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Oregon Treadmill Desks Gaining Traction

In April, Oregon state legislators were pursuing a bill that could someday bring treadmill desks to state offices. If passed, the bill would initiate a two-year pilot program to test the “walking workstations,” determine their cost and effectiveness, and define the parameters of a potential larger-scale deployment within state agencies.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jim Thompson, is expected to pass, according Legislative Director Jim Williams — and the idea is already attracting attention out of state.

Oregon was one of the first states to opt for a quasi-governmental state-based health insurance exchange following President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. This bill by Rep. Thompson, Williams said, should be a no-brainer given the state’s dedication to public health, and the sedentary nature of the typical office environment.

The bill is currently in committee waiting on funding, Williams said, adding that he feels the votes will come in. “That’s not really an issue,” he said, adding that it’s time to stop talking about improving delivery of medicine and delivering health. “Let’s go ahead and do something about it… If we have a goal of losing weight and obesity is one the leading causes of medical problems, why shouldn’t we do everything that we can to go ahead and reduce obesity?”

When passed, Williams said, this bill will create a more productive workforce and lower the cost of medical care in the state. “We’re going to lower the cost of medicine,” he said.

Employees would not be forced to walk on a treadmill all day like a hamster, Williams said, but allowing employees the option of having a desk where they can alternate between walking and sitting — or putting a few treadmill desks in common areas — could lead to a healthier, happier workforce.

At the non-profit Association of Washington Cities, CEO Mike McCarty has been using a treadmill desk for the past three months to help fight the degenerative effects of type 2 diabetes.

“It’s a way to stay in motion while you’re working,” he said. “I find that I can do emails for a couple hours walking at two and half miles per hour, and not really break a sweat. It’s quiet, and it allows you to stay in motion while you’re being productive work-wise — maybe even more productive than you probably would be sitting at a desk.”

Using the treadmill desk over the past few months, McCarty said he’s lost five pounds — and not sitting all day helps him manage his blood sugar, which can be a serious issue for diabetics.

“That’s really what my expectation was, that it affords me a better quality of life and the ability to control my blood sugar a little bit better — and hopefully I’ll live longer as well,” he said. “I am an advocate of these things.”

If money and space were no object, he said, he would at the very least start putting the machines in common areas so people who wanted to break up their day could walk while making phone calls or answering emails for a few minutes.

“I’m not sure we’re there culturally yet,” he said, noting that the price of some treadmill desks is comparable to the price of the stand-up desks offered to some employees in their offices.

If the bill in Oregon passes, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (DOLI) may try to piggyback on the pilot study, said Doug Spohn, wellness manager for the agency. “We have a pretty comprehensive employee wellness program, so we’re looking at ways to get people to overcome the sitting all day thing.”

The DOLI is like a state government insurance agency, Spohn explained. “The mission of our state agency is to keep Washington state employees safe and at work. Because the nature of our business is insurance claims and trying to prevent insurance claims, we tend to be very conservative as far as risk aversion.”

This climate has made some in his agency hesitant to get people standing up and moving while they work, for fear they could hurt themselves, Spohn said, but he’s confident these machines would be a natural progression to his agency’s Wellness 360° program.

Wellness 360° is the agency’s program intended to provide a holistic approach to employee health, from physical factors in the work environment down to stress-management and the impact of various management techniques.

“I’ve been working about a year on this particular larger-scale effort where we would use these treadmills, and I’ve gotten green lights all across the board so far,” he said. “But when the rubber meets the road, we’ll see what happens.”

Though there are no official plans in place to use treadmill desks in Washington, Spohn said that if Oregon passes their bill, he would love to be part of the effort.

Photo: Dr. James Levine keeps a 1-mph pace on his treadmill while checking his e-mail in Rochester, Minn. AP/Jim Mone

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Oregon Explores Treadmill Desks for State Workers

Anthony Behrens worries that the Affordable Care Act is going to kill him, but not for the usual reasons cited by opponents of the federal health care law.

Behrens is a senior policy analyst in the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services Insurance Division. The task of implementing the health law has kept him sitting at his desk 12 hours during the day followed by another few hours at home each night.

Behrens was so alarmed by research pointing to possible long-term health consequences from sitting for extended periods of time that he pitched a solution to his local state legislator: installing treadmill desks that would allow state workers to walk at slow speeds while they are working.

“Even if you get regular exercise at a gym, you’re still going to die sooner if you spend a certain amount of time sitting at a desk,” Behrens said. “I didn’t realize that if you sit for an hour, from that point on your body shuts down and almost goes into hibernation mode.”

A recent study of more than 200,000 adults 45 and older in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40 percent increased risk of dying in the next three years compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day.

That conversation resulted in a legislative proposal for a pilot project that would fund treadmill desks for some state workers and study the effects on health and productivity. Treadmill desks range in cost from $400 to $5,000, but the hope is that the state could recoup its expenses through lowered health-care costs over the long run.

At a recent hearing on the bill, Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine testified about the potential health benefits via video-conference call while walking on a treadmill desk. “We’ve had extensive experience in deploying these types of programs and universally have seen either positive responses from employees’ improved health or improved productivity,” said Levine, who is widely credited with popularizing the concept. Legislators in the room could see the technology in action while they mulled its merits.

Levine told lawmakers they should act on mounting scientific evidence about the consequences of being sedentary. In 2012 alone, Levine said, 1,300 peer-reviewed studies were published linking sedentariness with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other negative health effects.

“Even if one does go to the gym three times a day, and if you make your (recommended) 10,000 steps at the gym, the long periods of sedentariness that we experience at work are not offset by those intermediary, scattered episodes of gym-going,” he said.

Use of treadmill desks has taken hold in a range of private companies, including BlueCross BlueShield and Marriott (see video), but is not common in the public sector, in part because of concerns about upfront costs.

Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch criticized the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation for its use of treadmills. “In a post-sequester world, where White House tours are being canceled and Easter egg hunts are being threatened, you can imagine why American people would take a very cynical view about federal employees being furnished with thousand-dollar treadmill desks,” he said at a recent hearing.

But to Republican state Rep. Jim Thompson, the Oregon bill’s sponsor, the potential benefits of treadmill desks far outweigh the costs. “It’s not unbearably expensive; one of those units costs less than the desk I have in my office,” he said. Still, Thompson said, the bill will have a better chance of passing if they can find some support from private donors.

“We are not designed to sit,” he said. “We talk about all these things we need to do to get people healthier, but when are we actually going to try some of them?”

This story was originally published by Stateline.org. Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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