A Good Fit
Early in his ergonomics studies, Benden realized that designing answers relied on a key question: How do we get things to fit people rather than making people fit things? “When there’s a mismatch,” he said, “bad outcomes are bound to happen.”
For 20 years, he developed answers to this question while developing products for companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Bryan-based Neutral Posture, owned by the Congleton family. When Benden's time at Neutral Posture ended in 2008, his partnership with Congleton continued in a different capacity. Benden had received a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary engineering from Texas A&M two years earlier, and Congleton asked him to join the university’s EOH faculty and co-direct the Ergonomics Center.
By that time, Benden’s interest in ergonomic chair design had been overshadowed by his desire to combat America’s obesity epidemic. “As an undergraduate, I was focused on finding what was wrong and then treating it,” he explained. “I had laser vision. But once those blinders were taken off, I realized the question should instead be: ‘How can I keep people from getting sick in the first place?’
“In the U.S.,” he continued, “we’re great at treating illnesses, but not great at avoiding them. If we keep going down this road, we’ll continue to be focused on sick care rather than on health care.”
Americans are obsessed with weight loss, he said, when instead they should be adopting the kinds of everyday calorie-burning behaviors that will keep them from putting on weight in the first place.
“What’s changed in our culture is the act of daily living,” he said. “We’ve taken away opportunities to stay in motion and replaced them with screen time.”
Benden readily concedes that spending the day in front of a computer isn’t a choice for many people—it’s a job requirement. He therefore considered a way that desks could encourage movement, rather than requiring people to leave their desks in order to move. Users of adjustable, stand-capable desks often forget to raise the desks in order to stand up, while those using immovable standing desks don't sit down. But by adding a footrest-equipped stool to the stationary desk to create a "stand-biased" desk, Benden said, users stand more, move more and burn more calories.
With this new mission of movement in mind, Benden created Positive Motion—his first of two faculty startups. The company’s success in creating standing desk office environments that promoted comfort, health and productivity gains was noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2011, the federal agency approached him about creating a similar design for children.
Office Hours with Dr. Benden
You’ve delivered lectures all over the world. What were some of your favorite spots?
“Hong Kong, the National Air and Space Museum in Seattle, and a castle in Scotland are the first ones that come to mind.”
Tell us about your military service.
“I was a combat medic in the Army National Guard and a combat engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers. I retired as a first lieutenant.”
What do you consider to be your coolest invention?
“I designed something called the Ambicycle after learning about an absence of ambulances in Uganda. It evacuates patients in tight, congested areas. It can fit through a 36-inch door and navigate congested streets, narrow alleyways and sidewalks. The driver sits above the patient. Unfortunately, it costs too much for a developing nation to afford.”
What kind of music do you listen to in your workshop?
“I primarily listen to KSBJ, a Christian music station out of Houston.”
You’ve designed customized workspaces for a number of noteworthy people. Who were some of them?
“There were many individuals in California: Pamela Anderson, Val Kilmer, corporate CEOs and many recognizable names from the technology industry. But the ones most important to me are the children benefiting from my standing school desks.”