentration and the quality of work and the quantity of work?" "For this study it is not assessible," he said, adding that longer-term research is needed.

The vertical workstation, designed by Levine and his team, costs about US$1,600 and will be available for purchase through office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. Levine, who receives no financial benefits from the design, said lean people would also likely be helped by the vertical workstation, "not in caloric burning but in terms of enjoyment, pleasure and stress reduction." "People love it," he said.
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