Behrens is a senior policy analyst in the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services Insurance Division. The task of implementing the health law has kept him sitting at his desk 12 hours during the day followed by another few hours at home each night.
Behrens was so alarmed by research pointing to possible long-term health consequences from sitting for extended periods of time that he pitched a solution to his local state legislator: installing treadmill desks that would allow state workers to walk at slow speeds while they are working.
“Even if you get regular exercise at a gym, you’re still going to die sooner if you spend a certain amount of time sitting at a desk,” Behrens says. “I didn’t realize that if you sit for an hour, from that point on your body shuts down and almost goes into hibernation mode.”
A recent study of more than 200,000 adults 45 and older in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40 percent increased risk of dying in the next three years, compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day.
That conversation resulted in a legislative proposal for a pilot project that would fund treadmill desks for some state workers and study the effects on health and productivity. Treadmill desks range in cost from $400 to $5,000, but the hope is that the state could recoup its expenses through lowered health care costs over the long run.
At a recent hearing on the bill, Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine testified about the potential health benefits via video conference call while walking on a treadmill desk.
“We’ve had extensive experience in deploying these types of programs and universally have seen either positive responses from employees’ improved health or improved productivity,” said Levine, who is widely credited with popularizing the concept. Legislators in the room could see the technology in action while they mulled its merits.
Levine told lawmakers they should act on mounting scientific evidence about the consequences of being sedentary. In 2012 alone, Levine said, 1,300 peer-reviewed studies were published linking sedentariness with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other negative health effects.
“Even if one does go to the gym three times a day, and if you make your (recommended) 10,000 steps at the gym, the long periods of sedentariness that we experience at work are not offset by those intermediary, scattered episodes of gym-going,” he says.
Use of treadmill desks has taken hold in a range of private companies, including BlueCross BlueShield and Marriott, but is not common in the public sector, in part because of concerns about upfront costs.
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, criticized the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation for its use of treadmills. “In a post-sequester world, where White House tours are being canceled and Easter egg hunts are being threatened, you can imagine why American people would take a very cynical view about federal employees being furnished with thousand-dollar treadmill desks,” he said at a recent hearing.
But to Republican state Rep. Jim Thompson, the Oregon bill’s sponsor, the potential benefits of treadmill desks far outweigh the costs. “It’s not unbearably expensive; one of those units costs less than the desk I have in my office,” he said. Still, Thompson said, the bill will have a better chance of passing if they can find some support from private donors.
“We are not designed to sit,” he says. “We talk about all these things we need to do to get people healthier, but when are we actually going to try some of them?”