Could standing desks at school help curb childhood obesity?
Being told to "sit still" in the classroom may soon be a thing of the past.
Schools in a growing number of jurisdictions are experimenting with the once-faddish, now commonplace tool of the modern office dweller: the standing desk.
For generations raised on the idea that in order to learn you need to sit down and sit still, standing desks represent a paradigm shift.
Researchers who specialize in the ergonomics of learning spaces are now beginning to talk about how these desks will transform classrooms into "activity-permissive environments."
The interest in getting standing desks in schools has its roots in the growing obesity epidemic in the United States and other wealthy countries. The idea is to get school children -- who can spend an incredible 65 to 70 percent of their waking hours sitting -- moving more during the day. It could help them lose weight, improve their cardiovascular health, reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, and see other physical and psychological benefits.
Many of the standing desks that are being tested at schools are actually "stand-biased desks" that come with stools that are standing height. Some also have what researchers call "fidget bars" in the foot area which allow children who need more movement to get it without disrupting their classmates.
The latest study on the subject comes from researchers at Loughborough University who looked at classrooms in Britain and Australia. In Britain, only some of the desks were replaced with standing desks and in Australia, all were replaced with standing desks.
In both cases, they found that the amount of sitting time dropped dramatically, even outside of the school day. In Britain, the amount of time sitting fell by 9.8 percent and in Australia 10 percent, according to a paper published in the Journal of Public Health.
"An urgent cultural shift is needed, and we feel that the only way to do this is to target the next generation of workers, particularly while they are still at school. If we can bring about a behaviour change, which we learn from a young age, then this will hopefully continue into adulthood and improve people's overall quality of health," said researcher Stacy Clemes from Loughborough's School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.
Previous research has shown that this type of movement translates to a lot of burned calories.
One study published in September 2014 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at 480 students in 24 classrooms in Texas. The children were randomly assigned to either seated or standing desks. Researchers found that not only did the children expend more energy, they increased their step counts as well.
A smaller study published in August 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health, involving about 80 first-graders in Texas found that those with standing desks burned 17 percent more calories than those at sitting desks. The effect was even more significant for children who were overweight or obese (above the 85th percentile for weight). They burned 32 percent more calories than the control group.
Mark Benden, a professor at Texas A&M University and the lead author of both the Texas studies, wrote in an article published recently in The Conversation, a not-for-profit site featuring commentary by academics, that a person's ability to focus on difficult cognitive tasks is directly linked to adequate physical activity.
"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," Benden said.
Surveys have also shown students, parents and teachers like standing desks.
At Vallecito Elementary School in Marin County, Calif., for instance, parents have been so enthusiastic that they paid for the standing desks themselves through fundraising campaigns.
"The sedentariness is the problem," Kelly Starrett, a parent who donated the school's first standing desks told the Marin Independent Journal.
Fourth-grade teacher Maureen Zink, in an interview with KPIX 5, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, said that she believes standing desks are "the wave of the future."
"You know, you can roll your eyes all you want," she said, "but you need to come and see it."