Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, who heads up the U. of I.'s department of kinesiology and community health in the College of Applied Health Sciences, measures his work productivity by miles not minutes.
Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, head of the U. of I.'s department of kinesiology and community health, takes a stationary walk "around" his office while catching up on email. He said he's been active for most of his life – a choice that recent U. of I. research shows can lead not only to physical, but mental longevity.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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That's because Chodzko-Zajko and several members of the department have taken the standing workstation movement a step further, making the treadmill a central component of their office workspaces.
"I seldom exercise in a gym or fitness center, but I'm really physically active," he said during an interview atop his moving treadmill, which is at the center of a vertically styled workspace designed for moving.
Instead of going to the gym, Chodzko-Zajko tries to live a life where potential motion is never wasted. He jogs to work, keeps a bike on campus and takes the stairs - not specifically to exercise, he says, but as an ecological choice that just happens to burn calories in the process.
After a while, he said, physical activity just becomes a part of the routine.
"I can't work on a computer sitting down anymore," he said. "It just feels so strange. If I'm writing a paper, I'd rather be standing."
He said research being conducted by his department, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and others supports the active-emphasis workspace and the idea that staying on the move can lead to physical fitness and mental longevity.
Many U. of I. studies have shown that aerobic exercise actually improves the structure and function of the brain.
A study led by Beckman Institute director Art Kramer found that older adults who walked for 40 minutes three times a week for a year had increases in brain connectivity and performed better on cognitive tests than peers who didn't engage in the walking program. A study from the laboratory of kinesiology and community health professor Charles Hillman found that exercise enhanced brain function in 7-, 8- and 9-year-old children. And another study of older adults led by Beckman Institute postdoctoral research associate Agnieszka Burzynska found that exercise - and the avoidance of sedentary behavior - enhanced the integrity of the brain's white matter, which facilitates communication between different brain regions.
Kramer also practices what's being discovered and subsequently preached.
Kramer, especially during long days in the office, sets his office treadmill, which includes a standing workstation, to a slow gait as he catches up on reading and email from a laptop computer.
"I don't do papers up here because I like to spread things out," he said. "If I'm walking around campus a lot that day, I may not worry about it that much. I've been in sports and outdoor activities since I can remember. It's been nice to put it all together in my research."
Some of the findings in the research led Burzynska, who worked with Kramer, to rethink her workspace.
"Our research has shown that exercising, but also prolonged sitting, can affect the physiology of the brain," she said. "It motivated me to change things around. I decided I needed to move more when I'm here working."
Burzynska, already an avid bicyclist and rock climber, cobbled together her own standing workstation, using a table from IKEA and other pieces to make a workspace that includes room for her elbows. She said she uses the desk most when she's reviewing brain scans or editing a document.
"I get tired when I sit all day," she said. "But after a day on my feet, I feel much more alert. I've noticed a big difference. I don't feel like I drowned in front of my computer."
She said there is much more to learn about exercise's effect on the brain, but believes the evidence will continue to support the value of an active lifestyle. She said she hopes the research results will lead people to think differently about exercise and movement.
"I would like to see a time come when it's not rude or strange to ask in a classroom, at a meeting or conference if it's OK for you to stand," she said.
Kramer said he hopes the research helps lead a revolution against the sedentary lifestyle - and makes people realize that a lifetime of even moderate, regular activity can produce benefits later in life.
Chodzko-Zajko said changing the sedentary culture is difficult because it requires people to step out of their comfort zones to try something new.
"People can sometimes be anxious and resistant to change," he said. "By providing opportunities for people to be more active, a department can send an important message."
To that end, last year Chodzko-Zajko's department offered two computer/treadmill stations for general use by departmental faculty and staff members, though the number of takers has not been overwhelming.
"We believe in providing healthier options and we're looking at it from a prevention standpoint," he said. "Even if it's a slow change, I want to be known for the efforts we're making."
One of the problems for office workers is that chronic problems caused by inadequate ergonomic conditions may not even appear until decades down the road.
Gay Miller, a professor of pathobiology, said she suffered from sciatica pain for years before discovering the standing desk about four years ago.
"They are absolute heaven as far as I'm concerned," she said, noting she has two such workstations, one at work which raises to any height by lever, the other a homemade milk crate version at her home. They both serve the same task.
"I spend about 90 percent of my time standing now," she said. "It's given me a lot more freedom, and I'd recommend it to anyone."
Getting an accommodation for her workspace wasn't easy and involved several different campus contact points.
She said she'd like to see a greater campus emphasis on improving the design and functionality of workspaces, more funding to support the effort and more information given to employees on their ergonomic options.
She said doing so could produce healthier employees who get more work done.
"We shouldn't have to defend our ability to protect ourselves at work," she said.