Treadmill lets doctor practice what he preaches

January 7, 2012 8:24:58 PM PST
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But all that sitting?

No thanks.

So Lee had an unusual request when he was offered the job as chairman of Methodist Hospital's ophthalmology department. He wanted a treadmill desk, a small, virtually silent treadmill paired with a chest-high desk, allowing him to work out while he handled administrative duties.

"Being chairman, you're sitting in the chair a lot," he said. "When I took this job, I knew I was going to become a sedentary office worker."

Like a lot of other doctors, Lee tries to talk with his patients about their weight. The treadmill desk hasn't made that less awkward, but he says at least he isn't recommending something he doesn't do himself.

"Physicians are people that tell you to exercise, eat right and reduce your stress level, and they do none of the above," he said.

The health risks of inactivity are well-documented.

Federal guidelines recommend adults get at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate exercise every week - that includes walking - to ward off a host of diseases, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. More is better.

An Israeli study reported last fall in Cell Physiology even suggested too much sitting can make your rear end bigger, spurring cells to produce more liquid fat.

As an ophthalmologist, Lee deals with diseases of the eye, and he says they, too, are often caused by excess weight.

Some are complications of Type 2 diabetes or hypertension. And Lee said he has seen an increasing number of cases of psuedotumor cerebri, a condition caused by increased pressure inside the skull. The symptoms mimic those of a brain tumor - dizziness, headache, blurred or double vision - and Lee said it's most common in overweight women. Losing weight is one of the recommended treatments.

But talking to patients about their weight isn't easy.

"It's always a touchy subject," Lee said. "We try to frame it as healthy eating and healthy lifestyle. If you just tell a patient, `Your disease is caused because you're too fat,' they may not like that. They may not come back."

Lee was thin, even before getting the treadmill.

"I was thin but not fit," he said. "Now, I feel fit."

The idea of a treadmill desk is generally credited to Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic, whose research found people burned an extra 100 calories an hour while walking at the desks.

Lee first saw one while visiting a friend who worked at the Mayo Clinic; now he walks between two and five miles a day while making phone calls and answering emails.

The treadmill is small and doesn't go faster than two mph. That keeps it quiet, he said.

"And I don't get sweaty, because it's so slow."

Being more active on the job also helps him to avoid the post-lunch slump that once sent him for coffee.

Lee still has a full-size treadmill at home.

"It's become a clothes hanger," he said. "I use this one way more."

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