Work out at work: Staffing firm Salo keeps employees moving

If your working life is spent in front of a computer screen, you can hardly be blamed for gaining a few extra pounds over the course of your career.

Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist based at the Mayo Clinic, points to sitting as an important culprit of weight gain. His research has found that obese individuals tend to sit two-and-a-half more hours per day than lean people.

So what’s a Downtown office worker to do?

Salo LLC, a professional staffing firm based at 13th Street & Harmon Place, has taken Levine’s research to heart and installed over a dozen treadmill desks in its office. The $6,000 setup looks like a standard treadmill that is outfitted with an adjustable countertop. There’s a phone jack for a headset and a computer attached to the table. Employees can pull up their home computer’s desktop right at the walking workstation.

On a Wednesday last month at 9 a.m., treadmills were already in use inside two meeting rooms, and a handful of staff members were using the treadmill desks while typing or talking on the phone. Top walking speeds on the treadmill hit just two miles an hour, but Levine says the simple movement can still burn hundreds of calories in a day.

The founders of Salo have long been interested in promoting an active and energetic culture. Co-founder Amy Langer was burnt out on long work weeks, and she vowed never to impose them on her own staff. She and co-founder John Folkestad decided to make “health and wellness” a cornerstone of their new company’s philosophy six years ago.

Their office has an open floor plan, and on one end they installed a Wii with a huge monitor, along with foosball, darts and arcade games. Staff periodically take “walking meetings” out to Loring Park. The office listens to music all day, alternating between satellite radio stations and “iPod” sessions with each staffer choosing 10 songs.

Langer was inspired to custom-build a walking desk for herself in late 2005 after she read about Levine’s research in a magazine. She and Folkestad were so intrigued by Levine’s research that 18 staff members recently participated in a six-month study to see how effective walking throughout the workday would be.

Participation in the study was a tough decision for some of the staff. The research involved periodic blood tests and a body fat measurement that required stripping down to underwear and climbing into a “bed pod” that one staff member said looks like a space capsule. Participants wore activity monitors throughout the workday, and they were charged with increasing their daily activity.  

Some people worried that productivity would go down due to the extra distractions, but revenues actually jumped 10 percent in late 2007 during the first three months of the study.  

All of the participants lost weight, and two men in particular lost 25 pounds each.

In total, the participants lost 156 pounds, 143 of which was body fat. Nine participants who had expressed a desire to lose weight lost an average of 15.4 pounds. The participants also saw a drop in their total cholesterol, with plasma triglycerides dropping an average of 37 percent.

The treadmills didn’t fall out of fashion when the study was over. The office started with four of the treadmill desks, and today the company has invested in 16 of them to cut down on wait times for the next open treadmill. Walkers said writing is a bit challenging on the treadmill, but talking on the phone and using the computer are no-brainers.

Levine cites that by 2010, more than half the workforce of developed countries will be working at computers.

With nearly one-third of the U.S. population classified as obese, and obesity-related healthcare costing companies $45 billion each year, Levine thinks “walk-while-you-work” strategies could be cost-effective. Other workplace strategies that advise staff to do things like take the stairs instead of the elevator are too short to be very effective, he says, and gym programs require hefty time commitments. His research has concluded that for most people, only a small change in energy expenditure or caloric intake is required to prevent obesity. He says increasing nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) could go a long way toward better weight control.