Sorry, can’t talk– I’m at my desk and out of breath
Moving while you’re working can help you to avoid obesity and heart disease, says Peta Bee. But is a desk treadmill the answer? Two writers put it to the test
I f you are reading this in the parked position, then you’d be advised to stand up. Failing that you should fidget. Move something, even if it is just a tap of your feet or a drumming of your fingers. A recent survey by UK slimming company WeightWatchers found that most Britons now spend more than 20 hours a day sitting or lying down; Swedish scientists reporting in the British
Journal of SportsMedicine, meanwhile, suggested that prolonged sitting should carry a public health warning. And in the UAE, it’s been reported that only 4 per cent of residents walk on a weekly basis, according to a study by international shoemaker RYN.
Our lack of movement is being blamed for raising the risk of high blood pressure, causing a sluggish metabolism and, inevitably, weight gain. Yet how do we change when our lifestyles demand we sit for much of the day?
It’s something scientists have been puzzling over for the past decade in studies looking at how the desk-bound and car-bound can squeeze activity into their time-crunched lives. What’s crucial, they’ve found, is Neat (or, non- exercise activity thermogenesis) – the kind of incidental everyday movements such as walking, fidgeting and even shivering that burn calories and keep fuels flushing through our system.
At the forefront of such research is Jim Levine, a British obesity expert who is now professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in the US. In 2005 he led a groundbreaking study that showed that lean people burn about 350 extra calories a day – through involuntary movements such as pacing around the office or walking to the photocopier – which could add up to a weight loss of 16kg every year.
It prompted Levine to devise the Walkstation, a treadmill desk that encourages sedentary office workers to incorporate movement into their day by walking as they work. Even though the machine operates at a snail’s pace of around 3kph, it is enough, he says, to make a difference. Levine is also behind “fidget pants” – underwear fitted with multiple sensors and accelerometers designed to detect, and to store on a microprocessor, every movement made by the wearer.
Levine found that obese people tend to be much less fidgety than lean people and spend at least two hours more each day just sitting still. Fidget more and the daily extra movement is roughly equivalent to a gym class, says Levine.
He adds that the most mundane movements can make a difference: “Our studies show that the calories that people burn in their everyday activities – their Neat – are far, far more important in obesity than we previously imagined.”
He and his team have totted up the amount of energy we burn doing small tasks. Washing up by hand instead of using a dishwasher, for instance, burned 26 more calories. In total, the extra energy from small tasks added up to 108 calories a day. It doesn’t sound much, but over a year it equates to 39,420 calories. Since 3,500 calories is equal to around 0.45g (1 pound) of fat, burning 108 calories a day means you offset almost 5kg of weight gain a year.
“What all the studies show is that we need to move more,” says Michael Mosley in his book Fast Exercise. “If you spend most of your working day sitting down, just find an excuse to get up and move every 30 minutes.” Turn over to find out what two British journalists thought of the Lifespan treadmill desk.