Why You Should Use a Pedal-Powered Computer at Work

 6 Nov 2019 -  Jim Gregory -  ~6 Minutes

There is probably nothing that will improve your health more than doing aerobic exercise. It can help you:

  1. Keep off excess weight
  2. Increase stamina, fitness, and strength
  3. Ward off viral illnesses
  4. Reduce your risk to many chronic diseases (heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, etc)
  5. Manage those chronic conditions
  6. Strengthen your heart
  7. Keep your arteries clear
  8. Boost your mood
  9. Stay active and be independent as you age
  10. Live longer

Medical societies and health agencies recommend a minimum of 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate aerobic exercise every week. These are activities like walking, bicycling, gardening, etc that raise your respiratory and heart rates to the point where you can still carry on a conversation but not sing.

It’s worth noting that 2.5 hours/week is the recommended minimum–some health researchers recommend at least an hour a day to maintain a healthy weight. Longer duration produces even greater benefits.

plot of reduction in mortality vs exercise
Reduction in all-cause mortality vs daily moderate exercise duration
(from Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study)

How Much Do People Exercise?

About 14% of all US adults work in physically-demanding jobs. Presumably, these people get all the physical activity they need through work.

Half of adult Americans report meeting the recommended minimum of 2.5 hr/wk of physical activity outside of work; i.e., during their “free” time. One-third say they engage in moderate-to-strenuous physical activity 5 hrs/wk in leisure physical activity.

But objective measures of activity level suggest that people vastly overestimate their level of physical activity. One study found fewer than 5% of adults actually met the defined minimum activity criteria.

Why People Don’t Exercise

Clearly a large proportion of adults don’t get enough physical activity in their daily lives. One often-reported reason is lack of time (which is difficult to believe when the average adult in the U.S. watched more than 4 hours per day in 2017)

A more likely reason is the opportunity cost of exercising. Time spent exercising exercise is time you could have been spent doing something else–working, studying, socializing with friends or family, etc.

The Cost of Exercising

The value of “free” time varies from person to person. There are a variety of approaches to calculate its monetary value. The simplest is to use the hourly cost of labor, since one hour spent exercising is one less hour that could be spent working.

Using the current average US hourly wage of $26.82/hour for the average value of a person’s time, the cost of meeting the minimum recommended 2.5 hours per week of aerobic physical activity is $67.05/week or $3487/yr. It’s worth noting that this is only the cost in terms of time; it doesn’t include other costs you might incur as part of an exercise program, like gym or membership fees, equipment purchases, or commuting costs.

Of course, your costs may be higher or lower than this. It all depends on how you value your time and how long you exercise.

Even worse, the time cost of exercising grows with each incremental benefit. This is because the benefits of exercising diminish with duration; i.e., the benefit gained from going from no exercise to 30 minutes a day is greater than the benefit gained from going from 30 minutes to 60 minutes a day. This discourages exercising long enough to obtain maximum benefit.

In short, the reason why few people exercise as long as they should is it simply costs too much. Their time is too valuable.

What About The Benefits of Exercise?

It may be argued that ignoring the benefits gained from exercising magnifies the value of its cost. Exercise obviously has a net benefit (i.e., the financial benefits of exercise are greater than it’s financial cost); otherwise, why would people bother exercising at all? While this is true, the problem is that the immediate benefits of exercising in the short-term are very difficult to value, and therefore do not influence people nearly as much as the opportunity cost of their time.

There are two reasons why the immediate benefits of exercise are difficult to value. First, while many of the benefits (like better weight control) are tangible, others are statistical (reduce likelihood of heart attack, stroke, or diabetes). This makes them difficult to value since the likelihood you’ll actually see the benefit is unknown. Second, any health benefit achieved through exercise is accrued far in the future, making them difficult to discount to their present value now.

Put another way, it’s much easier for a person to see the cost of an hour spent exercising now then the value of, say, a 40% reduction in the likelihood of having a stroke and a 20% reduction in the likelihood of a heart attack 20 years in the future. The opportunity cost of your time therefore becomes the primary determinant in deciding if, when, and how much to exercise.

Providing Benefits to Exercise

The only way to offset the opportunity cost is to provide an immediate, tangible benefit. For some people, this may be the camaraderie of an exercise class; for others, it may be the thought they can enjoy a treat after the workout. But not all people enjoy working out with others, and consuming more calories negates one of the potential benefits of exercise, namely weight control. Are there other benefits that could be used to encourage people to exercise? Yes, I will introduce one below.

Working Out While Working

The optimum exercise program therefore should:

  1. have minimal impact on your free time,
  2. have zero opportunity cost, so you will exercise long enough to see maximum benefit, and
  3. provide a tangible, short-term benefit that encourages you to exercise without negating any of its long-term benefits.

The solution to eliminating the time cost of exercise is to incorporate moderate aerobic exercise into the workday. If you spend some or most of the day sitting at a desk, this can be achieved using an exercise desk like a treadmill desk or bike desk. After a period of adaptation, an exercise desk can provide more than enough physical activity with no loss of productivity.

I believe for most people a bike desk is the best option. It’s safer (no danger of falling off), causes less distraction and motion sickness (your head moves less since your sitting stationary), and consumes no electricity.

The best solution, though, is a bike desk that generates electricity. It can produce enough electricity to meet most or all of the electrical needs for an energy-efficient work station, thereby providing the tangible benefit of reducing your carbon footprint.

To achieve the highest level of energy independence usually requires pedaling a minimum of two or more hours a day. This incentives you to engage in daily, long-duration exercise and gain the benefits it provides without sacrificing any of your free time.

That is why I like using the PedalPC. It’s a comfortable means of getting plentiful amounts of daily exercise without taking extra time while delivering both short- and long-term benefits.