Catherine O’Brien

The Problem:

“Sitting is the new smoking”. This is a phrase that I heard numerous times while working my last office job. Of course, this is an alarming statement so I made a concerted effort to get up and walk around at least once an hour. The idea that sitting could be as bad for my heart and body as smoking was enough to make me get up and walk across the office to speak with coworkers rather than sending an email or picking up the phone.

Many offices have made changes to combat the negative effects associated with a sedentary workday. First came the standing desk and then the treadmill desk. I was surprised and intrigued when I recently came across an article showcasing a “cycling” desk. All of these contraptions have the same goal in mind – to get people moving throughout the workday. If you are like me, though, you may be wondering if you’d be able to get work done as effectively or accurately while walking or cycling. A study conducted by Torbeyns and colleagues researched this very topic.

The researchers were interested in observing sedentary individuals so they recruited participants with sedentary day jobs who reported at no more than 2.5 hours of moderate or intense physical activity during the week. Participants were excluded if they had any attentional problems like ADHD, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease etc.

The Study:

The aim of the study was to evaluate participants’ cognitive ability while sitting and while cycling. They hypothesized that cycling would not only not interfere with cognitive performance, but that it would actually improve cognitive ability and facilitate brain function.

The study began with a familiarization session in which participants came to the laboratory and on two consecutive days and practiced a series of cognitive batteries while sitting and while cycling. Participants were instructed to cycle at 30% of maximum ability (fairly low intensity) for 30-minutes. After they completed the two familiarization sessions, participants attended two test sessions, one in which they completed tasks while sitting and the other in which they completed tasks while cycling. The order and time of day of the tests were counterbalanced to eliminate carryover and time of day effects.

Related Article: Sitting Disease – The New Smoking

The cognitive tests administered included the Stroop test (a measure of executive function and attention) the Rey auditory verbal learning test (RAVLT) (a measure of short term memory), a typing test and the Rosvold continuous performance test (a measure of selective attention and vigilance). Electrophysiological measurements were monitored throughout testing. EEG measurements were recorded during the Stroop and RCPT tests and Heart Rate was tracked throughout all testing.

The Results:

man working at deskConsistent with their hypotheses, the researchers found that cycling did not interfere with typing ability or short term memory. Furthermore, participants in the cycling condition demonstrated quicker reaction times on the Stroop task and the continuous performance task. Unfortunately, the changes in cognitive performance were not accompanied by changes in brain activity as measured by EEG. Event related potentials (ERPs) did not differ across conditions

The Takeaway:

Engaging in low-intensity cycling does not inhibit performance on typing or short term memory tasks and even has the potential to improve performance related to reaction time. In this way, using a cycling desk can help reduce the amount of time you spend sedentary while improving performance on certain types of cognitive tasks. If you have access to any sort of treadmill or cycling desk at your otherwise sedentary job, give it a shot – your body, brain, and boss will all thank you.  Keep in mind that the present study only tested performance during 30-minute increments so this should be considered when applying the findings to a longer stretch of time.


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Torbeyns, R., Geus, B., Bailey, S., De Pauw, K., Decroix, L., Van Cutsem, J., and Meeusen, R. (2016). Cycling on a bike desk positively influences cognitive performance. PLoS ONE, 11(11), 1-14.

Riccio, C.A., Reynolds, C.R., Lowe, P., and Moore, J.J. (2001). The continuous performance test: A window on the neural substrates for attention? Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 12(2002), 235-272.