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Activating the workplace

Here's how active work stations impact how you think, perform, and feel.

January 03, 2018 |
Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings

You may want to stand up for this: Research shows that sedentary behavior causes or intensifies a wide range of health problems. Contrary to popular belief, physi­cal inactivity and sedentary behavior are two distinct behaviors. A mounting body of evidence suggests total sedentary time is negatively associated with health risks like heart disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal pain, and abdominal obesity independent of “protective contri­butions of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.” To put it bluntly, no matter how much you exercise, if you spend the majority of your day sitting, you may be prone to serious health risks.

Several studies have validated that office workers spend the majority of their workday sitting down, with estimates of daily sedentary time (including sleep) reaching 11 to 16 hours a day. Because sedentary behavior is so prevalent during work hours, health professionals have pinpointed the workplace as a prime location to reduce sitting. Organizational leaders have taken note, with many companies providing active workstations to encourage more standing and move­ment in the workplace.

In response to active workstations’ growing popularity, researchers have designed experiments to verify wheth­er or not these interventions are successful in decreasing sedentary behavior in the workplace. These experiments also frequently evaluate health measures like caloric expen­diture, blood pressure, and heart rate, among others. Unsurprisingly, the adoption of active worksta­tions has been linked to decreased time spent sitting at work, and has also demonstrated effects on em­ployees’ health and well-being.

However, evidence on how active workstations impact employees beyond sedentary behavior is still emerg­ing. Many employers, while intrigued by the established health benefits of active workstations, wonder if these non-traditional interventions might prohibit workers from completing normal work tasks.

To help answer this question, I reviewed an emerging body of research that asks how active workstations affect an individual’s ability to effectively perform his/her everyday job responsibilities. Specifically, I explored the relationship between active workstations and employee effectiveness through three areas: cognitive function, productivity/performance, and psychological outcomes. Here’s what I learned.


Brains AND Brawn at Work

Active workstations increase physical activity in the workplace without compromising cognitive capabilities. Most studies observed a neural impact on cognition, meaning that active workstation use does not inhibit a person’s ability to think. Notably, significant cognitive improvements were also found. For example, a 2016 study reported that frequent periods of height-adjustable desk use throughout the day resulted in significant improvements in memory and attention.


When Using Active Workstations, Choose Your Activities Wisely

Overall, evidence suggests that active workstations have a neutral or positive impact on employee productivity and performance. In fact, one study found that 65 percent of participants reported increased productivity after both six and 12 months of using height-adjustable desks. However, several studies found that certain tasks are more appropriate than others, especially while walking on a treadmill desk.


Treadmill desks at FitBit headquartersTreadmill conference tables introduce a new way to walk and talk at the office.


For example, a 2009 lab study on treadmill desk usage found significant differences in per­formance between reading comprehension tasks and computer and math skills tasks. Researchers found that for participants in the treadmill condition, “scores on tests of typing and mouse proficiency, and math solv­ing ability” were lower by approximately 6 to 11 percent, respectively, compared to the sitting condition. There were no signifi­cant differences between the two conditions for reading comprehension or administrative tasks. So, taking a long phone call or reading a report might be a better choice than crunching numbers or writing an email while on a treadmill desk.


Active Workstations May Be a New Afternoon Pick-Me-Up

Both height-adjustable and treadmill desks have been associated with positive improvements in psychological outcomes, or how a person feels at work. Unstructured interviews with participants in one study suggested indications of psychological wellness: “[The sit-stand desk] has made my post-lunch energy slump disappear.”

Another study found similarly positive results for treadmill desks, suggesting that participants in the treadmill desk condition experienced “higher satisfaction and less boredom and stress” than those in the seated condition. Additional studies on the relationship between treadmill desks and psychological outcomes are needed to determine how active workstations impact how employees feel at .

Anecdotally speaking, our Chicago office is fully equipped with height-adjustable desks, and I like to use mine during the occasional afternoon slump. I also recently learned that your voice sounds more confident while you’re standing (versus sitting) so I like to use my height-adjustable desk during conference calls.


Still sitting?

Research suggests that active workstations reduce sedentary behavior in the workplace without inhibiting employee effectiveness. If task appropriateness is taken into account, current evidence suggests that active workstations have a neutral or positive impact on employee cognitive function, productivity/performance, and psychological outcomes.

Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings | Perkins+Will

Perkins+Will is a firm of remarkable people who are driven by discovery – through their relationships, research, and design. In the simplest sense, our ideas are the precursors for all of our design work. Ideas + Buildings, Perkins+Will’s blog, features emerging thought leadership from across the firm, inviting an even greater global dialog around learning, wellness, workplace, sustainability, and everything in between. Visit the blog at:

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