Flickr user Benny Wong

Forget Standing Desks: Study Suggests Bicycle Desks Can Offset Hazards of Sitting

Isolated spurts of intense exercise don’t cancel out the harm of sitting still at the office all day. A new study suggests that biking while working can help.

Americans sit. A lot. According to one estimate, sedentary jobs have risen 83 percent since 1950, and now account for 43 percent of American jobs.

To combat the ill effects, some have taken to standing desks. Others may try to squeeze in some exercise by biking or even running to work (only really an option for those who have showers at the office). And others yet are trying to combine the two: bike desks.

Now, a study confirms: This is a good idea.

“Sitting all day at work is really bad for us,” says Lucas Carr, an assistant professor in health and human physiology at the University of Iowa and co-author of the study. “Research has found excessive sedentary time to be a risk factor for many physical and psychosocial health outcomes including mortality, obesity, cardiometabolic disease risk, cancer, stress, depressive symptoms and poorer cognitive function.”

Moreover, Carr says that research has shown that this relationship cannot be “exercised off”: The negative effects of sitting all day aren’t cured by regular exercise. To that point, Carr believes that office gyms can’t solve the problem caused by the sedentary nature of work.

Carr and a team of researchers recruited 54 employees at ACT, a company in Iowa City, to test whether they could encourage a treatment group to use pedal machines under their desk during work hours. Over 16 weeks, 27 participants in the study pedaled an average of 50 minutes a day—with heavy users pedaling as much as two to three hours. To Carr’s delight, 70 percent asked to keep their pedaling devices at the end of the study. The study found that those pedaled more reported improved concentration at work, suggesting there are productivity gains to being active at the office.

Carr believes that exercising during work can even help with saving time in an employee’s hectic daily routine: “Rather than rushing to the gym right after work, they were able to get their activity in while at work and take care of their errands after work. This allowed them more time with their families which is a huge piece of work-life balance.” He emphasized that the study’s key finding was that pedaling devices not only had to be comfortable and easy to use, but also it had to be private. Otherwise, workers would feel awkward using the device.

At least one member of The Atlantic’s tribe—senior editor James Hamblin—occasionally uses a bicycle desk.  Hamblin (who has written that “sitting is the new dying”) says that he built it three years ago, and that he has experienced some tough times since. “People who use bicycle desks in the office can encounter some difficulty with social ostracization. I know I did. At least, I think that’s when it started. Maybe it was before that. I don't know. It’s hard to know.”

Other Atlantic colleagues declined to comment on the matter.

(Top image via Flickr user Benny Wong)