Woman working while walking on a treadmill
Cognition and perception, Work and occupational

Working at a treadmill desk boosts your memory and concentration, researchers claim

The researchers came to this conclusion after asking nine students to spend forty minutes reading text and emails on computer while walking at 2.25km/h at a treadmill desk.

24 March 2015

By Christian Jarrett

We’re told sitting is the new smoking and that we should consider working at standing desks, or perhaps better still, treadmill desks. Indeed, the health benefits of treadmill desks are indisputable, say neuroscientists in Canada, led by Élise Labonté-LeMoyne. More contentious, these researchers explain, is the evidence for the psychological effect of such set-ups on our work performance.

For instance, one study found impaired maths problem solving while walking; another found no adverse effects on mental function; while yet another reported benefits of treadmill walking for creativity.

Adding to this mixed picture, but clearly in the favour of treadmill desks, Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-workers report that working at a treadmill desk leads to subsequent memory and attention benefits. The researchers came to this conclusion after asking 9 students to spend forty minutes reading text and emails on computer while walking at 2.25km/h at a treadmill desk (previously judged to be the optimal walking speed). The researchers then tested the students’ memory for the text and email content 10 minutes later, at which point they were seated at a normal desk.

Compared with 9 control participants who read the text and emails at a standard desk, the treadmill group showed superior memory performance (“the odds of answering a question correctly were 34.9 per cent higher in the walking group”). The treadmill students also said they’d felt better able to concentrate during the reading task; moreover, their surface brain activity (as measured by EEG) during the memory quiz showed signs (lower theta frequency and higher alpha frequency) that the researchers interpreted as indicative of superior mental functioning.

“… our results suggest that the use of a treadmill desk can improve attention and memory after the user has stopped walking,” Labonté-LeMoyne and her co-workers concluded. “It can also improve self-perceived attention, which could lead to increased adherence to this new habit. Improvements in work performance should be convincing for organizations that may be inclined to subsidize the use of treadmill desks.”

Readers of a sceptical persuasion might frown at the small sample size, and they might wonder too about the possibility that these apparent beneficial effects were due to little more than the novelty of working at a treadmill desk – benefits which might therefore disappear as the novelty factor wears off.

Further reading

Labonté-LeMoyne, Santhanam, R., Léger, P., Courtemanche, F., Fredette, M., & Sénécal, S. (2015). The delayed effect of treadmill desk usage on recall and attention Computers in Human Behavior, 46, 1-5 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.054