Nonstop Office: Maybe It's Good for You

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

James Levine believes that desks should be NEAT.

No, not just orderly, but compatible with Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. That's the tongue-twisting term for a design concept: that desks, cubicles and computer stations should allow people to move while they work, burning calories and potentially alleviating the buildup of stress.

"We lead an unbelievably sedentary existence," says Levine, a physician and professor of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic. "We are screen-tied."

There's little likelihood that we will give up our computers, televisions or video games any time soon. Rather than curse the technology that exercises only the muscles from our elbows to our fingertips -- and often makes these muscles sore from their unnatural workout-- Levine advocates finding active new ways to embrace digital tools.

"There's nothing wrong with the technology," he said. "It's how we use it."

So instead of letting the technology drive us into our chairs and early graves, Levine has built NEAT offices and a research lab to test his theories at Mayo's headquarters in Rochester, Minn. His computer sits atop a treadmill that he bought for $350. Levine walks on it while answering e-mail, writing grant proposals, analyzing data and talking on the phone to a reporter.

There's no danger that Levine or his staff will break a sweat. How could they, walking at a pace that never exceeds 1 mph? That's about as fast as you can go without making it difficult to read. But even that rate burns about an extra 100 calories per hour, according to research that Levine has presented at several scientific meetings.

Just boosting daily activity that much has left Levine 15 pounds lighter this past year. "And I wasn't overweight to start with," he notes.

The weight-loss potential for the two-thirds of adults who are overweight or obese is even greater. Studies show that obese people typically spend 2.5 more hours sitting per day than do lean people.

In a recent report, Levine found that obese office workersburned on average 120 more calories per hour while using NEAT desks and treadmills than they did while sitting. Over a full workday, that could add up to more than 800 additional calories burned. Someone who works NEAT all the time could, at least in theory, lose slightly more than a pound per week, although everyone may not want to spend their entire workday walking on a treadmill.

There are likely other benefits, too. Research suggests that employees who are more active are often more engaged, healthier -- and happier. Activity helps increase energy and can improve concentration and focus -- important attributes for the office.

In theory, NEAT could also help reduce office stress, since numerous studies show the stress-reduction benefits of walking.

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