Standing in class can be a good thing

Research could prompt policymakers and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to boost physical activity and cognitive development.
Research could prompt policymakers and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to boost physical activity and cognitive development.ST FILE PHOTO

Study shows use of standing-height desks is linked with improved cognitive skills, memory

Study after study has connected inactivity with negative health outcomes, including heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.

But most of this attention has been focused on adults in an office environment, and the negative impact of sitting on physical health - hence, the growing popularity of standing-height desks in offices.

Moving more is good for our bodies. Over the past few years, many researchers have begun evaluating the use of standing-height desks (allowing students to sit on a stool or stand at will) in school classrooms. Results have been promising but, until now, researchers have typically focused on utilising such desks as a way to combat sedentary behaviour.

While studies show that standing at such desks can burn calories, anecdotal evidence from teachers suggests that students also focus more and behave better when using standing-height desks.

But is there anything to these anecdotal observations? Our team at the Texas A&M Ergonomics Centre decided to investigate whether standing-height desks had neurocognitive benefits for students.

It turns out that letting children move in the classroom helps to boost attention and focus.

Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing-height desks improved neurocognitive function by 7 to 14 per cent, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programmes.

My colleague, Dr Mark Benden, first looked at classroom movement as a way to deal with the growing number of obese children. In the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have quadrupled, particularly in adolescents aged 12 to 19 years. Dr Benden found that students assigned to classrooms equipped with standing-height desks that allow them to have the option to stand or sit on a stool burned 15 to 25 per cent more calories than those assigned to traditional-seating classrooms.

While burning calories is certainly important, the question at hand is whether standing-height desks improve learning.

In a study of nearly 300 children in the second to fourth grade (equivalent to Primary 2 to 4) over the course of a school year, Dr Benden and his team found that children in classrooms with standing-height desks exhibited 12 per cent greater "on task" engagement when compared with students in classrooms with traditional desks. Engagement was measured by looking at behaviours such as answering questions, raising a hand or participating in active discussion.

However, we were not sure if standing-height desks were behind the increase in classroom engagement. For instance, the way desks are arranged in a classroom and how well teachers engage the students can also influence classroom engagement.

Thus, Dr Benden and I set out to explore the benefits of standing-height desks on basic cognitive tasks such as reaction time, response inhibition, attention, memory and cognitive flexibility.

Together, these abilities are lumped as executive functions.

We studied 34 high school freshmen who used standing-height desks at two points during the school year. Desks were installed in the classrooms during autumn so we could compare the same students before they got these desks and after. We wanted to see whether the continued use of such desks affected executive functions.

Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyse tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorise facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems and organise their thoughts in writing.

We gave students a series of computerised tests to assess their executive functions, which they took at standing-height desks in a computer lab. This allowed us to isolate the effects of the standing-height desk from classroom configuration and other classroom variables.

Our test results indicated that continued use of standing-height desks was associated with significant performance improvements in executive functions and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.

This is the first study to objectively examine students' cognitive responses while using standing-height desks and provide a neuropsychological basis for the improvements observed. Moreover, by testing basic cognitive functions, we got to measure the impact of such desks on the building blocks of child behaviour in classrooms.

Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing-height desks improved neurocognitive function by 7 to 14 per cent, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programmes.

Further research could encourage policymakers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable changes in classrooms to increase physical activity and enhance cognitive development and educational outcomes.

Let's face it - society as a whole used to be more active. Standing-height desks allow for children to stand or sit at will and these transitions facilitate movement. If we can start slowly changing behaviours in children (and allow them to wiggle, fidget and move during the school day), movement could become the norm.

After all, science says we think better when we move.

•The writer is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Texas A&M University. This article first appeared in The Conversation (http:// theconversation.com), a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia and Britain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Standing in class can be a good thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe