New Research Supports Standing Desks for Students

Standing Desk

Story at-a-glance -

  • Inactivity in children may lead to poor behavior, poor academic performance and low self-esteem
  • Children and college students benefit from using standing desks to increase movement, improve education, reduce behavior problems and improve test scores
  • Children who are obese exhibit better academic scores and increased calorie burn when using standing desks

By Dr. Mercola

Is it possible that the same inactivity that is slowly affecting the health of adults may also trigger depression, low self-esteem, poor school performance, obesity and diabetes in children?

Past research demonstrates that inactivity in adults and children have similar results. In new research covered in the Business Insider, a meta-analysis of several studies demonstrated that using standing desks in school could reduce sitting time up to 64 minutes each day.1

Lead study author Karl Minges of Yale School of Nursing in Connecticut told Reuters India:

"In schools, children spend over 50 percent of the school day sitting — traveling to school, during class, at lunch and sometimes during recess, traveling home after school, etc.

While one cannot easily reduce sitting time at lunch or during transportation, changing the classroom environment to be more conducive to standing seems like low-hanging fruit."2

Dangers of Sitting

Even if you exercise on a regular basis, research demonstrates it is not enough to counteract the effects of sitting all day. Like many people, adults and students spend a majority of their day sitting.

Whether behind a desk working, playing video games, sitting during transportation or other physically inactive functions, more than half of the average person's time awake is spent sitting.3

The health challenges that arise from not moving enough are significant and wide ranging. The effects that are most often associated with lack of activity are related to obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease and certain cancers.

However, more research is demonstrating that a lack of activity is also associated with the development of dementia and harmful effects on fat and sugar metabolism.4

Too Much Sitting May Increase Heart Risks, Insomnia

One study has linked increased sitting time with fibrinogen and C-reactive protein production. These changes explain the increased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with a sedentary lifestyle.5 

Sedentary time is also independently associated with negative health effects, regardless of the amount of physical activity you get each day.6

This means that even if you get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and movement each day, the hours you spend in sedentary pursuits such as commuting, working and watching television will increase your risks of heart attack, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Being sedentary also raises your risk for insomnia. Studying college students, researchers demonstrated a direct link between female students who suffered from insomnia and who were also inactive.7

Two risk factors for insomnia that can be addressed with lifestyle changes are excessive computer work and a sedentary lifestyle.8

Students Have Unique Risks

The physical and mental health issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle are well-documented in adults. Students may suffer many of the same effects but also may experience poor academic achievement and low self-esteem from extended sedentary periods of time.9 

The available evidence suggests topics that depend on efficient and effective executive functioning of the brain, such as reading and math, are the subjects that are most influenced by a student's physical activity levels.

Executive functioning is an umbrella term for neurological skills involving mental control and describes a set of processes that manage your resources to help you achieve a goal.

The executive functions of the brain are the underpinning of all academic performance and are related to attention and memory. These functions are improved through physical activity, and even single sessions can improve cognitive performance in children.

Those who participate in vigorous or moderate-intensity activity will benefit the most.10

Some College Students Are Now Required to Wear Fitness-Tracking Devices

In an effort to overcome the challenges that college students face as they move from living at home to living independently, one college is requiring incoming freshman students to wear Fitbits.

Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma is grading their freshman students on their fitness levels, measured by Fitbits tracked through a wireless reporting mechanism.11

College students are faced with a large number of new challenges as they leave home, learn to function independently and take on a large academic load. These stressors can lead to increased food intake and lower physical activity levels, leading to weight gain.

Although called the "Freshman 15" for the number of pounds believed to be gained by the average college freshman, researchers have demonstrated that college students gain on average less than 15 pounds.

Results indicate that almost two-thirds of students gain weight as much as 5.5 times more than the general public but not reaching 15 pounds in one year.12,13

Oral Roberts University is tracking the number of steps the students are taking each day and require the students to have 150 minutes or more of intense activity as measured by their heart rate. This information is incorporated into their health and physical education grade for the semester.14 

Thus far, none of the students or parents has complained about the cost of the Fitbit. Previously, students were required to report their activity levels.

Sit-to-Stand Initiatives Have Demonstrable Benefits

Standing at work is not a new idea. Ernest Hemmingway, Charles Dickens, Donald Rumsfeld, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all used standing desks.15 Although workplace standing desk initiatives have grown in popularity, that same growth is not evident in the classroom.

The changes may be slow related to cost or because teachers still believe that "sit down and pay attention" is the best way for a student to learn new material. However, research does not support that long-held belief. Imaging studies on the brain have demonstrated that movement can enhance and improve the ability of students to learn new concepts.16

When you think about how exercise can change the shape of your muscles and the function of your heart and lungs, it is also important to realize that exercise will strengthen your basal ganglia, cerebellum and corpus callosum all key areas of your brain for executive and cognitive functions.17 

Exercise increases the number of connections between your neurons and new neuronal growth in your brain. In other words, exercise and movement grow a better brain. Exercise and movement also burn calories and help students who suffer from obesity to lose weight. Unfortunately, research demonstrates that students who suffer from obesity will often have poor academic performance.18

Standing Desks Lead to More Engaged Students

In an effort to demonstrate the potential behind activity-based learning environments that incorporate standing desks, researchers from Texas A&M's psychology department observed students in the classroom for two years. Researchers, blinded to the intent of the study, measured when students were more engaged with their teachers, whether when standing or sitting, through eye contact with the teacher, note taking and distraction.

Students who were standing or active were more engaged with the teachers and the children who were overweight showed larger improvements over children who were normal weight.19 Mark Benden, Ph.D., associate professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M Health Science Center, told KQED News:

"When you look at overweight, and especially obese, children in the study, they were twice as engaged in activity permissive learning environment classrooms. And that amount of engagement was actually higher than normal-weight peers in normal classrooms. And that just doesn't happen, this was kind of eye opening."20

As mentioned, there has been research demonstrating that children who are obese have lower academic performance than normal weight children.21 Incorporating sit to stand desks can help reduce that discrepancy.

'Active Learning' Is Associated With Better Grades

Sit-to-stand desks have stools, allowing the student to sit while thoroughly engaging their core muscles and allowing their legs to swing and stay active. This so-called "active learning" has led to higher grades and fewer failing students in science and math at the college level. The researchers found:

  1. Students in a traditional sedentary classroom are 1.5 times more likely to fail than those engaged in active learning.
  2. Students who participated in active learning classrooms outperformed traditional student learning experiences in identical tests.

These results are from one of the largest and most comprehensive reviews done on the effect of active learning on STEM students (science, technology, engineering and math). According to Scott Freeman, one of the authors of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in Wired:

"[Under active learning,] students learn more, which means we're doing our job better. They get higher grades and fail less, meaning that they are more likely to stay in STEM majors, which should help solve a major national problem. Finally, there is a strong ethical component.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that active learning differentially benefits students of color and/or students from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or women in male-dominated fields. It's not a stretch to claim that lecturing actively discriminates against underrepresented students."22

Benefit From Standing Desks

Another exciting benefit of standing desks is habits formed in childhood often follow the children into adulthood. Children who learn at standing desks will fully expect to continue to use them throughout their careers. This increases the amount of movement you experience through your day and reduces the effects of sitting behind a desk for eight or more hours each day.23 More benefits of standing during work or school include:

According to a Stanford University back pain study, workers using sit-to-stand desks were 78 percent more likely to report a pain-free day.24

Sit-to-stand desks in the classroom reduce sedentary behaviors.25

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed standing at work increased movement and improved mood.26

The brain is stimulated and naturally learns through movement and operates through concrete, hands-on experience. 27

Students remember more content when activities are introduced in the lecture.28

Kids using a standing desk are more engaged, and there is improved education, classroom management, creativity and educational scores.29

Children who are obese have better test scores and calorie burn using standing desks.30

The take-home message is to get up and get moving as much as possible. So by all means, use a standing workstation while at the office, but ideally combine it with a pedometer. Aim to take about 10,000 steps a day (or more, in addition to your exercise program). You'll also want to break up your periods of standing still with movement, whether that be a quick stroll around your office, a set of burpees or alternating one foot on a stool.

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