LEVINE D5CC0ED7-36A7-4184-9F8A-3200B6510F57
Jim Mone  /  AP
Dr. James Levine keeps a 1 mph pace on his treadmill while checking his e-mail May 26 in Rochester, Minn. The obesity researcher and his team at the Mayo Clinic have developed an alternative to traditional cubicles by combining a computer, desk and treadmill in one unit.
updated 6/7/2005 6:38:22 PM ET 2005-06-07T22:38:22

Sitting at their desks is about the last thing workers would do in Dr. James Levine’s office of the future.

Instead of being sedentary in front of their computers, they’d stand. But instead of standing still, they’d walk on a treadmill. And instead of meeting around a conference table, they’d talk business while walking laps on a track.

That’s exactly how Levine, a Mayo Clinic obesity researcher, and several of his colleagues have been working for the past five weeks or so.

'Ultimate office makeover'
“I hate going to the gym, which may be partly why I’m so interested in this,” he said, keeping up a 1 mph pace on his treadmill while checking e-mail and fielding questions from a reporter.

That speed is slow enough to avoid breaking a sweat but fast enough to burn an extra 100 calories per hour, or 1,000 a day, given his average 10-hour workdays, Levine said. And it helps the 41-year-old endocrinologist keep his 5-foot-8½-inch frame at 158 pounds.

“We’re talking more than 50 pounds of weight loss a year, if I were to keep my diet the same,” he said.

Levine is a leading researcher of NEAT — short for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” — the calories people burn during everyday activities such as standing, walking or even fidgeting.

A recently published study he led showed that thin people are on their feet an average of 152 more minutes a day than couch potatoes. Levine was brainstorming ways to address that 2½-hour NEAT deficit a few months ago when he had the idea for the “ultimate office makeover.”

“The response has to be appropriate for the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “And so we really thought, 'Is there a completely different way of working?”’

Alternatives to cubicles
Within four weeks, his team developed an alternative to the traditional cubicle — workstations that combine a computer, desk and treadmill into one unit. It was a refinement of a desk Levine created for himself about six months ago.

He and his team also put a carpeted track around the perimeter of their new 5,000-square-foot space. They made walls out of magnetic marker boards so they can stand up while developing project ideas.

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And while they were at it, they used black tape to mark a hockey net on the wall behind Levine’s treadmill so they can fire lightweight plastic pucks at the goal while talking to him.

“It’s great fun and it creates a whole positivity,” he said during an interview while touring the walking track. “Partly because it’s so new, but partly because it’s nice to be moving.”

The makeover was relatively cheap. Levine says the 10 workstations cost about $1,000 each — about half the cost of a cubicle — and remodeling the space cost about $5.50 per square foot.

Those who don’t feel like standing can always pull up a tall stool to work on their computers, he said, but the environment “sends you this message of 'Walking is the norm. Being upright is the norm.”’

Yes, there’s peer pressure, he says, but isn’t it better than peer pressure to bring doughnuts to work?

“Coercion to help you get healthier and happier, that isn’t so bad.”

More alert and focused
Staying fit doesn’t appear to be a major concern yet for Chinmay Manohar, a 24-year-old research assistant in Levine’s office. A runner and a hiker, he’s a trim 5-feet-8 and 130 pounds.

But he’s found Levine’s setup keeps him more alert and focused. When he’s soldering electronic gizmos, he stands at a raised workbench. When he’s computer programming, he walks on a treadmill. Somehow, typing isn’t a problem.

“It took me only a day or two to actually get acquainted with the system,” Manohar said. “Also, it keeps me fit.”

Levine has heard from people like Lois Yurow in Westfield, N.J., who wanted to know where she could get a treadmill computer workstation like his after she saw a newspaper photo of him walking on it.

“I looked at it and said, 'I want one of those things!”’ she recalled.

Though the treadmill-workstations aren’t commercially available yet, Mayo Clinic’s technology licensing people are working on that.

Yurow, 42, edits legal papers in her home office. She’s at her desk about six hours straight each day — with breaks to fill her water glass or throw in a load of laundry — until her children come home from school. She also puts in another hour at night after her kids have settled down.

“It would be great if there were something set up that would let me be standing up all the time ... and let me get my work done,” she said.

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