Active desks – a step too far?

LakeDistrictViewApple crumble & custard. Morecambe & Wise. Long walks & the Lake District. Some combinations just work well together.

Other pairings may be worthy individually but less so when united. I would put driving & texting, Rachel & Joey, walking & typing, and cycling & mousing into the latter category.

Treadmill DeskRecent discussions and headline-grabbing stories about the adverse effects of long-term sitting have brought “active desks” back into the limelight. (Active desks provide the user with facilities to walk, cycle or even use a recumbent elliptical trainer when working at an appropriate height desk). I first saw these at an exhibition in the US several years ago and, despite the plausible sales pitch, I was sceptical from the outset.

My issue with these products is that, like physio balls and kneeling chairs before them, their application in the workplace can be misunderstood and, as a result, misapplied.

Walking and other forms of exercise are obviously “a good thing” but how can you combine this effectively with computer work (which is what the majority of us do at our desk most of the time)?

Passive audio/video activities (webinars, podcasts) are viable with an active workstation – after all, we can watch TV whilst exercising  in the gym. By contrast, typing and mousing require a level of accuracy best accomplished when the upper body is stationary. Productivity will therefore decline significantly. For example, users report dramatic increases in typing errors.

Like physio balls, which are highly effective in their proper context (to strengthen core stability muscles through a proper exercise programme), use in the workplace can be counter-productive or even injury-inducing.

In my view, traditional sit-stand workstations, in combination with other exercise methods, are a better solution (and not just because we sell them!). Not only are they cheaper, they also give the user the opportunity to enjoy a mix of sitting and standing activities throughout the day.  This should always be combined with training and education about other simple activities like stretching breaks, walking meetings, using the stairs, parking at the opposite end of the car park and the many other ways that individuals can improve their health and their productivity without any cost to themselves or their employer.

Car ParkPerhaps my subject should be “Active desks – What’s the point?”

I hope I can look forward to some heated debate about this topic – either online or in person!

4 Responses to Active desks – a step too far?

  1. David says:

    I was skeptical as well, but I have built one desk myself and as a secondary workstation it is great. I don’t see any danger – the walking speed is slow and you cant hurt yourself. So far I have noticed one trick you need to make – the treadmill needs to be tilted slightly towards the desk, so it makes you walk sort of like down and forward to the desk – this gives a lot more stability. Speed is around 2.5km/h .

    At first I used it only for some administrative tasks – sorting e-mails, files and reading news, but I tried to make a brochure in Photoshop/Indesign and I had no problems doing this. I walked a little less than 2km and finished the task with no problems.

    So I would say – try it. Buy a used treadmill and put it under your desk. After the first few tries I am sure you will find something in this concept.

    • Guy Osmond says:

      I think the most important observation here is that it is your secondary workstation. Not everyone can have this luxury! Using only a dedicated active workstation as your sole desk is too limiting.

      • David says:

        I agree. For the moment I had to make a secondary one since my primary desk is not able to go up as high as needed. The treadmill takes around 80mm of height away. I will upgrade to a bigger stroke/max height desk frame and then have the treadmill on one side, but my chair to the right and see how that goes. I think that walking around 1-1.5 hours a day would be a nice goal and make some difference. Of course doing exercise as you say could be a good alternative, but usually I find an excuse not to do one while the Treadmill just forces me to walk.

        P.s For the excuse part for exercise there is an interesting app – . However for the moment I have chosen the active desk concept.

  2. Christy says:

    I think these active desks I’ve seen are dangerous. I don’t see problems with having a traditional ergonomic workstation and just taking breaks to exercise a bit.

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