The question of “is sitting the next smoking” has been raised by many health experts in the past few months. Many ailments, including diabetes and heart disease, are known to be connected to an inactive lifestyle.
However, most of this attention has been focused on adult office workers and the negative health impact of sitting at work all day.
But, if our waistlines and even our longevity are connected to how active we are each day, is it not important to teach our children how to be more active, from an early age?
As director of the Ergonomics Center at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, I am constantly in corporate offices, K–12 classrooms and graduate classrooms where I teach. I also research better methods of classroom management and academic performance via health interventions. Ten years ago, while focusing primarily on adult office workers and the loss of non-exercise, physical movement in a work day, I wrote a book on the topic, Could You Stand to Lose?
Standing in classrooms
The idea came as we explored younger office workers' health and noticed a lack of important postural habits, poor core strength and larger waistlines than what the older generations displayed when they entered the workforce.
It was at that time that we realized if we were going to affect the health of office workers, we would need to start much younger. Standing became a simple proxy for what we really need – more low-intensity, whole-body movement!
We asked, could we perform the same work while standing at a desk rather than always sitting at it? And we realized this type of change was possible.
We then turned our attention to adolescent health in classroom settings.
My team’s research in schools began in 2008, when we first looked at classroom movement as a way to deal with the growing number of obese children. In the past 30 years, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents.
So, in 2008 we began installing and testing stand-biased desks for K–4 students to allow upright movement during instruction and self-work.
We started this work in College Station, Texas with elementary students to avoid the difficulty of measuring the Body Mass Index (BMI) in children experiencing puberty. During those years, the BMI fluctuates so rapidly that it is tough to follow an intervention.
From a few classrooms in one school to dozens of classrooms spread over many schools, we continuously upgraded our sample size and research methods. Over the past seven years, we have placed several thousand students at standing desks for our studies in both elementary and high school.
Stand-biased desks allow students to sit (on a stool) or stand at will.
However, these products were a nonexistent category for mainstream school furniture vendors. So, we had to create our own designs based on teacher and student feedback. The market is now beginning to evolve worldwide as others weigh in with creative approaches such as standing tables for multiple students.
Classrooms with stand-biased desks are part of what we began to call an Activity Permissive Learning Environment (APLE), which means that teachers don’t tell children to “sit down,“ "sit still,” or “don’t move around” during class.
Instead, they encourage movement such as standing, rocking, fidgeting and walking. Most traditional classrooms are lecture-style, with an instructor up front and students dealing with poorly fitting, hard plastic chairs for 80%–90% of their day.
Impact of a standing desk
In short, an active mind requires an active body.
Children become more restless and distracted with prolonged sitting. Active workstations reduce disruptive behavior problems and increase students’ attention by providing them with a different method for completing academic tasks and breaking up the monotony of seated work. Students were less distracted while working at a standing desk.
This was not all: the activity also led to more burned calories. After two years of exposure to activity-permissive learning environments, students showed decreases in Body Mass Index percentiles.
Our own research shows that students K–12 given a stand-biased desk burned 15%–25% more calories than their peers in traditional seated desks.
As a result of these encouraging health numbers, we turned our attention to student comfort and posture. Again, we observed improvements on both measures over traditional seated furniture.
In addition to increasing energy expenditure, we now see that activity-permissive learning environments help to reduce disruptive behavior and increase students’ academic potential. Based on the number of parents contacting us for help with students doing homework, it appears the process can work as well at home as in school.
Future of classroom design
The success of stand-biased desks is nothing new.
Benjamin Franklin had a patent on a standing school desk over 200 years ago, and Thomas Jefferson worked at one that he designed himself. Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Napoleon Bonaparte and even Donald Rumsfeld have all worked at standing desks to create some of their most memorable work.
Although research and history have shown that stand-biased desks have many favorable effects, most Western workers and students are still engaged in seated desk work for the majority of their day.
Our work in schools with thousands of K–12 students has included looking at stand-biased desks, exercise balls, several types of wobble stools and even swinging footrests and treadmills.
Teachers around the globe want better classroom management, better student engagement and, ultimately, improved learning.
New approaches for addressing physical inactivity that are in harmony with children’s natural habits, tendencies and engagement could be the way to go.