Does Your Brain Run Better with a Treadmill Desk?

by Nancy Ordman

Using a treadmill desk – essentially walking while thinking – can impair working memory.

Researchers at the University of Michigan made this discovery, which found a slight diminution of executive function in study subjects walking at both slow (1.4 mph) and moderate (2.4 mph) paces. Prior research on treadmill desks tested cognitive function differently and tested at only one walking speed.

Nathan Edelson published the first peer-reviewed articles recommending the use of treadmill desks to counteract the negative side effects of sitting all day. The equipment has gained traction in the last decade, along with other “healthy” options like standing desks and exercise-ball chairs, options that burn more calories, require good posture or are otherwise better than sitting at a desk, or lounging on a sofa for telecommuters, all day.

The Michigan study, led by doctoral student Zhanjia Zhang, evaluated time response and answer accuracy for three questions while the subjects sat, stood and walked on their treadmills. Working memory was slightly negatively affected.

Since the effect was small, Zhang suggests that treadmill desk users limit their active walking time to periods when they are working on tasks that do not rely on working memory. Then they will benefit from the exercise without affecting work quality.

This study did not investigate health effects of walking or standing at a treadmill desk. Some current research, reported earlier on the IEEE Job Site, suggests that standing desks do not provide as many longer-term health benefits as anticipated.