Skip to main content

To Retain Important Information, Don’t Fear to Tread

A new study finds people do better on a memory test after working at a treadmill desk.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Viktoria Gavrilina/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Viktoria Gavrilina/Shutterstock)

A study released this week confirms that sitting for long periods is bad for your health. One prominent business writer has even declared that “sitting is the new smoking.”

If so, the new nicotine patch may be the treadmill desk, which enables you to work at a computer while engaging in the equivalent of a leisurely walk. But employers (and, for that matter, the self-employed) may be reluctant to invest in these relatively new devices, in spite of their health benefits.

Aside from the cost, there is the nagging question of whether people truly work as efficiently if they’re simultaneously taking a stroll. Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but can you really walk while preparing a quarterly report?

The answer appears to be: Absolutely. Newly published research finds that, for tasks requiring memory and attention to detail—which pretty much covers most office work—using a treadmill desk can actually improve performance.

If a treadmill desk isn’t in your foreseeable future, you can at least get up and stride around for a few minutes whenever your computer freezes.

“While the health benefits of this new practice are indisputable, it will only be adopted if users feel they can accomplish their work as well or better than with the use of a traditional desk,” a research team led by Elise Labonte-LeMoyne of HEC Montreal writes in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“Our results suggest that workers not only perform better on a recall task, but they also perceive themselves to be more attentive to the task at hand.”

The small-scale study featured 18 university students, nine of which performed a 40-minute “reading task” while seated, while the others did so while walking at 2.5 kilometers per hour at a treadmill desk. The task was designed to mimic conditions many, if not most, of us confront daily.

Participants read a lengthy text containing important information they had to retain. At the same time, they received periodic emails, some of which “were pertinent to the topic at hand, while others were irrelevant (e.g., co-worker’s birthday party)." The students decided “whether or not to open and read each e-mail depending on its subject line.”

Following a 10-minute break, all sat down at a standard desk and answered 33 true-or-false questions about the text they had just read. During this part of the experiment, they were also hooked up with EEG equipment to measure brain activity.

The results put a spring in Labonte-LeMoyne's step. “The odds of answering a question (on the recall test) correctly were 34.9 percent higher in the walking group,” she and her colleagues report. “Their self-perceived on-task attention was also significantly higher.”

Looking at brain activity, “Previous studies have shown that good memory performance is correlated with a decrease in theta power and an increase in alpha power,” the researchers note. Mimicking those findings, “We observed significantly more theta activity in the seated group, and more alpha activity in the walking group.”

“The findings are important, as most users of a treadmill desk will not spend their entire workday walking,” the researchers conclude. “Workers might use their treadmill desks for some specific tasks, and sit down for other specific tasks, which require more memory and attention”—qualities enhanced by having worked while on the treadmill.

The results make a strong case for revamping your work station. But if a treadmill desk isn’t in your foreseeable future, you can at least get up and stride around for a few minutes whenever your computer freezes.

Think of it this way: These re-boots are made for walkin’.