Thinking on Their Feet - Literally

January 5, 2012 —

Walk into Dr. James Herbert’s office and you’ll likely see him walking too; amidst the books, papers and occasional coffee cup, he is hard at work—on his treadmill. Taking the phrase “thinking on your feet” to a whole new level, Herbert, professor of psychology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of a growing number of professionals who’ve swapped out their traditional desk and chair for something a bit more unconventional.

James Herbert - Tread Desk

Dr. Herbert working at his TreadDesk.

Called a “TreadDesk,” this novel workstation is comprised of an elevated desk that sits above a treadmill. Sound like a feat only the highly coordinated can master? Not according to Herbert, who logs an average of 2.5 to 3.5 miles each day at a 1.4 mph pace.

“It took a little getting used to at first, but I adjusted surprisingly quickly—within a couple of days,” he says.

As a second-degree black belt and avid runner, Herbert purchased the TreadDesk to complement his healthy lifestyle and help manage back pain.

“After sitting at my desk for hours at a time, I was having a lot of lower back pain, a common consequence of excessive sitting. Evolution didn’t design us to sit; we were built to stand, walk, run and squat, but not to sit. So I was hoping that by drastically reducing the time I spent sitting, I would ease my lower back pain.”

This logic has proven true; after just two weeks of using his new desk, Herbert noticed a marked decrease in lower back pain. But that’s not the only benefit he’s experienced; Herbert says he’s also felt more alert in the afternoon hours than he did after hours of sitting.

“Before the treadmill desk, I would typically have at least a couple serious doses of caffeine (coffee, Diet Pepsi, etc.) in the mid-afternoon to fight drowsiness. But walking while I work has significantly decreased this sleepiness, and hence my caffeine intake.”

Andrew Hicks - Standing Desk

Dr. Hicks' standing desk, flanked with cabinets that double as whiteboards.

Herbert isn’t the only CoAS professor to swap out his traditional desk: Dr. R. Andrew Hicks, associate department head and professor of mathematics, is another newly inducted member of the seat-to-feet club.

About eight months ago, Hicks traded in his workstation for a standing desk. Not sure how his body would adjust, he piloted the idea with his own makeshift design.

“Prior to my current desk, I found an old bookshelf with adjustable shelves in the department and used that to convince myself I would like it.”

Highly satisfied with his prototype, Hicks purchased a standing desk for roughly $250 with overhead share from his grant. The results?

“No back or neck pain…and I lost 10 pounds,” he says.

Andrew Hicks - Standing Desk

Dr. Hicks' newly freed office space.

In addition to the health benefits, Hicks points out some newly acquired square footage.

“It saves a huge amount of space in my office. I now have no [traditional] desks or tables; I have a couple of couches from Ikea. If I meet with someone in my office or just need to take a break from typing, I’ll sit on the arm of one of the couches but I rarely use them myself.

Several other Drexel staff members have invested in these alternative workstations and recount similar results: improved posture, cessation of aches and pains, and increased alertness.

While a standing desk may not be in everyone’s future—or budget (a TreadDesk costs anywhere from $700 to $1500)—there are plenty of other ways to stay healthy at work.

Victor Tringali, director of University Wellness at Drexel, notes today’s predominantly inactive 9-to-5 population and suggests daily practices to increase activity.

“Many of us sit in the car, at our desk, and in front of the television the majority of the day and don’t get the minimum 30 minutes of regular physical activity recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC),” he says.

Tringali offers seven simple tips to incorporate physical activity into your day without stepping foot in a gym (or on a TreadDesk):

  1. Stand up and sit down: Make this more challenging by not using your hands.
  2. Trade your desk chair for an exercise ball: Sitting on an exercise ball will force you to engage your core stabilizers all day.
  3. Shrug your shoulders: Lift your shoulders up to your ears. Hold. Release and drop.
  4. Walk instead of emailing: Delivering your message in person will provide better communication and keep you moving at the same time.
  5. Stretch your hips: Step forward into a lunge position and lower your back knee to the floor. Shift your body forward until a stretch is felt in the front of your pelvis. Rotate backwards and hold for 30-seconds. Switch legs.
  6. Get up and walk around a few times a day: Walk around the office or take the stairs 3 minutes every hour. By the end of the day you’ll have included 24 minutes of activity.
  7. Squeeze your butt: Squeeze your "cheeks" together as tightly as you can, and hold for ten seconds. Release and repeat.

Before beginning any exercise program, always check with your physician to be sure that you have no underlying health conditions.