AMHERST, Mass. — Could the office of the future look more like a fitness center and less like, well, an office? In a pilot study conducted by University of Massachusetts Amherst kinesiologists, a contraption known as the pedal desk — a desk outfitted with workout attachments meant for light activity during the day — was found to mitigate some of the deadly side effects of sitting all day.

Pedal desk
A recent pilot study by kinesiologists at UMass Amherst found that pedaling at a self-selected light-intensity pace while at work improved insulin responses to a test meal. (Photo credit: UMass Amherst/Catrine Tudor-Locke)

Work environments where employees are mostly glued to their seats are associated with higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease due to insulin resistance and other issues. With more and more companies pushing employee health and well-being as a top priority, the authors believe pedal desks “could have the potential to achieve public and occupational health goals in sedentary work environments.”

The researchers recruited 12 obese or overweight sedentary office workers, six men and six women, to participate in the study. They were split into groups and given computer-based tasks that allowed the researchers to measure their mouse proficiency and typing skills, as well as their concentration and reading comprehension skills. One group worked while pedaling at self-selected, light paces for two hours, while the other worked at normal desks.

Participants were also given a meal and then provided blood samples.

The study showed that pedaling and performing other small physical tasks at the pedal desk improved insulin responses after eating. Insulin levels after the meal were lower when sedentary workers used the pedal desk when compared to those using a standard desk.

“It took much less insulin to keep their blood sugars the same. This means that the body doesn’t work so hard to maintain blood glucose and fatty acid levels with use of the pedal desk compared to a standard desk. From the metabolic point of view, the pedal desk seems to be helpful and from the work point of view, work tasks were not impaired,” notes Dr. Stuart Chipkin, an endocrinologist at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, in a release. “While there were no changes in blood glucose or free fatty acids, none would be expected in a group of subjects without diabetes.”

What’s more, when testing for work abilities, employees’ work habits or productivity weren’t hampered by the desk.

Chipkin and the research team believe the pedal desk may be a better alternative to standing desks and treadmill desks, which could be more problematic. It may not be possible for an employee to comfortably stand for a full shift, and standing for too long could cause extra strain for some people.

A prototype Pennington Pedal Desk, co-invented by UMass Amherst kinesiology researcher Catrine Tudor-Locke, a co-author who did not determine study design or have any contact with participants or study data, was used for the research. While there are no commercial pedal desks on the market just yet, the study could help make them more commonplace.

The study, conducted with a grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, was published in the October 2018 edition of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

About Ben Renner

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