Thinking on Your Feet

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Health experts widely agree that most of us should sit less, especially at work. Prolonged sitting has been linked with higher risks for diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions. While treadmill and standing desks have grown in popularity, they provide a clear impact on our health but perhaps not on our work itself. We know that most people type better when they sit still than when they stand up or move about. But do they also think better?

Most studies of prolonged sitting have looked at the benefits from breaking up sitting time on blood sugar and blood pressure. For an innovative new study published recently in The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers at Arizona State University in Phoenix recruited nine sedentary, overweight men and women and asked them to show up at a simulated office space at the university.

During one visit, the volunteers sat continuously for eight hours (apart from bathroom breaks), while using a computer and talking on the phone, as if it were any workday. Twice during the day, they also completed computerized measures of many thinking skills, including working memory and decision making.

Then, during three other faux workdays, the volunteers broke up their sitting time by variously standing, walking at a treadmill desk or pedaling a modified stationary bicycle placed beneath their desks for at least 10 minutes once an hour. The exercise was gentle — a walking pace of one mile per hour or comparable effort while pedaling — and the volunteers typed and chatted during these breaks. They also repeated the tests of thinking twice each day, immediately after standing or exercising.

The researchers had wondered whether standing or exercising might impair the ability to concentrate and think, much as it did with typing proficiency, says Glenn Gaesser, a professor of exercise and health promotion at Arizona State who oversaw the study.

Instead, the exercise breaks substantially improved scores on the tests of the kinds of thinking skills that help people perform their jobs well. Immediately after standing or moving for 10 minutes or more, the volunteers performed better on all the tests of thinking, compared with when they were sitting all day — and the gains were greatest after they pedaled their under-desk bikes.

Gaesser says that “the physical and mental arousal” that occurs when people end their seated stillness and stroll, pedal or stand up improves attention, memory and other cognitive skills. He also speculates that because the volunteers had never before cycled at work, the novelty of that activity amplified its stimulative effects and impact on thinking.

But given that the study was small and limited in duration — it can’t tell us whether, over a longer period of time, an under-desk pedal machine would remain more potent for brainpower than strolling or standing — Gaesser suggests popping upright for even a minute or two. It will most likely be good for our minds, and shouldn’t do too much harm to our typing.