One day, the world would see the light. Dr. James Levine was convinced of it.
For years, the Mayo Clinic endocrinologist has been a man on a mission. Firmly believing that everyone should be more active, he cobbled together a treadmill and computer station for his office. The contraption lets him work and walk at the same time and, in doing so, he created a new antidote for a typical office-bound, sedentary lifestyle.
At least one company has gone toward the light.
Steelcase, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based makers of office furniture, has produced a hybrid treadmill-desk called the Walkstation. It has a height-adjustable integrated computer-ready desk top, plus safety features such as a clip to protect workers from being pitched off the edge should they get distracted by an e-mail.
Levine calls this his "dream machine," the fulfillment of his wish to add movement to people's lives and thereby curb growing obesity rates. "If you think about it," he says, "we've become chair-ridden for so long. Our bodies are meant to move. This is a reincarnation of what we're meant to be."
He cautions that the Walkstation isn't a substitute for the gym, nor is it meant to ratchet up heart rates enough to produce cardiovascular benefits. The machine's speed tops out at 2 mph, not exactly a speedy clip.
"This isn't exercise equipment," Levine says. "It's about moving throughout your day," something many of us who are glued to computers for hours at a time, fail to do. Levine believes in what he calls "nonexercise activity thermogenesis," or unprompted physical activity -- fidgeting or simply getting up and moving. Some people -- such as waiters, nurses, or parents running after their kids -- have it built into their day.
Such constant movement translates into burning more calories, as Levine's research on the subject has shown. His study published in the journal Science in 2005 examined the behavior of 10 lean and 10 mildly obese and sedentary people and found that the obese people sat for an average of two hours more a day than their lean counterparts. Changing habits to include more spontaneous exercise, he theorized, could expend an extra 350 calories a day.
The Walkstation is for those more rooted to their desks. It comes with a price tag of $3,500 to $4,500, in the ballpark of low-end gym treadmills, and is available from dealers.
The Walkstation is being tested at some companies, and Steelcase has "hundreds" of requests for the machines from various types of companies, according to Bud Klipa, president of Details, a Steelcase subsidiary that helped design the product.
Klipa says the idea dovetails with the company's philosophy that ergonomics should include movement, not just perfect, rigid postures. "I can leave work healthier than perhaps when I came in," Klipa says. "I'd like to make it to the health club three times a week, but if I do this, I won't feel so guilty if I can't go." The Walkstation will have its marketplace debut at the National Ergonomics Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas later this month.
The Walkstation appears unlikely to revolutionize the office just yet. Although Levine argues that healthier, leaner employees will translate into lower healthcare costs for companies, not every corporation is going to happily shell out tens of thousands of dollars for something that, like any other piece of fitness equipment, may be ignored after several months.
Walkstations aren't gathering dust so far at Salo, an accounting and finance placement firm in Minneapolis. Since signing up the firm as a test site last September, company co-founder John Folkestad says the communal machines are usually busy.
Some employees have lost a few pounds, and Folkestad is hopeful that walking will pay off, literally: "If I can get my people more energetic," he says, "hopefully that will yield a revenue boost."
Not everyone is convinced that such equipment is the best motivation for people to be more active. Dr. Peter Galier likes the idea of providing a way to get more exercise during the day, but the associate professor of medicine at UCLA tells his patients to hop on a treadmill at an aerobic pace while watching TV or reading a book, otherwise sedentary endeavors.
Of the Walkstation, he says, "If somebody needs to keep their joints moving, this would be good. But if somebody's trying to lose weight and build a cardiovascular program, it's not going to do much. I'm not sure that walking at a slow enough pace to do work would have an impact on obesity. . . . I'm not sure you'd be getting any more benefit than you would walking around the office in between answering e-mails."