Even though he has a desk job, Sean Williams gets in at least a couple of miles of walking during his workday.
Williams, who works in public relations for Carle Foundation Hospital, walks while he makes phone calls, does paperwork or works on the computer. He uses a treadmill workstation, one of two that Carle has for employees.
Williams walks on the treadmill for at least one hour of his workday.
“I find myself getting tasks done faster when I’m on my feet,” Williams said. “Without a doubt, using the treadmill has significantly increased my focus, no matter what project I’m working on. Even after I go back to my desk and sit down, there’s a carryover effect.” 
The dangers of sitting too much have been well-publicized in recent years. Sitting for long periods, even if you also exercise regularly, increases your risk of heart disease and decreases life expectancy. Prolonged sitting causes the electrical activity in your muscles to drop, you burn far fewer calories, your insulin effectiveness drops and the number of enzymes that break down fat decreases.
“Human beings really weren’t designed to sit as much as we sit. With the jobs we do now, sitting is a bigger part of our lives than it has been in the past,” said Dr. Napoleon Knight, medical director of hospital medicine at Carle and associate medical director of quality. “Years and years ago, we were on our feet, walking, moving, chasing animals and hunting. We use a lot fewer calories than we have in the past.”
He sees firsthand the alarming increase in the number of obese people, both adults and children, and the resulting health problems.
Knight is a member of Carle’s wellness committee, which proposed getting the treadmill desks as a pilot project to help employees move more during the day and improve their health. The desk “allows you to walk continuously over the course of the day at a pace that doesn’t exhaust you, at a pace that is comfortable but allows you to get your work done at the same time,” he said.
As soon as Williams heard the wellness committee was considering treadmill desks, he volunteered his department for the pilot project.
He already exercised consistently and focused on maintaining a healthy weight. But he also was finishing a master’s degree, and he was finding it harder to make time for exercise. Then in January, Williams was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
“When this treadmill got put in, it was an incredible opportunity and an ideal time for me personally, due to my busy schedule and recent diagnosis,” he said.
The treadmill in his department was installed in March, and Williams began walking on it every day. Within six months of his diagnosis, a measure of his blood sugar levels was better than the target for diabetics, he said. It’s also been easier for him to keep his weight at the same level and he’s had more energy.
Carle employees often walk in Crystal Lake Park or in the stairwells and tunnels of the hospital and clinic buildings. They also can use the exercise equipment in the cardiac rehabilitation area during certain times of day, Williams said.
But all those things take an employee away from his or her work. And for Williams, finishing a task often won out over a walk break before the treadmill desk was available.
The nine employees in the public relations department can sign up to use the treadmill through a shared calendar. They can forward their phone lines to the phone at the treadmill workstation and log onto the computer there to work. It’s in use an average of four to five hours a day, Williams said.
The treadmill goes up to 4 mph. Williams averages 2 to 2.5 mph while he is walking and working on the treadmill. Williams has logged 255 miles since March, and the workers in the office collectively have walked about 825 miles.
A second treadmill workstation was installed in Carle’s financial services office.
“I don’t think there’s any question, if employees are healthier, if wellness is improved, they are going to perform better in the workplace and they are going to do a better job satisfying the patients and customers they work with,” Knight said.
In turn, employees can influence their family members, co-workers and friends to be healthier as well, he said.
Staying active at work
You might not have a treadmill desk available to use at your office. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get in some activity during the workday.
The key is to find simple and easy ways to move during the day, says Dr. Napolean Knight, medical director of hospital medicine and associate medical director of quality at Carle Foundation Hospital.
“I think one of the barriers for people, when they are trying to find a way to exercise, is sometimes they make it too complicated,” Knight said. “They think they have to pack a bag, put on special shoes, go to the gym. There are lots of things you can do in the workplace that allow you to get up and move and increase your heart rate.”
For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator and take several short walking breaks throughout your day. Knight can raise his computer keyboard so he can work standing up rather than sitting. Other ideas include sitting on an exercise ball rather than a desk chair and using resistance bands for strength training during the day.
Those with desk jobs should also be aware of the position in which they sit.
Dr. Mark Wertz, a Champaign chiropracter, said a person’s ears should line up with the shoulders, the elbows and knees should be bent at 90-degree angles and feet should be flat on the floor. You should have some lumbar support for your lower back, and you should look directly at your computer monitor while working, not down.
Wertz said bringing your keyboard toward you can help to avoid reaching forward with your arms and to keep you from leaning your head forward toward your computer. He also recommended interrupting the amount of time spent sitting by getting up to take a walk periodically.
Wertz suggested stretching and strengthening exercises that focus on the upper back, neck flexors, pectorals, hip flexors and glutes, to counteract weakness caused by sitting in one position for a long time.
Photo: Carle public relations employee Sean Williams works at the treadmill desk in his office in Urbana. Photo by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette