I have discussed the connections between cognitive function and physical movement and health in several previous articles (see especially “Fitness and Intelligence,” “Fitness and Cognitive Performance Redux” and “Cognitive Ability and Physical Performance“). In this piece, I welcome some further insight on the subject from Juliet Starrett, founder of Standup Kids. We discuss the benefits of standing desks for both physical health and cognitive function.
Juliet is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and MobilityWOD.com and the recipient of the 2007 Jefferson Award for public service for her work with GirlVentures, a girls empowerment organization, and Liquid, a kayaking camp for children with HIV. Standup Kids is a 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to get every public school child at a standing desk in the next ten years in order to combat the epidemic of sedentary lifestyles and inactivity and better reflect twenty-first-century education goals. You can read more about the history and implementation of Standup Kids at standupkids.org.
Juliet: Students who stand at school are more attentive, focused, and have better cognition and executive function. Standing can be particularly helpful for kids with attention issues as it allows them to move. For many such kids with ADD and ADHD, they literally cannot learn unless they are moving. Standing desks also allow kids to be in continuous small motion (think fidgeting), and teachers report that the ability to move helps kids’ behavior, too.
Greg: The Standup Kids website has calculations for caloric expenditures of sitting versus standing. How did you calculate these figures and how significant are the benefits of standing desks in terms of energy expenditure?
Juliet: Our calorie calculator is based on research done by a desk manufacturer named Ergoton but supported by the important research being done by Dr. Mark Benden at Texas A&M. His studies show that kids who stand and school burn an additional 25-35% more calories versus kids who sit all day. Indeed, just last year, he published a hugely important study showing that, over a two-year period, there was a 6% BMI difference between the kids who stood and the kids who sat. The BMI of the standing desk kids went down by more than 3 percentage points, while the BMI of the sitting kids when up by more than 2 percentage points, for a delta of nearly 6 percent between sitting and standing at school. This is a huge deal and could make a significant dent in childhood obesity, especially over a full childhood of schooling.
Greg: There was a recent article in Scientific American* in which researchers tracked the daily energy expenditures of traditional hunter-gatherers in Africa and compared those numbers to energy expenditures of Western individuals. Contrary to my expectations, the researchers found almost no difference in daily energy expenditures between the two cultures despite vast differences in activity levels. Is it possible that the weight loss Dr. Benden observed is linked to other lifestyle factors (for example, schools that provide standing desks may be more likely to serve healthy lunches)?
Juliet: I would point again to Dr. Benden’s two-year study showing the BMI of standing kids went down, while the sitting kids went up. My only explanation of that is the standing kids are moving more, burning more calories, and not gaining as much weight. All other factors were the same between those two study groups—same school, same PE (or not), same amount of recess, etc.
Greg: I use a standing desk at home and work. For more creative tasks, I find that walking stimulates my thoughts, but I prefer to sit down if I need to focus on a particularly complex problem, especially one involving mathematical calculations. I’m thirty-one years old and grew up in schools with sitting desks. Is thinking while standing is a skill that is especially important to develop early in life?
Juliet: Yes. Here’s a story for you. When we converted our pilot school from sitting to standing, the older kids (particularly fourth and fifth graders) took much longer to adjust to standing at school. The younger kids adapted almost immediately and it literally seemed normal and natural for them right away. We also see many adults fail in their efforts to convert to standing for a variety of reasons—they don’t adjust their desk correctly, they stand still, they don’t create a bar or place to put their foot, and so on. Imagine a world where ALL kids stand and move at school—when they get to the workplace, they will, of course, choose to stand and move at work. They will consider a sitting desk a “beta” desk.
For more news and research related to the benefits of standing desks in schools, follow Standup Kids on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. And to learn more about the organization and contribute to its mission, visit standupkids.org.
*-The original Scientific American article by Herman Pontzer can be found behind a paywall at www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-exercise-paradox. A free summary of this study is available at www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-01/cp-wyw012016.php. A list of Dr. Benden’s research is available at www.researchgate.net/profile/Mark_Benden/publications.
To evaluate energy expenditure for sitting and standing students, Dr. Benden and his coauthors used a Sensewear Armband, which measures motion, sweat and body heat and uses these data to estimate energy use. Students in this study wore the Armband during school hours for five consecutive days.
In contrast, Pontzer and his team used the doubly labeled water method to track their subjects’ total energy expenditure over the course of entire days. In this measurement technique, considered the “gold standard in public health” for measuring daily caloric burn, subjects drink water enriched in deuterium and oxygen-18, which allows researchers to analyze the concentration of these isotopes in their urine in order to calculate their daily carbon dioxide production and energy expenditure. Several previous doubly labeled water studies comparing humans around the globe with varying activity levels show similar figures for energy use across all subjects.
I would hypothesize that both studies are accurate. Taken in isolation, standing and moving require more energy than sitting. But Pontzer suggests the bodies of active hunter-gatherers may make up for energy demand during activity by working more efficiently and commanding less energy during rest and when undergoing routine physiological processes. Applied to the matter at hand, standing students burn more energy during the school day but their bodies may conserve energy at other times so that sitting and standing students expend the same amount of energy over the course of an entire day.
As Juliet pointed out, Dr. Benden also found that students using standing desks showed a smaller increase in BMI over a two-year period, compared to students in the same schools who used sitting desks. If Pontzer’s paper and the supporting evidence cited therein are correct, it is still possible to attribute Dr. Benden’s results to changes in lifestyle that accompanied standing desk use. For example, students who used standing desks may have become more active in general, spent less time eating and consumed fewer calories. They may have consistently left the lunch table earlier than their sitting counterparts or they may have been more likely to play outside instead of snacking on the couch. Yet whether the relationship between desk type and student BMI is direct or indirect, this relationship exists.
Finally, both sets of researchers agree on the benefits of movement beyond its effects on energy expenditure. Juliet cited several non-energy benefits of standing desks, and Pontzer notes “You still have to exercise… Exercise has tons of well-documented benefits, from increased heart and immune system health to improved brain function and healthier aging.” Isolated energy expenditure is probably less important on a large scale compared with the many benefits of physical activity on disease, cognition and other lifestyle factors.
“https://img.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp-content/uploads/sites/26/2015/07/Ergotron-1-776×1024.jpg.” Image. 21 July 2015. Online. 18 April 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2015/07/21/standing-desks-at-schools-the-solution-to-the-childhood-obesity-epidemic.