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Treadmill Desks Aren’t Just Healthier, They’ll Also Boost Your Work Performance

Actual walking outside helps, too. If you can be away from your screen for that long.

[Top photo: © ROBERT GALBRAITH/Reuters/Corbis]

Since sitting all day is slowly killing us, office workers are now turning to standing desks. But why just stand when you can walk, ask proponents of the even more ridiculous treadmill desks? Walking while at work is even healthier than standing still. But can you actually work while walking? Or will the office turn into a nice stroll where no work gets done?

A new study finds just the opposite. Treadmill desks actually improve people’s attention to a task and their ability to recall details about the task shortly after.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Last year, we reported on a school in North Carolina whose students learned better when they used bikes instead of desks. And walking is even easier than biking, so there’s that. Anecdotally, writers and editors report that treadmill desks are great for productivity.

Flickr user Juhan Sonin

In the study, researchers in Canada split 18 subjects into two groups, one that used a treadmill desk at an "optimal" walking speed of 1.4 miles per hour and another group that sat in front of a computer at a regular desk. Both groups were given 40 minutes to read a document and emails (some relevant and others not) that popped up periodically. The subjects were told to pretend they’d have to report to their boss afterward on what they read and use their time accordingly.

The results, reported in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, showed that treadmill desks improved attention and short-term recall. The walking subjects performed 35% better on a true/false quiz given 10 minutes afterwards and also reported that they felt they’d paid better attention than the sitting subjects. Lastly, an EEG showed more brain activity associated with memory and attention in the walking subjects, at least for part of the time—though the researchers couldn’t explain why these parts of the brain would be affected by walking.

"These findings are important, as most users of a treadmill desk will not spend their entire workday walking," write the researchers. They say it’ll be important to figure out which tasks are best performed on a treadmill or other "active workstations" (hamster wheel anyone?) and which might not be as ideal.

Workers might also want to consider good old-fashioned walking. It seemed to work for Olle Balter, a lecturer at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Last spring, he gave a course in media technology as a "walking seminar" rather than a traditional classroom experience. As they strolled through a wooded park near the Stockholm campus during class, discussions became freer—especially for students who didn’t easily speak up in a regular classroom. Twenty one out of 23 students surveyed after the workshops liked it better than sedentary seminars.

It’s safe to say people who regularly attend boring office meetings might think the same.