Mark Benden wants you to set your students free from their desks. He wants you to encourage them to stand, lean, rock, fidget – anything, other than be glued to a classroom chair for up to eight hours a day.
Because, according to Benden, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M University and director of the university’s Ergonomics Centre, the sedentary nature of the traditional classroom has repercussions not only for students’ physical health and wellbeing – increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease – but also there’s an impact on their ability to focus and learn, too.
Benden has spent the past 20 years researching the effects of our increasingly inactive lifestyles. Initially, he focused on adult office workers and how standing desks – elevated desks, which allow users to stand or sit at a stool, thereby offering the potential to expend more energy – could encourage more activity in their day. But then he turned his attention to how his research might assist schoolchildren.
“Some colleagues showed me data around childhood obesity and I quickly became interested,” says Benden.
You can understand why. The World Health Organisation says that the number of obese or overweight children aged 0-5 worldwide increased from 32 million in 1990 to 41 million in 2016 and, if current trends continue, that figure will rise to 70 million by 2025. Research shows that obese children are more likely to become obese adults and, at its most basic level, childhood obesity is down to more calories being consumed than energy expended. It is a problem that celebrity chef Jamie Oliver highlighted recently; he called for standing desks in classrooms.
Benden’s solutions centre around what he calls an “activity permissive learning environment”, where children aren’t urged to sit down and sit still. In the 2009-2010 academic year, Benden and colleagues conducted a small pilot study to see whether using standing desks in first-grade classrooms (children aged around 5-7) increased calorie expenditure. They found that not only were 17-30 per cent more calories burned, but also there was anecdotal evidence from teachers that this new dynamic environment improved classroom behaviour.
“Children become more restless and inattentive with prolonged sitting and it seemed that active workstations were reducing disruption and increasing students’ attention by breaking up the monotony of seated work,” says Benden.
Then in a two-year study across three schools, assessing 193 students with a mean age of 8.8, exposure to standing desk classrooms led to decreases in average BMI percentiles, compared with increases for students in traditional classrooms.
In 2016, Benden and colleagues published another preliminary study in which sitting time, standing time and step count were assessed in the autumn, at the start of the school year, when students were in traditional seated desks, and again in the spring, when standing desks had been used for three months. After the installation of standing desks, students sat, on average, for one hour less per school day, they stood for around 50 minutes more in a school day and took over 2,200 more steps per day.
Given the correlation between childhood and adolescent obesity and physical activity, Benden concluded that “cutting an hour of sedentary behaviour during the school day while simultaneously increasing their steps taken – without taking away from instruction time, requiring additional school personnel or additional training – is an easy way to help adolescents reduce, or even reverse, the effects of sedentary behaviour”.
You might think that schools would seize upon this data and embrace Benden’s findings. Not so. Instead, Benden and his team encountered indifference.
“The conversation was a difficult one,” he admits. “Because they really aren’t charged with the responsibility of how much those children are going to weigh aged 70, are they? We’d say, ‘Hey, we think we’ve found a way for kids to burn more calories in class. They can get up, ambulate more. Can we try it in your school?’ And the schools just yawned. Because kids’ activity levels aren’t what schools are measured on.”
Benden was simply not speaking the language of school accountability. But in his results there was data that would enable him to do just that – the behaviour and focus improvements shown in his early studies. So he switched his focus from health benefits to attainment and behaviour benefits.
“Teachers who are able to have better classroom management can spend most of their time teaching, instead of disciplining,” he says. “So when teachers were reporting back to us about how engaged the children were, how they felt they were better managing the classroom with standing desks, that’s when we started to look at the potential cognitive benefits.”
In 2015, Benden and colleagues published a paper called Standing Up for Learning: a pilot investigation on the neurocognitive benefits of stand-biased school desks. It makes for interesting reading.
They looked at executive function – essentially the mental skills that help us to get stuff done and help us to pay attention, focus and organise – and working memory (the system for temporary storage and manipulation of information in the brain) in students using standing desks. Children were given various cognitive tests to complete and their prefrontal cortex brain activity was monitored using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) – this area of the brain plays a vital role in cognition.
Over two semesters, students aged 14-15 showed a 7-14 per cent improvement in cognitive performance.
“Getting those positive results around the brain scans, and the other data from the survey instruments and the teachers reporting back anecdotally of their experiences, we were very encouraged. We definitely felt like ‘there’s something here’,” says Benden.
So why would classroom movement have these potential benefits to children’s learning abilities? It’s the brain and body connection, says Benden.
“Think about being in a long, post-lunch meeting. You’re getting a bit drowsy. You know that if you stand up, move around, orbit the perimeter of the table, you’ll become more alert. It’s the same with classroom students. Moving around encourages blood flow to the brain,” he says.
These findings have given him a small breakthrough. Benden has tested standing desks with students ranging from children age 5 to graduate school students in their 20s and beyond. His desk designs can be found in schools across all 50 states in the US and in “a dozen countries around the world”.
He has also tried tools such as wobble boards, foot rests with swings, and exercise balls in classrooms, with varying results. But, he maintains, they’re “still better than sitting all day.” He has also evaluated treadmill desks, mostly in the lab, and had “decent results.”
He says that the younger the child, the more accepting they are of a movement-focused classroom environment.
“Because they’re still very active and the idea of sitting down and sitting still is torture to them,” he says. “As you get into high school, if kids have never been around a standing desk, you can definitely get some eye rolls and grumbling.”
The trouble with all of these options, though, is the cost of replacing classroom furniture with something more expensive “and schools aren’t at the point where they can afford that”.
“Maybe we’ll get to a stage where there’s one room where kids can access a treadmill desk for an afternoon lesson, but it’s probably not going to be every classroom in every country,” Benden says.
And yet, if we know that being relentlessly hunched over a desk isn’t a great thing, if there are physical and cognitive reasons to shake things up, can we really keep plonking children into plastic chairs like we have always done?
“Well, have you ever looked at a child’s plastic school chair? View it from the side and you’ll see that the back and the seat are typically one piece; the angle is tilted backwards,” says Benden. “Now, you would assume that an ergonomist had designed that chair with several things in mind. Health and safety, cognition, an optimal learning position – because that’s what children are at school for. To learn. But who are school chairs designed for? Janitors. Because they’re easy to stack and move. So the whole position of a child’s body in their six to eight hours a day at school is determined by the cleaning staff.”
He wants teachers to try and force the change, and he says they need to have one thing in mind to do so: children think better on their feet than on their seat.
Christina Quaine is a freelance writer