By ERIC V. COPAGE Published: December 3, 2011
EVERY day, millions of American workers do something dangerous to their health: they sit down.
Sitting for long periods is hard on the body. It strains the back and causes the muscles to become slack. It slows the processes that metabolize calories, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
People might think they are protecting themselves from such problems if they exercise outside of working hours. And employers may pat themselves on the back if they offer their workers subsidized gym memberships. But regular exercise doesn’t entirely make up for the shutdown of chemical processes that occurs during long periods of sitting, research has shown.
There is a solution to the evils of sitting: make it a point to get up and move throughout the workday. Workers can take this insight to heart by sitting on an exercise ball or standing while working, by using the stairs instead of the elevator, or even by walking over to a co-worker’s desk instead of sending an instant message. Every little bit helps.
Now some employers are going a step further, by aligning the “move while you work” mandate with the corporate culture. They hope to improve their employees’ health and to lower medical costs in the process.
Salo, a financial staffing firm in Minneapolis, for example, encourages walking meetings. In a conference room, Salo has set up four treadmill desks, where a height-adjustable working surface is placed above the treadmill track. The desks face one another, so that people can walk and take care of business at the same time.
“It took a bit of adjustment,” said Craig Dexheimer, Salo’s director of operations and administration. “It’s normal to walk and talk at the gym, but in an office setting it was a bit strange at first.” In a separate room, Salo has set up six treadmill desks, complete with computers. Employees are free to use them for a session of walking and working. They can also take Ping-Pong breaks on a table set up in the office.
In 2007, Mr. Dexheimer helped organize a study headed by Dr. James A. Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, on the effects of increased movement in the workplace.
For six months, the activities of 18 employees — including Mr. Dexheimer — were monitored by a device on their belts. With the help of equipment like the treadmill desks and wireless headsets that permit walking while talking on the phone, the employees collectively lost more than 150 pounds, most of it in body fat. Their cholesterol and triglyceride levels also showed a collective decline. Mr. Dexheimer said he lost 25 pounds, and has kept the weight off.
For some workers, taking short exercise breaks may be practical and still effective. Toni Yancey, a professor in the department of health services at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that while some professionals prefer to exercise while working, other workers do best with “structured group activity breaks,” or what she called a “10-minute recess.”
That’s a strategy used at HealthBridge, a clinic in Great Neck, N.Y., where an employees’ area often resembles a mini-exercise room. During a break, one employee might do bicep curls using water bottles, while another might have her back to the counter where the office copier sits, with her hands placed shoulder-width apart on the countertop, doing triceps dips.
Two years ago, when Dr. David G. Edelson, the clinic’s founder, suggested incorporating light exercise breaks and movement into the workday, the general reaction was: “Are we really going to get up and do these things?” said Jennifer Alexatos, the clinic’s marketing manager. “There was a lot of giggling and laughing.”
But the program has since been embraced by most of the clinic’s 25 employees, said Ms. Alexatos, who takes two 10-minute exercise breaks a day.
AS HealthBridge’s experience has shown, a push from management can help more employees keep active during the workday. That’s why New Balance, the footwear company based in Boston, tried a 30-day pilot program that included the sending of daily e-mail messages to employees with ideas for staying active at work. One suggestion was to do stretches and use resistance bands, even during meetings. The company plans to adopt the program next spring in its Boston and Lawrence, Mass., offices.
“I swapped out my chair for a balance ball,” said Lisa Mahoney, an associate marketing manager at the company. Sitting on the ball, “you’re always moving a little bit when you’re on the phone or typing your e-mail,” she said.
She also gets up more often and takes the stairs rather than the elevator. “You have a burst of energy when you come back to your desk,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 4, 2011, on page BU10 of the New York edition with the headline: Don’t Just Sit There, Work Out At Your Desk.