Can A Standing Desk Improve Kids' Health and Learning?

December 31, 2018

a kid at standing desk
a kid at standing desk

David Kirshbaum

Kids are facing a health crisis in the form of obesity, diabetes, and poor fitness, putting them at risk for heart disease and other medical issues. With the elimination of recess and physical education from many schools, students are sitting more than ever, which may be adding to these health problems.

The standing desk has become popular in recent years with office workers and companies looking to improve employee health. But the education system has been slower to catch on, keeping children stuck in the same old sitting desks year after year.

Obesity affects 13.7 million kids age 2-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that nearly one in three children are overweight or obese.

Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified before the U.S. Senate in 2004, stating, "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."

While these health concerns remain at crisis levels today, some forward-thinking researchers, educators, and parents have begun pushing for standing desks in schools in order to reduce sitting time and increase physical activity. The results are promising.

Standing Desk Health Benefits For Kids

Standing burns more calories than sitting, which helps kids keep their weight down. It also makes it easier for kids to move and change their position, which can help with concentration and learning.

Standing in the classroom can also lower kids' body mass index (BMI). A Texas study following 380 elementary school students over 2 years found that a group who used standing desks showed a significant increase in calorie burn and a BMI reduction of 5.24 percentile points compared to a control group.

Dr. Mark Benden, head of the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at Texas A&M University and author of the study, reported to KQED news, "We quickly realized they [the students] are more active, they are burning more calories, at the standing desks … And they're not necessarily standing the whole time. There's a stool, too … it opens up your trunk-thigh angle, you're able to breathe better, and you're able to swing your legs."

Standing more helps kids with fitness and mobility. Physical therapist and best-selling author Kelly Starrett and his wife Juliet grew a highly successful business training adults on how to improve their mobility. Their clients include NFL stars, executives, and elite military groups. For years, they advised them all to get standing desks.

Then they visited their daughter's elementary school for a day of games. They were so shocked at the kids' inability to run a simple sack race that Juliet started a non-profit dedicated to bringing standing desks into classrooms.

The health problems facing kids can have huge impacts on their well-being and potential for success throughout life, so finding solutions should be a top priority for education systems. Getting kids in the habit of standing more will set them up for better health and work habits throughout their lives.

Learning Benefits

But what about academics? Some skeptics have raised concerns about potential negative effects of standing and movement on children's learning and behavior.

The CDC says otherwise.

The agency published an 84-page report in 2010 on the effects of physical activity on education. In reviewing a variety of studies, they found virtually no negative associations between movement and learning.

They concluded that "The evidence suggests that superintendents and principals can devote school time to physical activity without concern that it will lower student test scores."

Both research and anecdotal evidence from frontline educators suggest that standing in the classroom may actually improve academic engagement and performance and resolve some behavioral issues.

A 2015 CNN article shared the story of public elementary school teachers Jennifer Emmolo and Jaclyn Ginex, who got a grant to get standing desks in their classrooms.

"'The results have been stunning,' said Emmolo ... 'Things like talking when you weren't supposed to be talking, fidgeting ... standing around the room and moving at not great times, all of those undesirable behaviors decreased by incredible amounts ... It was pretty amazing. Kids that you might have to talk to sometimes on more than an hourly basis to refocus them or redirect them, you no longer had to do that…'"

Bringing standing desks into classrooms appears to improve both health and learning, especially for those who are most at risk.

Benden told KQED that overweight and obese kids showed the biggest improvements in both calories burned and classroom attention and focus.

"When you look at overweight, and especially obese, children in the study, they were twice as engaged in activity-permissive learning environment classrooms … And that amount of engagement was actually higher than normal-weight peers in normal classrooms. And that just doesn't happen, this was kind of eye-opening."

With so many benefits, it may be time to for education systems to consider making standing desks the norm in classrooms.

What do you think about kids standing up to learn? Share in the comments!

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