University of Utah scientist turning work into a walk

Published: Monday, Jan. 11 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

After a busy day of e-mails and phone calls, typing and research, Dr. Elizabeth Joy doesn't even notice that she's walked five miles. In fact, by the end of a typical work week, she will have walked 25 miles without ever leaving her desk.

How does she do it?

Her desk doubles as a treadmill.

"It's a great way to help people keep their New Year's resolutions," Joy says. The University of Utah medical scientist and director of the Utah Health Research Network thinks the relatively new invention, called a TrekDesk, is a great way to stay in shape, but she also thinks it could spur a culture change — morphing traditional sedentary workplaces into more physically active environments.

The idea is taking off slowly in offices nationwide. Mutual of Omaha, and other Fortune 500 companies, have recently installed banks of TrekDesks, which retrofits any treadmill into basic office furniture, at several of their locations. Other employers have built indoor walking tracks for employees to use during meetings involving two people.

"With rising obesity rates and skyrocketing health care costs, it is time to realize that the sedentary design of the workplace must be changed," said Steve Bordley, CEO of TrekDesk. He says employers using the product will see a boost in productivity and a decrease in sick days and health care costs.

"It would be nice if all those treadmills that are in basements collecting dust bunnies and holding laundry could become functional pieces of office equipment, that in turn provide a healthy trade-off," Joy said.

Joy and Dr. Erica Bisson, of the U.'s department of neurosurgery, hope to gain approval for a research project involving the contraption, which would essentially run MRIs on people after having walked on the treadmill at work for three hours versus sitting at their desks for three hours, to measure spine compression. It is unknown whether they will secure funding, but Joy believes there is a myriad of conclusions that could be drawn from such research.

"We evolved as a species to be upright," she said, adding that movement actually lubricates the joints in our bodies and sitting leads to increased disc compression. More than half of all adults in America experience lower-back pain, sometimes debilitating.

Eventually, she'd like to lead studies involving people with metabolic syndrome — a combination of health factors that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease — saying daily activity can lead to several benefits.

"Even small amounts of physical activity and small amounts of weight loss end up having a big effect in the long run," Joy said.

Joy, who has presented numerous lectures on the nearly nonexistent health benefits of using various exercise tools in the office, such as dumbbells and sitting on a ball, said she sees "absolutely no downside" to the TrekDesk. At $450, the desk can be fit to any treadmill, which Joy purchased locally for $650.

She has been trekking away at 1.2 mph since October and says she'll never go back to sitting behind a desk. "I can't imagine sitting still for that many hours," she said. Not only has her posture improved, but she doesn't experience any upper-back or shoulder pain she used to get sitting at a desk for eight hours or more per day.

"It's like any space you're in, your bathroom or kitchen, you get used to it," she said, with the whir of the treadmill in the background.

When she's out of her office, Joy said, co-workers often bring their own laptop computers to her desk to take advantage of the opportunity to walk and work.

"It's easy and it's fun and it makes going to work more energizing and more efficient," she said. "It can definitely make a difference in changing lives on individuals and in populations."

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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