Dr. James Levine has reviewed the statistics: One in three Minnesota adults is either diabetic or pre-diabetic, and one in four is obese.

And he thinks he's found the underlying ailment: "the sitting disease.''

"Sitting is sort of the new smoking,'' the Mayo Clinic endocrinologist said Wednesday on the eve of an experiment designed to tackle so-called "lifestyle'' diseases.

He and a team of researchers from Mayo and the University of Minnesota believe that even modest increases in daily activity could help people lose weight and improve their health -- and help control the nation's staggering health care bills.

Levine, who walks on a treadmill while he works and believes in "walking staff meetings,'' said similar studies have suggested that employees can burn up to 350 additional calories per day, reduce their health care costs and perform better at work by replacing 2 1/2hours of sitting with standing each day.

To test that theory, Levine and his team dropped in this week on the Minneapolis offices of Caldrea, a maker of environment-friendly cleaning supplies. The desks of 30 employees have been replaced with adjustable "work-fit'' stations, developed by the St. Paul-based company Ergotron, that give the employees the option to sit or stand while working on their computers.

The researchers began health screenings for the study Tuesday in Mayo's "Obesity Prevention Bus," a lab on wheels. The bus will return to Caldrea every 30 days for three months to measure changes in employees' behavior and fitness.

James Greenwood, a senior sales analyst and account manager for Caldrea, said he jumped at the opportunity to participate in the study because for the past 14 years, he's spent about 35 hours per week sitting at a desk. On Tuesday he found out that his body-mass-index (BMI) is 19, well within the range considered healthy, but he would like to get it lower.

He said he's tried everything from sitting on an exercise ball at his desk to biking and walking on his lunch breaks to stay active and alert in the office.

"I think any time you get a chance to do something to break up your day or do something at work, it's wonderful," he said.

Epidemiologist Dr. Mark Pereira, who studies community health at the University of Minnesota, helped design the study, which was introduced by one of his graduate students, Neer Dutta. The study is one of about six worldwide that are studying similar workplace interventions, and is part of a larger research partnership between Mayo and the U to study the way lifestyle changes could improve health and wellness.

After the three-month Caldrea study, the team plans to research ways that small lifestyle changes could help other populations such as children in schools, college freshmen and underserved communities, Pereira said.

Greenwood transferred to Caldrea five months ago and he said he's already seen how working for a company that "invests in his health" -- Caldrea offers catered organic lunches and group fitness outings -- can improve office life.

"Employees are definitely engaged," he said.

Amanda Bankston is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.