Dinesh John, an assistant professor of health sciences, uses a standing desk in his campus office. Image: Brooks CanadayYour desk is making you fat.

That’s the thinking behind the increasing pop­u­larity of standing desks, the focus of research by Dinesh John, an assis­tant pro­fessor of health sci­ences. This semester, John is leading a pilot study focused on observing and mon­i­toring a group of North­eastern Univ. staff mem­bers equipped with new work­sta­tions that allow them to com­plete their day-to-day tasks on their feet.

“Inac­tion and obe­sity are major health issues, but simple mod­i­fi­ca­tions to their work­spaces can make very real changes,” says John, whose Robinson Hall office is equipped with a device that raises his laptop when he wants to stand and lowers it when he needs to sit. “People may ini­tially be appre­hen­sive, but they come to like the idea that they can be active while they’re working.”

John points to studies that have shown sit­ting for pro­longed spans — like a typ­ical eight-hour workday — is harmful to your health, plain and simple. Standing desks and other inter­ven­tions, he says, can help break long-held habits and lead to a healthier workforce.

John’s aca­d­emic research focuses on “work­place well­ness,” the idea that simple changes in work behaviors — like using a printer on the oppo­site side of the office or walking to a colleague’s office rather than sending an email — add up over the course of a day and pro­duce sig­nif­i­cant health ben­e­fits. Americans need at least 30 min­utes of phys­ical activity each day, he says, adding that much or all of that can be accom­plished in the office.

John will col­lab­o­rate on the pilot study with two North­eastern colleagues — Carmen Sceppa, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of health sci­ences, and Jack Den­ner­lein, a pro­fessor of phys­ical therapy. Funded by the Harvard School of Public Health, the study will span eight months, during which the 10 par­tic­i­pants will receive base­line health assess­ments, sub­se­quent health exam­i­na­tions, and indi­vidual devices that provide reminders to get up and move around after periods of inactivity.

John joined the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences fac­ulty last fall. This research study fol­lows on his previous work at the Uni­v. of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he exam­ined the fea­si­bility and effectiveness of tread­mill desks as a weight-loss tool.

“We found that pro­duc­tivity goes down mar­gin­ally when people are new to this,” John says, “but because walking and standing are second nature people are very quickly able to use walking or standing desks for between 90 min­utes and two hours each day.”

John says employers also stand to ben­efit from research on the effec­tive­ness of standing desks. If new work­sta­tions are shown to improve workers’ health, then lower health-insurance costs and fewer days lost to employees’ ill­nesses could result.

John also notes that a handful of pro­fes­sors and staff mem­bers are already using standing desks or similar equip­ment on campus. Pete Mano­lios, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Informa­tion Sci­ence, uses a tread­mill desk in his West Vil­lage H office to stay active throughout the day. He got the new work­sta­tion two years ago, real­izing that his increas­ingly busy schedule left him less time to stay active.

“I walk about a marathon a week,” Mano­lios says. “My body works better when I’m active. If I’m just sit­ting here all day, that’s not an optimal state for me. I feel more alert and ener­getic using my tread­mill workstation.”

None of his co-workers have bought their own tread­mill desks — which can retail for more than $1,000 — but many have started using standing workstations.

“It’s not a workout, but it’s some­thing that keeps you active when you’d be oth­er­wise sit­ting all day,” Mano­lios says. “It’s been a great change to how I work every day.”