Sitting at a desk all day has negative health consequences for workers -- even if they exercise regularly. What can employers do to help?
In the beginning, Rob Marsh's co-workers must have thought he was nuts. In fact, a few actually told him so.
Each day, they watched the commercial real-estate broker go about his business, talking on the phone and typing e-mail -- just like any other worker -- but they still gazed at him in wonder.
Why doesn't he wear exercise clothes?
How can he still type accurately?
Doesn't he get tired?
Marsh works at a TrekDesk, a treadmill that allows him to walk slowly while working at a raised desktop containing a keyboard, monitor, phone, calendar and anything else he needs during the day.
Everyone else sits while they work, but Marsh walks.
He's not necessarily trying to break a sweat or get exercise at the office; he just doesn't want to sit down at a desk all day -- something he did for a career of more than 25 years. The movement makes him feel energized and focused, especially since he doesn't walk fast enough to get tired or allow his work to be disrupted.
"The first day it was kind of wacky ... even I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what did I do?' " says Marsh, senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis Labor Analytics Group in Phoenix. "However, the second day I got on it, I started to get into a rhythm. Having [used it] for some time now, I really have no desire to work any differently. I much prefer working this way than being stationary."
He bought the TrekDesk, sold by TrekDesk.com in Phoenix, with his own money after years of suffering from back problems that were aggravated, he believes, by sitting down for long hours every day. (Similar devices include the Walkstation, from Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Mich.; and TreadDesk from TreadDesk Inc. in Fishers, Ind.)
"The company has encouraged us to be active, to be responsible for our health, and I wholeheartedly believe in that," says Marsh, adding that his back pain has eased since he began walking while he works. "I feel better when I'm moving -- it doesn't disrupt my work at all. In fact, it probably enhances it. I'm more focused."
People like Marsh want an alternative to the typical sedentary workday. All across the country, people sit at their desks for eight hours or more, and for many, the only movement they get is a short walk to the bathroom or to get lunch. And even if they exercise after they get home from work, it still may not compensate for the ill effects of remaining chair-bound for most of the day.
Sitting a lot increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, certain cancers and early death -- even if you exercise regularly (defined in this study as someone who met the American Heart Association's requirement of a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days per week or 20 minutes of rigorous activity three days per week).
That's according to a May 2009 article by researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., and the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute in Ottawa, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
The study analyzed 13 years' worth of data, finding that 19 percent of those who sit "almost all the time" died during that period -- compared with 14 percent who sit "three-fourths of the time," 12 percent who sit "half the time," 9 percent who sit "one fourth of the time" and 7 percent who sit "none of the time." The average age of the participants in each group was in the low to mid-40s.
Meanwhile, obesity rates continue to be high. About one in three Americans (34 percent) are obese, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January.
In response, some employers are doing all they can to ensure that employees aren't stationary for hours on end.
While some organizations offer treadmill workstations such as the TrekDesk, others have designed their offices to encourage greater movement by employees, by locating parking lots a distance away from the entrance or creating wide, inviting stairwells to entice people to bypass the elevators and walk up the steps.
A few companies promote "walking meetings" or other outdoor activities. While some companies may be reluctant to create such programs out of concern that they might impede productivity or lead to workers' compensation claims, company leaders who've instituted such programs say they led to a more productive, happier and healthier workforce -- and have reduced healthcare costs.
Could the Move Movement be the wave of the future?
Take it Outside
At an office building nestled in front of a state park in Reston, Va., it's common to see groups of employees taking a walking meeting, working on laptops outside or hitting the expansive walking and biking trails in the woods behind the building. It's just another day at the National Wildlife Federation, a workplace that integrates movement into its corporate culture.
In early March, on one of the first warm days of the year, the company organized a lunchtime nature walk open to any of the company's 220 employees.
"We have folks who led the nature hike who would point out wildlife and plants," says Maria Litman, director of human resources.
The NWF also has plenty of bikes that employees can use at their leisure and provides locker rooms with showers that are cleaned and maintained regularly.
(The NWF's mission is to encourage Americans to get outdoors, so it's only natural that it does the same with its employees.)
Although strongly encouraged, any movement activities are voluntary, says Litman. For example, if someone doesn't want to attend a walking meeting, they are allowed to decline without repercussion.
The movement culture has made for happier workers and is helping to keep healthcare costs low, says Patsy Cornwell, senior director of employee benefits, who notes that the organization hasn't experienced a premium increase for several years.
"Our employee costs are about at the rate our competitors were paying 15 years ago," she says.
Over the last 18 years, employee premiums haven't increased by more than 8 percent, she says, and the NWF has been able to keep costs 4 percent to 6 percent below medical inflation. Cornwell attributes that, at least in part, to the organization's culture of movement and exercise.
"We're an active, outdoorsy employer and we have a lot of employees who utilize the in-house fitness center, the bicycles and our trails," she says.
Legalities of Lifestyle Change
Even if they may personally believe in the benefits of a movement program at work, company leaders may be reluctant to institute one because of the threat of injury to an employee, which could lead to workers' compensation claims, lawsuits and lost work time, says Shaffin Datoo, an employment lawyer in the New York office of Venable.
Also, if the employer sets up an expectation that the workers will participate in a movement program -- whether that's walking a longer distance from their cars to their workspace, taking the stairs or using a walking trail -- or punishes someone for not participating, the company could face some legal ramifications if someone gets hurt or feels discriminated against because they can't participate, says Datoo.
To avoid such a situation, companies need to stipulate that participation in a movement program is voluntary, he says.
Legal worries aside, there are numerous large employers incorporating movement into their workdays, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health.
Companies such as Prudential Financial Inc. have mile markers on their walking paths, she says. Texas Instruments allows stretching breaks, while GlaxoSmithKline has treadmill desks in common areas that are available to employees on a sign-up system. Occidental Petroleum Corp. developed a walking plan for its truck drivers, informing them that walking 38 times around their vehicle equals one mile.
Heinen says some of the large employers she works with are beginning to catch on to this trend, but speculates that, overall, it's still a small number of the total employer population. That's because only 10 percent of companies have wellness programs, she says, which would typically be initiated before something as cutting-edge as a movement program.
"Smaller companies ... don't have a dedicated wellness staff. It's just nobody's job to think about that unless the business leader or owner is a believer," she says. "There's a smaller number of people thinking about wellness and a smaller number of HR staff -- but that doesn't mean it can't necessarily happen."
Billy Dutton, CEO at Music.com in Los Angeles, seems to have done his cost-benefit analysis and believes that ordering eight TrekDesks (in addition to the one he got for himself about a year ago) will help keep health premiums down and create a healthy workforce -- especially after he saw his workers clamoring to use his own TrekDesk.
"They were actually fighting over it," says Dutton, who oversees 14 employees.
Working and walking at the same time won't impede productivity at the company, he says. "We multitask all the time. We'll drive our car with our lunch in one hand, cell phone in the other hand and our knee is on the steering wheel. And we do that all the time ... it's easier than what we do in the car, and we do that with ease."
Movement Through Architecture
At the sprawling 300-acre campus at Sprint Nextel Corp.'s headquarters in Overland Park, Kan., it's hard for employees to avoid moving around during the workday -- because the property, which opened in 1999, was designed with movement in mind.
The parking garages are located away from the buildings, forcing the company's 7,000 employees to walk a fair distance to get to their offices. (Security personnel will drive disabled workers or others who can't make the walk, says Collier Case, director of health and productivity.)
Inside, the stairwells are kept bright and inviting, rather than dingy and unkempt as in many office buildings, says Case.
"They're wide. They're carpeted. They're not your traditional emergency staircases," he says.
Many of the elevators are run on a piston system rather than cable, making them slow, leading employees to take the stairs since it might take roughly the same amount of time. Case did not say that installing slow elevators was intentional, but did say he likes the fact that it encourages employees to move around more.
"It certainly adds to the concept we're trying to portray," says Case.
Covered walkways connect each of the company's 21 buildings, allowing people to walk around campus no matter the weather and providing the lunchtime walking/jogging crowd a place to continue their workouts in the winter. When the weather is nice, they use the outdoor rubber track or the sidewalks around the perimeter of the campus, which have been equipped with mile markers to show people how far they've traveled.
At the center of campus is a large fitness center complete with plenty of exercise equipment and an indoor track. Its central location makes "an important statement that we take fitness seriously -- we incorporated that into the rest of the [campus'] design," says Case.
HR also helped implement the "sit and be fit" program through its wellness program, giving out exercise bands along with a card showing workout routines employees could do at their desks. Case says he uses his band when taking conference calls.
"While I'm watching the presentation, I've got my exercise band out and I can stand at my desk and do some stretches or sit down and just do some calf stretches or arm stretches," he says.
"It's amazing the extra energy you feel after you do that for five or 10 minutes."
The program is especially effective for the call-center staff, a group that is tied to their desks more than others because they have to be available to take incoming calls.
"People will be sitting there and they've got a stressful call and they're running their band ... it's a little bit of a stress-reliever."
Case says he hasn't seen any pushback from employees. In fact, the company used to run a trolley from the parking area to the buildings but stopped because of low ridership. The increased movement hasn't made employee injury or workers' comp claims go up either, he adds.
"You have to weigh the positive outcomes with the potential added risk," says Case. "What we're talking about here is really light, isometric exercise and the risks associated with that are really relatively minor versus the benefit that employees have by being more active."
Mary Collins, author of American Idle, a 2009 book about sedentary culture in the United States, says American employees are pitted against a sedentary culture.
"We live in a society that makes it incredibly difficult to integrate movement into everyday life," she says, noting that factors such as long commutes, jobs where people sit at their desks for long periods and even unsafe neighborhoods keep people inside and stationary.
After doing extensive research that involved visiting workplaces such as NWF, she found that many companies have exercise programs -- but they don't tackle the real problem.
"We keep talking about exercise class and counting calories ... it's not actually a health problem, it's a cultural and social, systemic program, and health problems are just the symptom," says Collins.
She notes that workers in Sweden and South Korea are entitled to two paid "movement breaks" during the day and, although Collins is a big proponent of getting American lawmakers to require similar breaks, she says HR leaders shouldn't wait for government action.
Companies can gather groups of willing employees into unused conference rooms for stretching breaks, in which participants can do simple motions such as raising their arms over their heads or back-stretching exercises. Collins suggests hiring an exercise instructor to teach employees how to lead such classes.
"It's not even as elaborate as an aerobics class," she says. "It's 10 minutes!"
Along with creating such programs, HR leaders should use them as leverage to negotiate better rates with their healthcare providers, she says, noting that there's a "motherlode" of money to be saved by incorporating movement programs.
As for getting employees to participate, Collins says, if a few people aren't participating, but are healthy enough to, they may feel peer pressure to eventually take part. Besides, who wouldn't want a break during their day?
"Anyone who insists on working through that period might say 'Jeez, I'm the only one not doing that,' " she says. "Peer pressure has huge leverage."