Work as workout

Employees try exercises, stretches, custom furniture to get blood moving

April 12, 2006|By ELIZABETH HEUBECK | ELIZABETH HEUBECK,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Brett Martin walks about seven miles during the average workday, which isn't bad for a guy who rarely leaves his office.

From behind his custom-designed vertical desk, which fits snugly atop his treadmill, the 39-year-old president of a background-checking company performs the usual office tasks: checking e-mails, typing on his computer, taking calls.

Simultaneously, he maintains an easy pace of 1.8 miles per hour at a slight incline.

"I was one of those guys who tried to get to the gym two to three times a week but never made it more than once a week," says Martin, of Wilmington, N.C. "I felt guilty that there wasn't enough time in the day to get there."

Many office workers tired of the effects of sedentary jobs are finding ways to incorporate extra movement into their daily work routines - even if they're too busy at work to leave the office. They're getting help from custom-designed furniture, exercises in their office and stretches tailored to the desk-strapped worker.

As a result, some are reporting increased energy, decreased stress and a greater overall sense of well-being.

"The body is designed for movement," says Todd Berntson, a chiropractor and author of Deskercise (Center Path Publishing, 2005).

"When you sit at a desk all day, you're essentially putting your body in a cast. Your muscles become weak and tight," Berntson says.

Long work hours at sedentary jobs interfere with the personal fitness goals of countless adults. Consequently, the majority of adults fall far short of the U.S. Surgeon General's most recent activity guidelines: 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week.

To time-pressed employees, these guidelines might seem rigid, if not impossible. But, experts say, you don't have to spend 30 minutes a day sweating and panting at a gym. While workplace experts recommend taking a break from the work environment to stay fresh, most fitness experts say any kind of exercise is better than nothing.

"Recent research demonstrates that incorporating 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week - even in incremental amounts and not necessarily structured - can result in some benefits to blood pressure, cholesterol and overall health," says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.

Martin's personally designed treadmill work station might seem like an extreme example of combining fitness and work, but he's not the only one to try it.

Dr. James Levine, an obesity researcher with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., concocted his own treadmill workstation in 2005. Then he urged a handful of other Mayo employees to follow suit by walking on a treadmill while standing at their desks.

Over a year later, they continue to walk while they work. To date, no company has offered to mass-produce Levine's treadmill work station design, despite what Mayo Clinic spokesman Robert Nellis calls a "phenomenal" response to the concept.

"We continue to get a half-dozen inquiries a week," he says. Most come from individual business people interested in buying a treadmill workstation for themselves, Nellis says. The cost: $1,100.

Although Martin calls the switch from a traditional desk to a treadmill work station "dramatic," he adjusted to it quickly. He typically stops stepping when he needs to write by hand or conduct a meeting with clients and co-workers.

"After three days, I forgot my treadmill was beneath me," Martin says.

Other workers have chosen vertical work stations to remain nimble. These desks enable workers to stand at their desks.

Lawyer G. Stewart Webb Jr., a partner at Baltimore's Venable LLP, counts himself a satisfied customer. He writes and reads lengthy documents while standing. Also, he habitually paces back and forth in his office while on the telephone, thanks to an extra-long cord. "If in the afternoon I'm working at my desk and find I'm fading a little bit, I switch to my vertical desk. It gives me a little bit of a pickup," Webb says. "I think better on my feet."

Standing at your desk isn't just about changing positions, experts say. "Your circulation increases. You burn more calories throughout the day," notes Jim Gattuso, owner of Akron, Ohio-based Amish Country Furniture Sales, which sells custom-designed office furniture such as the stand-up desk owned by Webb. According to Mayo Clinic researchers, employees who stand at their desks burn 10 calories per hour more than their seated co-workers do.

Although vertical desks remain part of a niche market, they're catching on, experts say. Costs vary but can reach as high as a few thousand dollars. Martin's treadmill and desk, for example, cost $2,500.

"People are getting tired of sitting. The solution is to get off your rear end," Gattuso says. His company's expanding list of vertical work station purchasers includes the Pentagon, the White House and the Internal Revenue Service.

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