Does Using A Bike Desk Make You Think Better?

Gretchen Reynolds recently reported in the New York Times on a study that sought to determine if standing or moving while working at a desk improved one's ability to think. The study, published in the May 2017 issue of the The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, measured the cognitive performance of overweight adults after sitting at a desk, standing at a desk, walking on a treadmill desk, and pedalling at a pedal desk. The study tried to simulate work in a typical office environment:

During one visit, the volunteers sat continuously for eight hours (apart from bathroom breaks), while using a computer and talking on the phone, as if it were any workday. Twice during the day, they also completed computerized measures of many thinking skills, including working memory and decision making.

Then, during three other faux workdays, the volunteers broke up their sitting time by variously standing, walking at a treadmill desk or pedaling a modified stationary bicycle placed beneath their desks for at least 10 minutes once an hour. The exercise was gentle — a walking pace of one mile per hour or comparable effort while pedaling — and the volunteers typed and chatted during these breaks. They also repeated the tests of thinking twice each day, immediately after standing or exercising.

The study found that both standing and moving improved thinking ability. But, of all of the methods tested, cycling improved it the most.

The study was very small in size (only 9 participants!), so it's difficult to generalize the findings across the entire populations. But it does reinforce my own experience using my pedal-powered computer for over 7 years. I find that I feel much more alert and engaged after a few minutes of pedalling compared to sitting still. This is especially true after having eaten a meal.

But it's important to point out that the level of effort required of the cycling group was pretty low. Dr. Sarah Mullane, one of the study's authors, told me that the cyclists in their study pedalled at 25-30 RPM and had a work rate of about 20 W, to match the output of the walking group. Those numbers are only about 40% of my usual output and pedalling cadence.

It would be interesting to see a similar experiment done using a higher cadence and power output. My ability to get tasks done on my computer starts to suffer when my electrical power output rises much above 45 W. That would be equivalent to a work rate of about 60 W.

It's very difficult to think well when you have to pedal hard. If you're trying to generate electricity while working at a bike desk, you need to be careful not to overload yourself.

Most people who have tried my desk seem to be able to produce at least 30 W of electricity without impairing their ability to get work done on a computer. This is more than enough electricity to completely power almost any fully-charged laptop computer, plus recharge a phone as well. But, if you're trying to recharge a laptop while you're using it, you may find it difficult to concentrate on your work. It all depends on how much power your laptop draws while charging, as well as how much power you can comfortably generate.

written by
Jim Gregory (contact)

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