June 19, 2018

Fit for the Library: Clemson Students Study on Stationary Bikes

Clemson University Cooper Clemson University’s Cooper Library in Clemson, SC, has a new addition that may seem out of place at first glance—a study hall filled with stationary exercise bikes. The space isn’t being taken over by the phys ed department, though. The bikes are FitDesks, specially equipped cycles with attached desktops that allow riders to be readers as well, and they’re part of a new study by Clemson psychologist Dr. June Pilcher on the effects of exercise on productivity and learning.

“I think there’s a little resistance to moving while you work,” Pilcher said. “There’s an idea that you either exercise or you study and think, and that’s the thing I want to study. I want to help people see that we can study and work while moving at a slow pace.”

When Pilcher talks about studying the effects of exercise, she’s not talking about the strenuous exercise—like lifting weights or training for a marathon—that likely springs to mind. Instead, she wants to gather information about what she calls low-level exercise, like going for a walk around the block. That’s the kind of workout that FitDesks can provide in the library. “It’s not focused on riding as hard as you can,” said Pilcher. “We tell people to not break a sweat, just naturally move your legs.”

Previous studies in retirement-age subjects suggest that this sort of light exercise helps to slow cognitive decline and increase feelings of well-being. With data she gathers from the FitDesks, Pilcher is hoping to learn whether those benefits could translate to increased productivity during work and study. While she doesn’t have an experimental design set in stone yet, the introduction of the FitDesks is helping her gather information on how they’re used. When they climb onto a Fit Desk to study, students scan their ID cards, letting Pilcher know who is using the desk, how long they’re using them, and how often. She hopes that information, along with surveys of individuals, will provide the first batch of raw data that she can use as a foundation for more refined studies, which she hope to begin as soon as next January.

That slow-but-steady feel is reinforced by the library environment, says Dean of Libraries Kay Wall. The room on the library’s lower floor that houses the FitDesks still feels much more like a library than it does any sort of gym. Despite the seeming strangeness of having stationary bikes in a library setting, Wall said she jumped at the opportunity to assist with Pilcher’s research, which she felt was a very good fit for Clemson’s physically active student population.  “We like to be a place where we’re partnering with our faculty doing research,” said Wall. “And this was different, but it was exciting.”

FitDesks made a perfect tool for studying Pilcher’s interests. They’re less expensive than similar options, like standing desks attached to treadmills, and take up less space. The bikes even fold for storage, limiting their footprint in traditional study areas. And they’re surprisingly easy to study on, says Pilcher, who uses one at home. “I can type on my computer, or iPad, I can read easily,” Pilcher said, though she acknowledged the desks have their limits. “I probably wouldn’t try to write a manuscript, though students have reported some success with that.”

As of this semester, 10 FitDesks have found homes in a study hall at Clemson’s library, while another three can be found at the Academic Success Center. While some students have been reluctant to combine biking and studying, enough have started taking them for test drives that Pilcher is hopeful the new gadgets will catch on—she’s even had students come to request bikes be placed in other areas of the campus where they study.

The students who are already using the bikes have already reported some early positive results to Pilcher. One rider reported that he used to fall asleep while studying, a problem reading on the FitDesk has helped him conquer. That’s the sort of result Pilcher expects to see more of in future experiments. “Our ancestors never sat at desks,” she said. “We were never designed for this.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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