Standing desks: The classroom of the future?

Sedentary officer workers aren’t the only people who may benefit from standing desks. A small but growing body of research is finding that children who stand at desks during school burn more calories than those who sit, information that could help in the battle against childhood obesity.

In one pilot study, researchers equipped four first-grade classrooms in a Texas elementary school with desks that came with a stool but allowed children to stand. The teachers and children were told about the desks but given no specific instructions.

After six weeks, 70 percent of the students never used their stools to sit and the other 30 percent stood the majority of the time they were at their desks, said Monica Wendel, co-author of the study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health.

“What we found was that most students WANT to be standing, to be moving,” Wendel said. “They don’t want to sit still — it’s against their nature. We are the ones who teach them to be sedentary.”

Overall, the study showed that using a standing desk significantly increased caloric expenditure in first graders. (Wendel’s team, led by biomedical engineer and ergonomist Mark Benden is beginning a study this fall looking at second and third graders.)

“Perhaps even more important was that the heavier children — those in the 85th percentile for weight based on age and gender -- burned 32 percent more calories standing than heavier children that used a traditional seated desk,” she said.

Some teachers worry the desks will be a distraction. But according to the researchers, standing “actually improved attention, on-task behavior, alertness and classroom engagement,” said Wendel, director of the Center for Community Health Development at the Texas A & M Health Science Center. “In fact, after several weeks, the teachers requested that their desks be raised also.”

The desks, called “stand-biased” because they encourage standing, were paired with a stool that matched the height of the desk. That allowed students to be at the same height, regardless of whether they were sitting or standing.

Research with adjustable desks – which are mechanically raised and lowered – has found that once the novelty wears off, changing the desk height becomes too much of a hassle and people default to sitting because that’s how high the chair is.

“With a stand-biased desk, you walk in and you’re at the right height,” Wendel said. “You can change between sitting and standing with little effort, and that’s the part that is best for you: transitioning between postures frequently.”

Standings desks haven’t yet been compared with the use of stability balls for classroom seating. But Wendel says the giant bouncy balls cause more headaches than stand-biased desks and take up more space.

“Children bounce on the ball, roll it around, fall off of it, dribble it like a basketball, kick it and throw it at their neighbor,” she said. “Now multiply that by all 22 students having a ball. That would be distracting.”

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