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Walking the Walk: One Professor’s Approach to Modeling Wellness

01.7.2013

Dan Tarara, assistant professor of exercise science at HPU, hears the same resolutions being made over and over again each year: Get fit, stay healthy and lose weight. But it’s a resolution he doesn’t have to make thanks to his unique invention – the treadmill desk.

Faculty at High Point University know the importance of living the principles they teach their students in class each day. If you walk into Tarara’s office, you’ll see living proof that he’s an advocate for healthy lifestyles all year long. Rather than sitting at his desk to create syllabi or answer emails, he walks at a slow pace that keeps his metabolism slightly elevated, thus burning more calories than sitting. A tabletop mounted to the top of the machine holds his computer and telephone. And the desk grabs the attention of every student who passes by.

What’s the significance? Besides avoiding extra pounds, he also teaches students that staying healthy is a choice they can make in their own lives every day – not just in January.

 

Q. What inspired you to create a treadmill desk?

My students and I talk about health and fitness topics a lot. I try to foster a climate of intellectual curiosity and constantly suggest that they browse research for fun outside of their coursework. Sometimes they’ll tell me about a YouTube video they’ve seen or an article they’ve found. Somewhere along the way a student and I stumbled upon a New York Times story about a physician researcher at the Mayo Clinic who was using treadmill desks in workplace environments. The idea was intriguing enough to follow the rabbit trail into the scientific literature. The more I read, the more I stewed over the idea.  Whenever I asked students, “What do you think of a treadmill desk?” their reply was, “Do it.” Yes it was a cool idea, but at the end of the day, I wanted to get away from the confines of a traditional desk. I wanted to get moving.

For well over two years I had quietly dreamed of the idea. One day I woke up in an agitated mood state, frustrated with my own lack of initiative. I simply told myself today is the day…I WILL make this happen! No more dreaming.

Q. What is the message behind your desk – what do you want it to say to students?

The idea behind the treadmill desk is to disrupt the pattern of a seated, sedentary life style. I quietly hope to challenge students (directly or indirectly) to think about physical activity in a different way and to have a broader definition of what constitutes an active lifestyle.  It’s not always about being an elite athlete or clocking hours at the gym. It’s about finding ways to break away from habits of sedentary living and to get moving.

I sometimes imagine a treadmill classroom. Think about an 8 a.m. class…it would be impossible to fall asleep!

Q: What are the true health benefits of having a treadmill desk?

Walking at 1 MPH causes a small bump in metabolism. Added up over time, the extra caloric expenditure may have an effect on energy balance, provided one maintains a responsible diet. The health benefits are relatively small compared to traditional exercise. However, to move from sitting to standing behind a desk burns an extra 20 Kcal per hour; from sitting to walking at 1 MPH will burn an extra 100 Kcal per hour.

Aside from caloric expenditure, the greatest benefit I experience from the treadmill desk relates to work day energy level. With prolonged sitting, some people experience an afternoon lull and general tiredness. The opposite is true for me; walking on a treadmill work station gives me sustained energy. Because I do not have a sit-down desk, I have no options but to stand or walk at the treadmill desk whenever in office.

The longest stretch I have ever work-walked without a break was six hours; it was exhausting. On average I walk two and a half hours a day at 1 mph, or 1.2 mph when I feel the need to get moving.

Q. What kind of comments do you get about your desk?

Everyone has varying opinions on the treadmill desk. One day it’s a cool novelty, the next it’s the object of playful humor. A few people have been inspired to ponder the possibilities. Others think I’m a nut. One thing is for sure, it’s a conversation starter.

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