Headlines have been announcing it for years now: Sitting is the new smoking. And it’s not all hype. Studies show that even for active adults, prolonged sitting is linked to health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But what if sitting also affects how your brain functions? New research from the Texas A&M Health Science Center found that students who used standing desks were more attentive in class compared to students who sat.
Whether you’re in school yourself, or just feel as fidgety as a fifth-grader, here’s why you might want to reconsider spending your days desk-bound. In a new yearlong study of almost 300 Texas schoolchildren, researchers compared student behavior in classes outfitted with standing desks to those with seated desks. The standing desks had stools that allowed students to sit or stand as they desired.
During the fall and spring, research assistants assigned an engagement score to each student, which was calculated by averaging their number of on-task and off-task behaviors during class. For example, on-task behaviors included raising a hand, answering a question, or having an attentive posture. Off-task behaviors included making disruptive sounds, unauthorized comments, touching other students or playing with objects not related to academic work. Each student was observed once in the fall and once in the spring. The purpose: To determine whether standing desks curb classroom chaos.
Standing at Attention
“The antidote to sitting is movement,” Dr. Bendon says. “The best posture you can be in is your next one.”
So, were students less likely to be slinging spitballs when given a standing desk? The study revealed that children using standing desks were roughly 12 percent more attentive than their sitting peers. This translates to roughly seven more minutes of engaged learning per hour, according to researchers. “When children who are normally unruly and distracting are suddenly on-task, the whole class benefits,” says Dr. Mark Benden, study author and associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center. He notes that this spillover effect means teachers can spend less time and energy on classroom management — and more on teaching.
Notably, one group of students seemed to benefit more than others, Dr. Bendon says. Overweight children using standing desks “were significantly more engaged than their obese peers in the control classrooms,” he says. In a previous study, Dr. Benden’s team established that standing desks helped students burn 15 percent more calories over five consecutive school days, too.
Currently, most American youngsters don’t have access to standing workstations. “There are schools in New Zealand, Australia and England where they’re using adjustable desks,” says Dr. Bendon. “The challenge for schools is, can you afford to spend $500 on a desk?” Normal classroom chairs, he says, are not primarily designed to be ergonomic. “They were designed for the janitors,” he says, explaining that the backwards slant of the plastic seat and backrest make them optimized for easy stacking.
“Years from now, I believe people will look back on this generation of equipment and say, ‘What were we thinking?’” Dr. Bendon says. He believes more and more researchers will be open to studying the mental benefits of standing workstations in an office setting, though he notes that it can be difficult to assess and compare productivity across workers.
The key, he says, is to create environments where people have permission to move. “The antidote to sitting is movement,” Dr. Bendon says. “The best posture you can be in is your next one. It’s that constant change.” Time to take a stand, for our bodies and our brains.