Pedal desks seen as relieving health risks of too much sitting

photoPhoto credit: UMass Amherst/Catrine Tudor-Locke

For years, we all sat at our desks. A few used drafting tables and high stools. But then sitting was declared as harmful to health as smoking, sending researchers and innovators are looking for ways to insert some activity into what was once a purely sedentary activity. (New research, by the way, refutes the sitting-smoking claim. More on that below).

The trend started with standing desks, then progressed to desks that went up and down, allowing weary workers to sit for awhile, then stand up, then sit down … and so forth. Evidence soon emerged, however, that found drawbacks to standing all day.  Attempts were then made to build treadmill desks, stair-climbing desks and so forth. Now researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have completed a pilot study using a “pedal desk.”

The UMass kinesiologists found that pedaling while working improved insulin responses to a test meal. Investigators led by Dr. Stuart Chipkin found that insulin levels following the meal were lower when sedentary workers used a pedal desk compared to a standard desk. In addition, work skills were not decreased in the pedaling condition, something that has been a problem with some of the other exercise-intensive desks.

Chipkin and colleagues conclude that pedal desks “could have the potential to achieve public and occupational health goals in sedentary work environments.” They point out that physical inactivity and sedentary work environments have been linked to higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease through insulin resistance and other mechanisms. Results appear in the October issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Chipkin explains that instead of approaching the problem by trying to squeeze intermittent activity into a largely sedentary work routine, “we chose to consider integrating physical activity into the workday.”

He and his colleagues felt that the alternatives now available for office workers — primarily standing desks and treadmill desks — are not feasible to use for whole shifts and may even pose some barriers, such as standing too long. By contrast, a pedal desk can be used in a seated position at the user’s own pace for as little or as much time as the worker chooses.

Though there are currently no commercial pedal desks on the market, Chipkin and colleagues were able to use a prototype Pennington Pedal Desk co-invented by UMass Amherst kinesiology researcher Catrine Tudor-Locke.

Sitting is not smoking

Oh, and as for the “sitting is as bad as smoking” claim, researchers writing in the American Journal of Public Health say flatly that “sitting is not the new smoking, despite what countless newspaper articles have peddled in recent years.”

Simply put, the researchers from the U.S., Canada and Australia say that while excessive sitting (more than eight hours per day) increases the risk of premature death and chronic disease by 10-20%. Smoking, on the other hand, increases the risk of premature death by 180 percent.

“The simple fact is, smoking is one of the greatest public health disasters of the past century. Sitting is not, and you can’t really compare the two,” said Dr. Terry Boyle, a University of South Australia epidemiologist. “First, the risks of chronic disease and premature death associated with smoking are substantially higher than for sitting. While people who sit a lot have around a 10-20 per cent increased risk of some cancers and cardiovascular disease, smokers have more than double the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease, and a more than 1000 per cent increased risk of lung cancer.

“Second, the economic impact and number of deaths caused by smoking-attributable diseases far outweighs those of sitting. For example, the annual global cost of smoking-attributable diseases was estimated at US$467 billion in 2012 and smoking is expected to cause at least one billion deaths in the 21st century.

“Finally, unlike smoking, sitting is neither an addiction nor a danger to others,” Boyle fumed in a news release.

About the pedal desk study

For this work, the researchers recruited 12 overweight/obese full-time sedentary office workers, six men and six women, and tested them in two conditions, pedaling at self-selected light-intensity pace for two hours, and working while seated for two hours at a conventional desk. In both conditions, participants performed computer-based tasks and were tested on mouse proficiency, typing speed and accuracy, reading comprehension and concentration/attention.

The participants also provided blood samples after eating a light meal for analysis of metabolic responses of glucose, insulin and free fatty acids, a link between obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Chipkin and colleagues report that pedal desk use required significantly less insulin to maintain glucose concentrations compared with using the standard desk. He notes, “It took much less insulin to keep their blood sugars the same. This means that the body doesn’t work so hard to maintain blood glucose and fatty acid levels with use of the pedal desk compared to a standard desk. From the metabolic point of view, the pedal desk seems to be helpful and the from the work point of view, work tasks were not impaired.”

“While there were no changes in blood glucose or free fatty acids, none would be expected in a group of subjects without diabetes,” he notes. In future studies, Chipkin plans to explore the impact of the pedal desk on people with diabetes.


About the Author

Truman Lewis
Truman has been a bureau chief and correspondent in D.C., Los Angeles, Phoenix and elsewhere, reporting for radio, television, print and news services, for more than 30 years. Most recently, he has reported extensively on health and consumer issues for and