Your Brain on Treadmill Desks

Author: Margo Pierce


At first glance treadmill desks may sound like the sort of weird futuristic absurdist amalgamation designed to turn office workers once-and-for-all into ultra-productive, ignorantly-blissful, utterly-efficient hamsters.

That might not actually be that far from the truth, but it's not necessarily such a bad thing.

Research has already found evidence that walking can boost creative thinking and improve memory. It might even help the brain work better by increasing the functional connectivity among brain areas. It's logical to think that those same cognitive benefits should apply to a treadmill desk user.

The challenge is finding out if reality (and data) follows logic.

Standing deskIkea

The treadmill desk and its effects on thinking, performance and productivity

Most desk research uses productivity as the measuring stick. The theory goes that improved cognitive function aided by walking while working should increase productivity. A 2015 study looked at participants' recall and attention levels during and after working on treadmill desks and found "behavioral, neurophysiological and perceptual evidence" that short-term memory and attention increased during the time immediately after using a treadmill desk.

Some research suggests that the effects of walking all day don't just benefit your boss, your company and (hopefully) your paycheck, but they seem to have a positive impact on your mood and physical health as well. A 2014 study published in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology looked at 180 participants and found those working on walking workstations reported higher satisfaction and arousal, and experienced less boredom and stress compared with their seated peers, suggesting that working while walking might offer psychological benefits to individuals. The results of four studies on treadmill desks, with 167 total participants, also generally suggested no negative effect on learning and reading. A study presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego found that sedentary office workers who switched to a treadmill desk for two hours a day for two months improved their sleep quality. A 2015 review of previous studies found that treadmill desks provided physiological benefits by improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

But not every piece of research is aligned on the positive effects of walking while working. A study published in April in PLOS One, for example, included 75 healthy young participants and randomly assigned them to a seated stationary or a treadmill desk. The participants were asked to complete a series of tests to gauge their mental performance. The results showed the people on treadmill desks actually performed worse on concentration and memory, and even typing, compared with those who had been seated.

However, these differences in mental performance were modest and people still performed in the average ranges—the researchers said. "Those declines may not outweigh the benefit of the physical activity gains from walking on a treadmill," they wrote. There's also a chance that performance might return to normal once users get accustomed to working on treadmill desks.

Real-life enthusiasm

Kristin Horan, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, thinks that treadmill desks might actually have benefits in the long term and be worth the initial inconveniences of expense (desks range in price from $800 to $5,000) and modifying work habits. Previous research findings and the anecdotal experiences of avid users have led her to suspect that walking on a treadmill boosts creative thinking and doesn't detract from productivity.

But there's been a lot of criticism related to existing study designs, from small number of participants to inadequate test duration, and the more general question about just how much of lab results actually translate to real life. So to collect better data, Horan is working on launching a 200-participant study to compare the cognitive performance of people who use a treadmill desk and other types of workstations.

"The research in the lab allows us to examine the benefits of treadmill desks in a more fine-grained way, while field research allows us to examine the benefits on a broad scale," Horan says.

Meanwhile, some people have already made the switch, and they say it's working for them. Katherine Sliter, a consultant and an avid treadmill-desk user working from her home office in Indianapolis is one. A trained industrial-organizational psychologist, Sliter is interested in making sure her work environment helps her do her job in a way that supports her health as much as her work life.

"I've gotten to the point where I can work at 1.5 miles per hour," she says. "The thing I struggled with a little bit initially was fine mousing; if I really needed to get into Excel and drag something I maxed out at 1 mile an hour. Within a couple of weeks I'd gotten very comfortable with it."

On her treadmill desk four to seven hours a day, Sliter lost some extra weight, but it's her improved focus that has her "singing the praises" of her active work station.

"The biggest selling point is not so much the calories and weight loss but it makes you happier, less bored. I'm the type of person who gets distracted very easily," she says. "I'll be typing, writing a paper, do something in Excel. I'm going to check Facebook and I look over there… This actually makes me much more focused. I don't' get that 'I'm bored and I need to do something to occupy my mind.' I get more done on here."

The physical activity also contributes to a sense of well-being, impacting mental health. The physiological impact as a result of stress reduction can give the brain a feel-good boost that can be difficult to measure in a scientific study.

"Having so recently come from a cubicle job, it's night and day how I feel at the end of the day," says Sliter. "I'm feeling more relaxed, feeling happier, feeling like the day hasn't drained me."