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Active Desk Aims to Get
Office Workers Up and Moving

November 12, 2009

By Tiffany Fox

Active Desk (Photo / Erik Jepsen)
Calit2 researcher Ernesto Ramirez (above) created the Active Desk in the wake of research that links sedentary behavior (like sitting at a desk all day) with an elevated risk of mortality from all causes and from cardiovascular disease.

University of California, San Diego researcher Ernesto Ramirez has logged more than 34 miles of walking in the past month, and he hasn't even had to leave the office to do it.

Ramirez, who is affiliated with the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at UC San Diego, has designed and built what he calls the "Active Desk" — a raised work station connected to a standard treadmill that allows him to walk while he works.  The project stems from a body of scientific research that links sedentary behavior (like sitting at a desk all day) with an elevated risk of mortality from all causes and from cardiovascular disease. A study published this year in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that the trend remains significant when adjusted for age, sex, smoking status, alcohol use — and even time spent in leisure time physical activity.

In other words, you might feel virtuous squeezing in that morning run, but if you spend the rest of the day planted in a chair, you're still putting your health at risk.

Active Desk (Photo / Erik Jepsen)
Calit2 researcher Ernesto Ramirez (above) created the Active Desk in the wake of research that links sedentary behavior (like sitting at a desk all day) with an elevated risk of mortality from all causes and from cardiovascular disease.

"This data clearly supports the notion that spending increased amounts of time 'tied to chair' can actually be detrimental to your health," notes Ramirez, who is a doctoral student with Joint Doctoral Program in the collaborative Public Health program between UC San Diego and San Diego State University. "Being sedentary for long periods of time is a very new thing for humans from an evolutionary perspective. Our approach is to change peoples' environment so it's easy to get them moving. We spend 8 to 10 hours per day sitting in front of computer, so why not spend some of that time walking?"

That's where the "Active Desk" comes in. Currently located on the sixth floor of Calit2's headquarters in Atkinson Hall, the work station consists of a $200 Ikea desk and a $100 treadmill that allows the user to control his or her walking speed. Ramirez says his average pace is 1.5 miles per hour —  fast enough to burn about 2.54 calories per minute, but not so fast that it makes him too breathless to have a conversation.

"I've written papers here while walking," says Ramirez, who keeps a pair of comfortable walking shoes at the workspace. "I want to make sure it's something people want to use, can use and is effective."

Employees of Calit2 will be the first to get a shot at using the Active Desk after Ramirez makes it available on a reservation basis in January (see theactiveoffice.org for more details). Together with colleague Jacqueline Kerr, an assistant professor of family and preventive medicine at UCSD, Ramirez will then aggregate the statistical data on energy expenditure and other metrics collected from initial users to determine if the work station is feasible for use in other office work environments.

"There are certain health metrics that companies already understand and have resulted in companies providing healthy eating options for their employees or having a gym on site," says Kerr. "They realize the benefits for employees' health and they see a reduction in absenteeism and health problems when workers are active. If we can also demonstrate that the Active Desk improves concentration or productivity at work — or at least doesn't detract from them — then you can definitely see how this device can have a very large impact on the work environment and on population health, because so many people sit at work."

Central to Kerr and Ramirez's research is a commitment to make the Active Desk as inexpensive as possible. Various incarnations of a treadmill/desk combination already exist on the market, but they cost anywhere from $2,500-$11,000.

"Cost is definitely an issue, and the treadmill desks available commercially at the moment are prohibitively expensive," notes Kerr. "Trying to develop cheaper versions is important, but it's also a matter of changing the culture surrounding exercise.

"A lot of people think 'if you build it, they will come,' but my response to that is 'not necessarily,'" she continues. "There are a whole range of psychological barriers to exercise, and through years of research, we've come to know how difficult it is to get people to be physically active even if activity options are available. That's why bringing the Active Desk into the work environment is so interesting, because you can utilize that social pressure. Seeing others use the desk should be motivating and realizing you don't have to sweat to help your health is a bonus"

Adds Ramirez: "The U.S. Surgeon General is now recommending that people get 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every week, but people have a very hard time doing that.

"We tend to stay away from the word 'exercise' because for most people, that has a very negative connotation. What we talk about more is just movement. Even if you're getting out of your chair for a cup of water, that's a good thing."
But overcoming the American 'culture of inertia' is not simply a matter of changing one's terminology, Kerr points out.

"Many people are happy being lazy'" Kerr continues. "Well, OK, but that attitude is damaging your health. If we can provide an accessible alternative with this device and make it fun, it's easy to see how the culture can change."

Ramirez and Kerr are seeking funding for the next phases of their research, which, with the help of UCSD's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, will eventually include a suite of mobile phone and web-based scheduling, reminder and motivational tools for users of Active Desk, as well as additional methods to encourage activity in the workplace. The team will also look at ways to make the workspace more ergonomic, such as equipping it with a drafting style desk.

For now, Ramirez will continue to walk/work at the Active Desk for about two hours per day (in addition to his daily bike ride) as he completes his dissertation.

"If I'm telling people to do this, I have to incorporate it into my daily life as well," he says. "I want to show people it's feasible, easy to use and fun."

Media Contact: Tiffany Fox, 858-246-0353 or tfox@ucsd.edu

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