Standing desks are becoming more popular in workplaces partly due to the phrase, "Sitting is the new smoking." The negative effects of prolonged periods of sitting are well documented for adults: back, neck, and sciatica pain; obesity, cancer, increased chances of cardiovascular issues, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. But what does the research say about the effects of sitting vs. standing for children?
Childhood Obesity and Sitting
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for children and adolescents aged 2-19 years, obesity affects about 12.7 million children and adolescents (about 17% ). And the American Heart Association says that around 1 in 3 children are obese or overweight, and childhood obesity is now the number 1 concern of American parents --- more than drug abuse and smoking.
The American Heart Association also quotes former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents."
And childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the CDC. One of the obvious suspects is the amount of time children spend in front of some kind of screen, at school and at home. This results in children sitting at school, then sitting at home. American children now spend on average 65-70% of their time in class sitting down.
According to a study conducted and published by the Oxford Journal of Public Health, standing desks in children's classrooms are effective in reducing the amount of time that children spend sitting. The study, conducted in Australia and Britain, found that the amount of sitting time dropped by 9.8% or 67 minutes each day in Britain, and in Australia by 10% or 30 minutes each day.
Standing burns on average 50 more calories per hour in adults, and the process of switching from sitting to standing burns additional calories.
Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health was done by 80 first-graders in Texas. They found that students who used standing desks burned 17 percent more calories than those at sitting desks. And for children that were overweight or obese, the calories burned were even greater: they burned 32 percent calories more calories than the control group (the group that used sitting desks).
And because of the extensive research done on standing desks and adults, it's highly probable that children significantly reduce their risk of later developing cardiovascular problems, type 2 diabetes, and neck and back pain by using a standing desk.
In addition to burning more calories, standing creates a beneficial hormonal change that helps optimize cell function. Hormones play a large role in obesity, and when muscles are active, they release hormones that optimize cell function.
Psychological Impact of Standing Desks on Children
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem to be on the rise. Though difficult to measure exactly what constitutes these conditions, the CDC states that the rate of parent-reported ADHD among children 4-17 years of age increased by 22% between 2003 and 2007, from 7.8% to 9.5%.
According to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, exercise also induces beneficial responses in the brain, which is accompanied by an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is associated with cognitive improvement and the alleviation of depression and anxiety.
Interesting research has been done on the effects of standing on children's attention spans. Dr. Mark Benden, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, has been studying the effects of standing desks on children. He's an ergonomic engineer and originally became interested in the desks as a means to reduce childhood obesity and reduce the stress put on the spine and back that can occur with traditional sitting desks. “Considerable research indicates that academic behavioral engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement,” Benden said in a press release published by Texas A&M. "When kids sit at a desk all day, they don’t have to use any energy, which means they can just as easily fall asleep, daydream, or distract themselves by distracting others. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.”
Dr. Benden studied the engagement level of 282 students in the second, third, and fourth grades, who had the option to sit on a stool or stand. Benden brought in Texas A&M’s educational psychology department through a special grant to study the focus levels of the students while standing. The psychologists, sat in classrooms for 2 years measuring their focus levels by using a series of markers such as how many times students looked at the teacher, how often they wrote on their papers, and how often they were distracted by a neighbor. The result: students in the experimental group were between 12 and 25 percent more engaged than the control group.
In an article on KQED News, elementary school teacher Katie Caritey has 2 standing desks for her 24 second graders but believes that all her students would benefit from using them. “I have found the standing desks to be a fabulous tool for students that tend to be more active, fidgety, or even more tired,” Caritey said. “Movement breaks are an essential part of learning in my classroom, and I have found that the best learning takes place when students are able to move their bodies throughout the day, consistently and frequently.”
She interviewed her 7 and 8-year-old students, and they reported that the standing desks:
- "Help me concentrate without even thinking about what others are doing."
- "Being able to stand or swing my legs helps me calm down my brain so I can think better."
- "I would be perfectly fine without the standing desks, but when I can sit at one, it makes the time go by faster and my work gets finished right away."
- "When I get to school in the morning, my brain is tired and not ready for learning yet. When I sit at the standing desk, it wakes up my brain and helps me get ready for thinking.”
Focus Levels in Overweight Children Using Standing Desks
And just as obese children lost more weight with standing desks than non-obese children, the focus levels of overweight and obese children improved more than the rest of the students. “When you look at overweight, and especially obese, children in the study, they were twice as engaged in activity permissive learning environment classrooms,” concludes Dr. Benden. There is ample scientific evidence that the more children exercise, eat healthily, and sleep (within reason), the better their brains work. Naturally, as more exercise and movement are integrated into a child's daily routine, the more they may improve their academic performance.
And if the health and psychological effects of childhood obesity weren't bad enough, there may be a connection between obesity and lower grades. Dr. Rebecca London, a senior researcher at Stanford University's Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities says "I think it's been established that there's a link between students' obesity or physical fitness and academic achievement."
Other studies, such as one published in the journal Child Development, followed 6,250 children from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that those who were obese throughout that period scored lower on math tests than non-obese children. and more so in the girls than the boys.
Experts aren't sure exactly why, but one researcher suspects that excess weight or physical inactivity might reduce a child's brainpower at the cellular level. Robert Siegel, M.D., director of the Center for Better Health and Nutrition, a pediatric obesity clinic at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, explains,"Obesity affects virtually every organ system in the body, including the brain. It's an inflammatory state, and that may have effects on the developing mind."
The desk usually comes with a stool, but the results of sitting in this stool are said to be a lot more different from sitting in a standard chair. It also allows children to open up their trunk-thigh angle, giving them the chance to swing their legs comfortably and breathe better. It should also be noted that prolonged sitting does not only trigger obesity and a sedentary lifestyle; it can also lead to inattention and these are the things that the standing desk specifically addresses.
With that said, it is safe to assume that standing desks altered the notion that obese children have the tendency of getting lower grades when compared to students with normal weight. Standing desks for children are out there to prove that overweight or obese kids are not actually less capable in terms of academics; what they actually need is an environment that allows them to become more active.
In reality, Benden said it’s not about either sitting or standing all the time, but instead about keeping moving. He wants to spread the “gospel of movement,” where kids and adults understand they need to be up and active, free to move around. For the modern student or office worker, standing for part of a day is a good way to keep moving. “We used to be more active, but over time we got conditioned to being inactive,” Benden said. “It’s not normal, and it’s not how we were intended to be. When schools tell children to sit still and be quiet, you’ve almost wounded them. They want to be wiggling and fidgeting and moving.”
For more information on preventing childhood obesity, check out How to Prevent Childhood Obesity: A Guide for Parents.