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Developing a viable cure for office worker obesity

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May 21, 2007

Dr. James Levine on his Walk-At-Work treadmill

Dr. James Levine on his Walk-At-Work treadmill

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May 22, 2007 Sitting still at a desk all day - like you're probably doing right now - is making the average office worker fatter and less healthy than we've ever been before. Gym workouts and regular exercise are not the key to breaking out of this cycle - a new study suggests that it's the sitting down that's killing us, and that a simple change to spending 2-3 hours a day gently walking at around 1mph while we work could help obese office workers lose up to 30kg a year. Dr. James Levine devised the walk-at-work treadmill to test the effectiveness of getting office workers off their butts - with fantastic results.

Sometime in the last 50 years, sitting at a desk all day became the norm for the average worker in developed countries. For the first time in human history, a huge percentage of us are sitting completely still for up to 8 hours of each day - as we've "advanced," we've downgraded to a sedentary lifestyle that our bodies are finding it very difficult to cope with.

It is no coincidence that obesity rates have skyrocketed over the same period - with a larger and richer food intake than previous generations, and exceptionally low activity rates through the day, the input/output ratio is higher than it's ever been, and our waistlines and overall health are paying the price.

The gym's not the answer While planned exercise is extremely valuable and has its place, many people find it difficult to prioritise over work, family and social commitments. Furthermore, planned hard exercise doesn't seem to be the biggest factor separating lean individuals from obese ones - studies have shown that obese individuals spend an average of 2 and a half hours more time sitting down per day than lean individuals.

Dr. James Levine from the Mayo Clinic found this to be an intriguing figure - as it suggests that if some measure of light exercise could be conveniently incorporated for a few hours into an office worker's daily routine, the intake to output ratio could be reversed. A couple of hours of light walking a day, not even enough to break a sweat, would reap enormous weight loss and associated health benefits.

Burning calories without exercising Dr. Levine calls it "non-exercise activity thermogenesis" - or NEAT - the burning of calories through the day not associated with strenuous exercise. And he's just finished running a fascinating study to demonstrate how higher levels of NEAT could realistically be incorporated into the average sedentary office lifestyle.

Typically, office workers wanting to drop a few pounds might take the stairs instead of the elevator, or go for a lunchtime jog. However these activities offer only short bursts of exercise - and they tend to leave unfit workers sweaty and uncomfortable in their office clothing, which does nothing to encourage people to do more.

Levine specifically wanted to gently boost the level of activity for several hours a day in the least intrusive way he could - something that wouldn't interrupt a worker's productivity, get them all sweaty, or leave them too out-of-breath to talk on the phone.

The Walk At Work treadmill His solution was the walk-at-work desk, a simple tripod that elevates an office PC workstation and allows it to be placed over a treadmill, where the worker can maintain a very relaxed pace of 1-3mph over the course of a couple of hours. Full and uninterrupted use of the normal working environment, but with the benefit of NEAT.

Dr. Levine measured the energy expenditure of obese office-working volunteers in a trial study. Mean energy expenditure whilst seated at work in an office chair was 72 + 10 kcal/hour whereas the energy expenditure whilst walking-and-working at a self-selected velocity of 1.1 + 0.4 mph, was 191 + 29 kcal/hour. The mean increase in energy expenditure for walking-and-working over sitting was 119 + 25 kcal/hour.

Small effort, big weight loss The implications are clear - as Levine concludes, "if obese individuals were to replace sitting computer time with walking computer time, by two-three hours per day and if other components of energy balance were constant, weight loss of 20-30 kg/year could occur."

20-30 kg, or 44-66 pounds of weight loss in a year, without setting foot in a gym or even breaking a sweat. That's an amazing turnaround for very little effort and an ostensibly small change in lifestyle that needn't interfere with a worker's normal productivity. Levine found that it took only 2 or 3 minutes for subjects to adjust to walking at around 1mph while they worked, and although no productivity measures were taken, the subjects did not report being actively distracted by the fact that they were exercising.

Dr. Levine's own active office Dr. Levine practices what he preaches - his research clinic at the acclaimed Mayo Clinic has been entirely converted into a stand-up and walk office to incorporate as much light activity as possible into his team's daily routine. The Walk-At-Work workstations have cost him around $1000, or roughly half of what a normal cubicle costs, and he's in contact with manufacturers who could help bring the cost down well below that figure, making it an affordable office addition.

Levine has become almost addicted to the new workplace, and now views sitting down as a missed opportunity to burn more calories. Interestingly, this was a common theme among his research subjects, who all expressed that they'd love the chance to use the walk-at-work equipment beyond the end of the trials - supporting Levine's theory that non-exercise activity is far more manageable to obese office workers than heavy or gym exercise, and thus probably much more effective.

Big benefits to workers AND employers This research points to great benefits - not only for sedentary office workers, but for the companies that employ them. Implementing a few of these walk-at-work workstations and allowing staff to rotate and spend a few hours a day on them should reap all the benefits of a healthier and fitter workforce - lower absentee rates, better general concentration and higher productivity - not to mention the possible staff retention increases of a happier workforce.

It's the first study we've seen that tests a realistic and minimally-intrusive means of reversing the trend towards more and more seat time in the office. And while Levine is planning further testing for the Walk-At-Work station, including long-term weight loss studies and productivity studies to reassure business owners, the initial results are very encouraging.

Clearly something needs to be done to halt the downward trend in daily activity - perhaps the Walk-At-Work treadmill can be the first step toward a healthier and more energetic office lifestyle, and a way back up out of the sedentary slump office workers are suffering from across the developed world.

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz loves motorcycles - at the age of two, he told his mother "don't want brother, want mogabike." It was the biker connection that first brought Loz to Gizmag, but since then he's covered everything from alternative energy and weapons to medicine, marital aids - and of course, motorcycles. Loz also produces a number of video pieces for Gizmag, including his beloved bike reviews. He frequently disappears for weeks at a time to go touring with his vocal band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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