A pilot study (purchase required) conducted by Lucas Carr at the University of Iowa might show a way to get American workers healthier without taking time away from their desks. In a few years, we might see Silicon Valley corporate campuses equipping desks with exercise equipment to counter-balance all those free snacks they make available to employees.
In the study, 27 volunteers at a company in Iowa City were given pedal devices. The devices work like stationary bikes and fit under a desk.
Of the 27 employees, 70% asked to keep the devices after a 16-week trial. Most reported using the device an average of 50 minutes per day, and more than half reported weight loss, improved concentration, and improved productivity.
Many previous attempts at finding exercise devices for the office have failed because the equipment made it hard for workers to focus. For instance, many people report that they've lost weight using a treadmill desk, but most say it is hard to work and focus on not falling at the same time.
[ There are plenty of tech options for improving your health. Read 10 Cool Fitness Trackers That Aren't Apple Watch. ]
Previous Carr studies have shown that offering a limited amount of exercise equipment for employees to share doesn’t work, either. You can put a high-end treadmill or bike in an office, and it will be mostly ignored. When equipment is given to every employee, it appears that it will be used more frequently. This stems, in part, from social anxiety. Who wants to be the only person in the office using that high-end treadmill while everyone else is sitting at their desks?
The social-anxiety factor also means you can't rely on employees to do BYOPD (Bring Your Own Pedaling Device). You have to provide one for everyone. There's a good reason to help your employees with this.
The number of jobs that tie us to our desks has risen 83% since 1950 according to Carr, and 3.3 million people die annually due to physical inactivity. Absenteeism costs American companies $153 billion per year, and absenteeism from chronic illness accounts for $84 billion of that cost. Major reasons for absenteeism include chronic health issues, stress, general illness, and injuries. Exercise is known to improve the immune system, help people deal with stress, and prevent injuries. It can help with some chronic health issues, including some forms of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and some causes of obesity (though it is important to stress you can't exercise away all diseases).
It isn't as simple as telling employees to get healthier, or even trying to pay them to do so. In a recent study of 20,000 HR pros who sponsored healthcare initiatives in the workplace, only 15% said they were happy with the results. These programs are often extremely expensive. Employers have spent $125 billion on employee health initiatives over the last four years nationwide and with little effect. And often programs sponsored by companies are monolithic in approach, involving t-shirts and incentives and major rollouts that sound great and accomplish very little.
Perhaps, instead, offering a simple device that allows workers to be more active at their desks is an inexpensive and sustainable solution. Handing out a laptop and an exercise device at your new employee orientation might be the ticket to a healthier workforce.
What do you think? Would you pedal while you work? Tell us in the comments section below.David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio