Running on a tight schedule? A treadmill desk could be the answer.

Weiyun Chen, a health and fitness associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, investigates correlations among exercise, sleep, mental health and academic performance, focusing on promoting healthy lifestyles for students in her Physical Activity & Health Laboratory.

In a recent study, Zhanjia Zhang, a Kinesiology graduate student in Chen’s lab, examined active work environments, such as the treadmill desk, and tracked participants’ executive function as they performed mental tasks during physical activity. These tasks tested working memory, inhibition — the ability to focus on a relevant task — and cognitive flexibility — the ability to transition between tasks. Zhang found concurrent physical activity negatively affected only working memory, rendering treadmill desks a viable workspace for other tasks.

“(Active workstations help people) gain some health benefits, but meanwhile you don’t compromise your work efficiency,” Zhang said. “Maybe in the future we will see more companies use these stations as a way to improve their employees’ health.”

Technologies such as treadmill desks would be particularly beneficial when workers are performing tasks that do not involve memory usage.  According to Zhang, individuals burn 191 calories an hour while walking at a one-mile-per-hour pace, as opposed to 72 calories sitting.

The lab also explores the correlation between activity and improved mental health and concentration.

Kinesiology junior Morgan Chen has researched the effects of active recesses on concentration in fourth-grade students for the past two years in the lab. Her study found 30-minute active breaks increased classroom focus and performance.

“There’s an increasing trend for recess to be eliminated for longer instruction periods in the classroom,” she said. “There should be an increased awareness that active breaks should be implemented to increase performance.”

LSA sophomores Jinger Haynes and Ana Cahuas worked in the lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, an examined the relationship between exercise and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

Cahus said her fascination with personal health investment was part of her motivation for the research.

“I was interested in ways that students can put their health in their own hands,” she said.

For example, Haynes found social support and exercise reduced anxiety levels in college students. She hopes these findings encourage other students to act in ways that benefit them.

“It’s really important for students to take these results into consideration,” Haynes said. “Mental health is a big issue many students are battling with. I think the more information we put out there, the more we are going to be able to help people in the future and understand how some of these factors interact with each other.”

Weiyun Chen ultimately hopes to spread awareness about the benefits of an active lifestyle among both children and college students.

“I would like to use physical activity to promote psychological well-being as well and physical fitness and cognitive health,” Weiyun Chen said, noting University students would benefit particularly from active behavior due to their intensive workloads.

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