Fast Company reports this week on a study by HEC-Montreal postdoctoral researcher Élise Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-authors, published in Computers in Human Behavior. The scholars examined the impact of treadmill desks on attention and short-term recall. One should definitely note that the sample size was very, very small. However, the findings certainly are interesting and encourage further research in this area. The researchers examined 18 subjects. One-half of the participants used a treadmill desk and walked at 1.4 miles per hour while working. The other half of the participants sat a regular desk. The researchers described the task given to participants:
The reading task was taken from Leger et al. (2014) and involves reading a lengthy text while periodically receiving emails. Participants were told to picture themselves in a scenario where they would have to report to their superior in 40 min on the content of the text and some of the emails. Some emails were pertinent to the topic at hand while others were irrelevant (e.g., co-worker’s birthday party, cafeteria lunch menu, etc.). Participants had to optimize their use of time and decide whether or not to open and read each email depending on its subject line. The task ended after 40 minutes.
The people working at the treadmill desk performed significantly better (35% better) on a recall test after the 40 minute period. Interestingly, the scholars also monitored the research subjects using electroencephalography (EEG testing). Here are the results:
For the EEG, significant results were found for the recall task, specifically in the first half of the task... The group differences appear mostly in the right temporo-parietal region. We observed significantly more theta activity in the seated group (p = 0.02–0.05) and more alpha activity in the walking group (p = 0.05). Previous studies had shown that good memory performance is correlated with a decrease in theta power and an increase in alpha power ( Klimesch, 1999). Past work also showed that an increase in gamma power in the parietal region is correlated with attentional processes ( Müller, Gruber, & Keil, 2000) and memory ( Lisman, 2010). Our results are therefore in accordance with improved performance by the walking group on a task that requires memory and attention.
Not everyone has access to a treadmill desk, nor can they secure one for their office. However, you might want to think about how much time you spend walking or standing during the day. Do you have to be seated for all your work? Could you walk or stand at times, and might that affect performance on the job? I'm curious to see more research with a larger sample size to build upon this interesting study.