Taking a Stand (Literally) for Health in Schools

Not only do standing desks in classrooms improve health outcomes, they also improve academic performance. This is like a public health professional's dream! Why aren't these everywhere?
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It seems that every week there is a different article claiming that our sedentary lifestyle is killing us. It may be a slow death, but rest assured your office chair, driver's seat, and leather couch are all coming to get you. Your kitchen stools and patio furniture are likely in on it too -- watch out.

Now, I don't mean to make light of this, quite the opposite, actually.

Whether we have changed our sedentary nature or not, this message has become ubiquitous. Michelle Obama is telling us Let's Move!, fitness trackers can be found on nearly everyone's wrist or smartphone, and new-age companies are incorporating standing, treadmill, and even bicycle desks in their offices.

This is all for good reason. Studies show that everyone could benefit from moving more, and not simply by way of a 45-minute elliptical session. Research suggests that sitting for more than three hours a day can decrease our life expectancy by two years, even if we are regular exercisers. Dr. James Levine , Mayo Clinic professor and author of Get Up! writes that we lose two hours of life for every hour we sit -- making sitting more dangerous than cigarette smoking.

Now, smoking cessation programs are common offerings as part of workplace wellness, and programs like D.A.R.E. and G.R.E.A.T. have been utilized for years to educate children on the dangers of smoking... but what about sitting? Why is it ok to let children sit for six to eight hours a day at school, while we espouse the dangers of the exact same thing to their parents at the office?

We all know we are in the midst of a childhood (and parental) obesity crisis, and we also know that we haven't really moved the needle over the past decade. Part of the problem is that the interventions that work (which there aren't many of) are not practical on a massive scale. We can't put every kid through multi-year personalized health coaching, but we can let him or her do something they inherently want to do anyways -- stand up and move.

Research suggests that students with standing desks burn 15 to 25 percent more calories a day than those in conventional sitting desks. The effect is even greater for obese children, who burn 25 to 35 percent more. This is largely through nonexercise activity thermogenesis (or NEAT), or the calories burned through mundane activities throughout the day. Standing causes us to fidget; to tense and release our leg muscles; adjust our weight from side to side; lean forwards, backwards, twist around; etc. In doing so, we burn energy, increase blood flow, and reduce our risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Most significantly for schools, standing desks can increase cognition and concentration. Studies show that on average, children's grades improve 10 to 15 percent in active classrooms. Students given standing desks in activity permissive learning environments are more likely to be engaged and less likely to distract their peers. Those that are overweight or obese are twice as likely to be engaged. In the words of a second grader, "it wakes up my brain and helps me get ready for thinking."

These standing desks designed for schools are height adjustable, so they can fit every kid, and include stools so students have the option of leaning on a seat, or sitting when they want to (with the freedom to swing their legs). They are not being forced to stand all day; they are just given the freedom to move... hopefully making the old adage "sit down and pay attention" all but obsolete.

Not only do standing desks in classrooms improve health outcomes, they also improve academic performance. This is like a public health professional's dream! Why aren't these everywhere?

Well, the answers are fairly predictable. First, as intuitive as it may be, the idea that standing desks could be applied to schools is fairly new, and changes within a traditional system like education take some convincing, which take time. Second, transitioning conventional sitting desks to standing desks in one classroom, let alone an entire school or school district, is a significant investment, and must be balanced against other budgetary demands -- like teachers, books, and school food (which is also ripe for innovation).

What we need is more evidence to demonstrate that standing desks in classrooms are worth the investment, and you can help make this happen. StandUp Kids, an organization with the lofty mission of getting every public school child at a standing desk in 10 years, is raising $100k for a pilot program to convert the first U.S. elementary school to 100 percent standing desks. Showing its efficacy in one school is the first step, and brings us closer to making this a reality across the country... maybe even in your kid's school.

There is too much to be afraid of in this world, especially when it comes to parenting; let's not add school desks to that list. It's time to take a stand for health and education.

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