Catrine Tudor-Locke is proof that someone with a desk job can stay physically active at work.
Dr. Tudor-Locke, an associate professor in walking behavior at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, does research to see how people’s walking habits have changed over generations and through populations.She has incorporated her area of research into her own lifestyle and has a treadmill desk that she walks on for typically two or three hours a day while working on her computer.
She walks on a treadmill as she faces her computer, which is set up on her desk at arm’s level. Her gait is slow enough that she can accomplish her desk work.
“I was just sitting too much,” Tudor-Locke says. “I got one of these (treadmill), and I practice what I preach.”
Tudor-Locke, who has a doctoral degree in health studies, says she was physically active outside of work before getting the treadmill desk, but now she is able to remain active even while doing traditionally sedentary work.
She noted that she is not an exercise physiologist but instead focuses on evaluating data she collects from study participants.
“My focus has been on program evaluation, which is an information science, and epidemiology,” she says. “I do number crunching and evaluate change.”
She says she makes sure to consult with her colleagues and friends who know more about what goes on at the cellular level in the body than she does.
“I keep my exercise physiology friends close, my bio-statistical friends close…but I’m more focused on a broad way of approaching walking behavior.”
She explained that people’s lifestyles have become more and more inactive and her research is connected with those factors.
“Once upon a time everybody’s grandparents would say they walked both ways to school, and subsequently, in modern generations, nobody walks to school,” she says. “I’m interested in the ramifications of such a change on a population level.”
Tudor-Locke uses pedometers, accelerometers and gait mats to monitor participants walking habits.
“Accelerometers are basically a more expensive, fancier version of a pedometer. It gives me acceleration so I know whether a step occurred and how fast it occurred.”
She also explained how gait mats function. “I use gait mats, which are electronic rugs, basically that people will walk across at various speeds,” she says. “I might actually get them to walk across (the mat), and just before they enter the threshold, I’ll ask them to spell a word backwards and give them a cognitive challenge.”
She uses accelerometers and gait mats in conjunction with each other to apply her research to real-world situations. Using those devices, she can monitor a person’s activity throughout the day.
“Although a person might walk across a 20-foot gait mat at this pace and say that’s their normal pace, I can look at accelerometer data and see how many steps they actually spend at that pace or above that pace during the day,” she says. “I find out, on a population level, it’s (maintaining that pace) a very rare phenomenon.”
She says because she was already physically active before installing a treadmill desk in her office, she hasn’t gained any major physiological benefits.
But for those people who live physically inactive lives, she says the physiological benefits should be greater. While she has conducted many studies monitoring walking behavior, she has yet to conduct a study using treadmill desks.
Tudor-Locke notes that her treadmill desk isn’t just “a personal indulgence,” but it has allowed her “to capture some data and persuade some people to do some research in this area.” She will soon begin doing just that in an upcoming study.
“We’re going to look at putting these treadmill walking desks into an industry of about 10 or 12 desks, and we’re going to look at workers who are probably less eccentric about walking behaviors than I am,” she explains.
“Every day I wear running shoes (to work),” she says. Tudor-Locke says she has been using the treadmill desk for more than three years.
She says she can’t walk the entire work-day though. “My feet get tired. When my feet get tired, then I sit.” She can adjust the height of desk to her sitting height, treadmill walking height or standing height.
Tudor-Locke says she is not the only researcher at Pennington who has a treadmill desk. She says Dr. Marc Hamilton, a professor in inactivity physiology and an exercise physiologist, also has a treadmill desk in his office.
“He just manufactured it out of his own treadmill and a desk and duct tape whereas I actually got a professional one,” she says.
While Tudor-Locke studies the health effects of physical activity, specifically, walking, Hamilton studies inactivity, especially over-sitting and ways to help people live healthier lives particularly in people are unable to exercise.
Though the study of inactivity physiology is still in its infancy, Hamilton says, research is beginning to show the dangers of sitting too much.
“There is still very little known about how the major rise in sedentary lifestyles over the past few decades affects how the human body operates,” Hamilton says. “There are now over a dozen studies starting to indicate that sitting around all day is a major cause for common chronic diseases like heart disease, some cancers. All cause mortality.”
He explained that even healthy, young individuals actually spend more time sitting than they do sleeping. He notes that even intense exercise does not help decrease the risk factors caused by sitting throughout the day.
Tudor-Locke is aware of the monumental difference in the physiology of walking versus sitting. “My energy expenditure walking while typing at 2 mph is double what it is sitting,” she says. She added that she walks on her treadmill at a constant 2 mph.
Hamilton says while exercising, by walking, for example, is a great way to stay healthy for many individuals, he points out that for those people who are physically unable to exercise due to certain medical conditions, they must seek an alternative way to reduce their time spent sitting.
Low Intensity Physical Activity is that alternative, Hamilton says. LIPA, which can be simply moving around the house or working in the yard, is less strenuous than walking but keeps those who are incapable intense exercise moderately active for extended periods of time, he says. On average,
Hamilton says research has begun to show that LIPA is extremely effective preventing health problems caused by sitting while high intensity exercise mixed with long periods of sitting does not prevent those types of health problems.
Still, Tudor-Locke says maintaining walking ability as one ages and becomes less mobile is an important factor when analyzing a person’s physical wellness. She and her colleagues will soon conduct a study aimed at improving older adults walking speed, which often declinesin geriatric populations.
“It’s an indicator of bad things to come so species, animals, mammals—everything slows down as they age,” she explained. “It makes sense to try to improve that (gait speed) to try and delay or prevent.”