LØRN case C0408 -

Eric Soehngen

Co-founder and CEO


Make every step count

In this episode of #LØRN Silvija speaks to co-founder and CEO of Walkolution, Eric Soehngen, about the world’s first walking treadmill for the office which would get people to move while they work comfortably and efficiently and reduce the high risk of cancer and other diseases that afflict as a result of sitting long hours. As a medical specialist and scientist, Dr. Eric Söhngen has intensively studied the connection sitting not only has with back pain and weight gain but also the hazardous consequences of serious diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, depression and dementia that one may risk. He founded Walkolution in 2017 to work on the causes and no longer on the symptoms of the problem.
LØRN case C0408 -

Eric Soehngen

Co-founder and CEO


Make every step count

In this episode of #LØRN Silvija speaks to co-founder and CEO of Walkolution, Eric Soehngen, about the world’s first walking treadmill for the office which would get people to move while they work comfortably and efficiently and reduce the high risk of cancer and other diseases that afflict as a result of sitting long hours. As a medical specialist and scientist, Dr. Eric Söhngen has intensively studied the connection sitting not only has with back pain and weight gain but also the hazardous consequences of serious diseases such as cancer, heart attacks, strokes, depression and dementia that one may risk. He founded Walkolution in 2017 to work on the causes and no longer on the symptoms of the problem.

22 min

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SS: Hello and welcome to Lorn. tech. My name is Sylvia Seres. And our topic today is Health Tech. My guest is Eric Soehngen, a medical doctor with a PhD who has decided to become an entrepreneur and started a company called solution. Welcome, Eric.

ES: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SS: Eric, we're going to talk about the perils of a sedentary lifestyle and how we are trying to change that by getting people to move while they work and learn to talk about health and the future prospects of health. But before we do that, I hope you can tell us a little bit about who you are and what drives you.

ES: Yes. So by training, I'm a medical doctor, so I specialize in internal medicine and preventive medicine. I have appeared to be in stem cell research and the world. But in the last year, we are kind of learning how dangerous actually sitting is for our body. So I became an office furniture manufacturer by necessity.

SS: So you're creating furniture that allows people to walk while they talk and type and think?

ES: Exactly. So basically everything that you normally do at your desk, you can also do while you are engaged in gentle motion. Right. And this is what the human body is perfectly made to do. It is what we did for me. And so for years

SS: doesn't one get distracted by trying to walk and type at the same time?

ES: But the interesting thing is that actually the opposite is true, right? I mean, it's not true. It's not a workout. Sorry, you're not meant to become sweaty or anything, but you might have had your own experience there when you're on the phone and you start to walk around or you get the best ideas when you're actually out for a walk.

SS: When I was doing my own PhD, they had all the best ideas for everybody that always happened when you were walking in the park.

ES: So here you have it. Right. Exactly. But yeah, the human body is like this is the take away from a year being a medical doctor in the university library. And to researchers, the human body is all our cells are made to be in motion.

SS: We are meant to move.

ES: We are meant to move. And the fact is that we were sitting more than ever. We are sitting eleven hours per day and Max is a bigger model. Sitting can never be out-compensated by exercise since that's why we have to find new and smarter ways to actually give our bodies what they need. It's a place where we spend most of our time.

SS: Yeah. So you're German, but you've been in Norway for the last two to three months with Catapult.

ES: Yeah, exactly. Catapult. We're expanding to Scandinavia right now because the Scandinavians are pioneers when it comes down to understanding corporate wellness or corporate health to do it to engage employees and Yeah. To motivate them for healthy behavior. And so Catapult is a network of impact investors. And yeah, so we've been partners as an accelerator here based in Oslo.

SS: and it's a social impact accelerator or they focus on social impact startups, which means startups who are not only building for market share and business opportunity, but actually are trying to improve the world one step at a time. In your case, literally one step at a time. So. You mentioned to me that research has discovered the effects of sitting on major diseases and that sitting is the new smoking. And you're obviously very, very passionate about making people walk. Can you tell us a little bit about how these major diseases are affected by being still and sitting?

ES: Well, to sum up the research and this is quite brand new. So the muscle to landmark studies that has been published in the journals from the last year. To sum up these findings from the last few years, the more time we spend sitting, the higher the risk of getting diagnosed with severe diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, dementia, and even cancer.

SS: Is it because our circulation slows down or.

ES: Well, this is certainly one fact, but what we start to understand is that it's basically a lot of things that have to do with inflammation. And so when we sit, then certain proteins in the muscles are virtually shut down because the energy expenditure while it's sitting comes close to metabolic rest. And then there is a protein in the muscle lipoprotein lipase that shuts down. And basically it totally disturbs as you hold fat and sugar metabolism. And when we do that for so many hours every day and this is where the problem creates and we can never compensate for this by exercise. So when you sit for 10 hours every day

SS: it doesn't help to go for a run in the evening.

ES: Exactly. Because if you go where you sit 70 hours per week and then you might be I mean, this all you small percentage of people who actually made it to exercise for 30 minutes a week. But even still, if you compare that and you take 70 hours of sitting and you take maybe two hours of exercise, that can never out compensate. And we're also learning about the underlying McKetin mechanisms on the cellular base that are really indicating that sitting creates an independent risk factor. And so exercise is one thing, but what we need is this low level physical.

SS: less sitting.

ES: Exactly less sitting and walking around. And this is what our bodies were made from millions of years ago. So it's much more than is typical. 10000 steps will be always here. It probably comes much closer to something like twenty or twenty five, thousand steps.

SS: per day?

ES: per day.

SS: So basically, do you really think that even if we go around with these watches and make it our business to walk those 25000 steps a day, that that has a real long term health effect?

ES: Absolutely. Yes. This is what we knew and this is what each and every study shows that the problem is in our normal days. I mean, we live in a world that is just really based.

SS: It's made for sitting.

ES: made for sitting. We have no other choice. And this is very often our environment. Virtually forces much else to sit down.

SS: So we've tried to do something about that. You allow people to walk while they work.

ES: Yes, exactly. So our product is the next generation of a treadmill that you can use in an office environment. But it's not electric. So that means you can use it intuitively without distracting yourself or others because it doesn't have any motor. So you don't have the noise. You can, it's just powered by gravity and by body weight. But you also set your own pace. That means you can walk, but you can adapt speed on whatever you're doing at your desk. So sometimes you walk fast, sometimes you walk slowly. Sometimes you can also sort of have a backrest. You can stand. You can lean back and you can change.

SS: Do people not get pain in their backs? Or is this…

ES: …well the opposite is true. You get pain in your back when you sit down or there are standing desks and a lot of offices. But one of the problems with standing desk is that many people actually get back pain from standing. Right.

SS: Because they're standing still.

ES: because of standing still. But walking is a kind of natural activity that is also perfect for smoothing the muscles.

SS: You worked in stem cell research. You said your PhD does this. Has this led you to get obsessed with sitting and walking or.

ES: Yeah, because like it's I think it's great. We just talked about back pain and many people today associate sitting with back pain and musculoskeletal problems. But I mean, there's a huge paradigm shift in medicine and who we are, now, tapping into understanding what happens on a cellular base. And it's really it's about inflammatory processes that are happening in the blood vessels that cause, for example, by disturbed sugar and fat metabolism and this has consequences, for the heart, for other organs, for

SS: because many of us carry the potential for cancer in our bodies in many places. But it's about, you know, normally that our body controls this in the right. I'm trying to simplify very much so I can understand it. And our immune system handles this. But when we mess up the whole metabolism by either sitting too much or eating too much sugar or then

ES: Often both and both at the same time.

SS: Then we mess up our body's ability to self-repair?

ES: Exactly. And by a process we call chronic inflammation. So it's a chronic low level inflammation. And when we kind of have this lower level chronic inflammation all the time, then, for example, the risk for cancer is increased dramatically. It's just been a study out of University of Regensburg by Leitman and colleagues. And he has basically shown that when we use it more often for a certain hour of 8 hours every day, you increase your risk of getting diagnosed with cancer by between 28 and 44 percent. This is just caused by sitting. And this has high impact and it’s so scary

SS: it makes you want to get up and walk around while we do this podcast.

ES: I can agree.

SS: So you also are kind of breaking some of the myths I have around walking in my head. You're saying that people think that walking requires multi-tasking and people think they can't work and walk at the same time. But as you say the opposite is true?

ES: Yes. I mean, for example, when you walk around with your phone in the park, you are able to type on a much, much smaller keyboard message than you. Definitely. Humans are definitely able to or walking is so hardwired into our brain that it doesn't actually require attention. So you can very well walk at the same time

SS: you don't bump up and down

ES: and type know your upper body. So it's very, very stable. Also, the way how we interact with technology is changing so much more voice or gesture based interaction with our machines. So I think the old way that we require a desk in front of us. This comes very much from an era in which we were forced to sit down because so starting from a time where we had a pen and paper to write on and saying we're coming away from being in the future. When you sink five years into the future where we might not necessarily need to have a keyboard to type on, but these are real things that we can do very well while we are walking at a slow speed. And another very fascinating study from Stanford has shown when you walk and they did it on the Stanford campus where people were walking around and or also walking on treadmills. The people who were engaged in the slow physical activity, they could, um, they could perform 60 percent better in a creativity based test than those people who were sitting down. And so the effect of walking actually triggers or unlocks potential in the brain where we can be more creative. And this is I mean, this is the basis of what we want to be in an office or in a place where we go to perform mentally.

SS: This is basically the chemistry of the brain somehow gets stimulated or why?

ES: I think that it has both to do with it. This study done by the new scientists out of Stanford showed that we have two systems in the brain until one of such system where what's necessary to actually come up with is creative sources typically are only engaged when you are in a resting state, but the rythmic movement of walking gives us access to these kind of two brain halves can talk with each other and is facilitated by walking. And the mechanisms are partly understood. But the study design has been done very, very well. And so it does not matter. You can if you walk outside or on a treadmill.

SS: I think what you're saying, the whole rhythmic experience of walking is extremely interesting because we lack opportunities for that kind of behavior very often in our everyday lives. I'm an old swimmer and I was just sitting and thinking about how some of my best ideas actually happened while I was swimming. And I think that has to do with the repetitive rhythmic movements.

ES: Exactly, because it needs to be like, for example, if you were to make your ballot or you'd like kind of a high, complex choreographic movement that would not work because it would require too much attention span. But walking is as I said, it's so deep within us that we don't need any, we don't need to mobilize cognitive resources to walk. But at the same time, we are profiting from an untapped resource potential. And this is where you do something for your health. But at the same time, you're more productive and more creative.

SS: So now you're bringing me to another subject. Often I am asked to talk about smart cities and what people say they want to hear about ideas, friction free cities. You know, the transportation works and everything works. And, you know, no hang ups and no stops. Well, I increasingly think that we need to concentrate even more rather than just pure efficiency in time. It's like the efficiency in health and happiness of these cities. And the walkability of cities is a very important thing that we haven't been really good at.

ES: Yes. And I think when we look on the map and the landscape of city planning and smart cities and …

SS: …they're made for cars now.

ES: Yeah. But there is a huge trend and it's backed up by solid economic figures basically showing the more walkable the city is. And some groups have even come up with walking scores in showing like the bigger your walking score is a certain neighborhood and the higher is the average education, the income, the crime rate

SS: makes you belong.

ES: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's so it's such hard facts for city planners, for municipalities that to make a city more walkable has extremely favorable consequences down the road.

SS: I think this returns the city to the human scale.

ES: Yes.

SS: And human perspective. And it makes us meet and it makes us belong.

ES: Right. Yeah. And in many places, we simply wish to walk something. What we typically do when we are on holidays is one of the reasons why we feel so good. But in many, many places, we simply we simply can't because we simply can't express or we simply can't live in the way our bodies are actually made to be.

SS: We'd love to see more of that research in the public transportation companies because there are some ideas of giving you points for walking that you can then exploit in other ways.

ES: It's a nice win-win situation because you have less cars in the cities and plus you engage people to walk more because it sets a good example. I think we also recently introduced such a system where you can trade steps into subway tickets or public transport tickets. And it's extremely innovative seeing how you can incentivize people, you engage healthy behavior and also everybody is winning at the end.

SS: But this brings us to another point about city development. You know, unless you actually live in the sharp city center, you will need to move from where you live into where you work, and that we need to solve in an efficient way. But I think we underestimate the need to make walkable neighborhoods where you live, you know, and that you do by creating these places for gathering places where the kids can exercise. Places where you can go to the library. Places where you can sit down. Places where you can walk well together. And I don't think we design enough for that kind of local society.

ES: But I think it's also. In the new generation, they don't want to have necessarily a car they much more enjoy, actually. When you are able to walk around in our cities like Copenhagen or what we see here in Oslo, that the idea to ban cars completely from Rumsey in your city or this great example in and in Seoul in South Korea, whereas it used one of these highways that went through the middle of the city and they virtually made a park out of it serves as the best walking kind of road where you can go on for through for miles and miles. And really just it is interest and

SS: just walk.

ES: Yeah.

SS: So sitting kills both individuals, corporates and public regulators in cities have a responsibility to try to move us again if we are to recommend reading to our listeners. Is there something you would like them to read to understand more about these kinds of problems?

ES: So a great book is from Dan Liberman's The Story of the Human Body. He is an evolutionary biologist from Harvard University. And, uh, well, in this book, he brilliantly explains the story of the human body as the title implies. It's. You get an understanding of how we lived for how we evolved for millions of years and then showing very nicely, actually what happened within the last couple of hundred years. And it makes you understand how the human body is just unable to react in such a quick way to the new environment. And then his thoughts are able to explain very nicely how many of the chronic and similar story diseases, non-communicable diseases that we have suffered from. So but actually can be it can be explained by the shifts so a highly recommended read

SS: the story of the human body. Do you have a quote you would like to leave with our listeners as a little parting gift?

ES: I think one of the nice things, what you should tell us every day is that sometimes we tend to forget because we surround ourselves with technology and everything as well. But I think from my kind of clinical experiences there was having seen so many patients who just, you know, who struggle with chronic disease. And it's, you know, without health, everything is nothing. And you can buy your way out of you or you can sometimes

SS: the outing of wealth is health.

ES: Exactly. And this is we don't need so much more than you know, being able to move and breathe. And this is already how we should. Yeah, we should realize that this is already a great asset and something we should work on every day. Yeah.

SS: We should cherish our health a bits more than we do, we take it for granted while we have it, and then when we don't, it's too late in the way

ES: Absolutely. Yes. Yeah.

SS: That's a nicer thought to take into the weekend if people are to remember one important thing from our conversation. What would you like it to be?

ES: Stand up and walk

SS: on that note. I don't dare to sit anymore. So I'd like to thank Eric Soehngen for this very inspiring discussion about a health technology that we haven't even discussed the implementation of. But it's basically a walking board, which is based on the most important technology our own body has, which is walking. Thank you for listening.

What are you doing at work?

We change the way humans work, develop products, writes books, give keynotes and lectures, and visit the most exciting offices in the world.

What are the most important concepts in your technology?

Eco-friendly, noiseless, connected, smart and healthy workspace, and office of the future.

Why is it exciting?

Neuroergonomics, now we understand how the brain actually works.

What do you think are the most interesting controversies?

People think that walking requires multitasking, and think that they can’t work and walk at the same time.

Your own favourite projects?

Developing a smaller and low-cost version of our product for schools and the educational environment.

Your other favourite examples, internationally and nationally?

Internationally it’s walkable cities, walkability scores of cities and its economic impact. Nationally it’s public transport tickets for steps.

How do you usually explain what you do, in simplest terms?

Sitting kills, and we have the solution.

What do we do particularly well in Norway of this?

Understanding corporate wellness, and investing in corporate health.

A favourite quote?

Without health everything is nothing.

Most important takeaway from our conversation?

Stand up and walk.

Eric Soehngen
Co-founder and CEO
CASE ID: C0408
DATE : 190607
DURATION : 22 min
The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman
Corporate wellness
Walking scores
"Sitting for extended periods of time in an office chair, day after day, has never been part of our genomic imprint. The fact that this has become the status quo is wreaking havoc on our physical health and making us unhappy."
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