Despite a surge of popularity, the verdict on standing at work is still out: The rush to adopt them has been met with plenty of people grabbing for their cushy chairs again. The benefits may be overblown, some argue. Just do a bit of weekly exercise to get the same benefits, others say.
According to researcher University of Louisville associate professor Monica Wendel, active, standing experiences at elementary school should "be the norm." And our students should be getting standing desks to promote this.
In her most recent study, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health and highlighted by Eureka Alert, her team spent two years studying 193 students across three Texas grade schools. Some were in classes that had normal desks. Some were in classes that had what she calls standing-biased desks (or standing desks that had an optional stool). And some had a year of normal desks and a year of standing desks.
What they found is that after adjusting for grade, race/ethnicity, and gender, kids who used the standing desks had a 5.24% decrease in BMI percentile compared to the kids who sat. Furthermore, the kids who stood for only one year seemed to walk away with the same BMI-loss benefits at the end of the study as those who stood for two. And the best part? All the study had to do was swap out some desks. Nothing else about the school or curriculum had to be re-architected.
Of course, the idea of "standing desks for kids" sounds strangely dystopian, as if we’re ignorantly mapping our new-wave office habits onto children. But the fact of the matter is, the design of school classrooms thwart a child’s natural instincts to be active.
"If you observe children from a very young age, they typically are on the move. Sitting down and being still all day is not natural behavior for children. But how can a teacher manage a classroom with 25 kids moving around all the time?" Wendel wrote in an email. "We train children to sit down and be still from a young age, which often carries over into adulthood." Furthermore, it seems that kids preferred to stand—75% of students in a pilot study opted not to use the stool at all.
When I asked Wendel if there might be a sweet spot for giving students standing desks, she doubted it, pointing out that kids are increasingly encouraged to sit as their attention spans increase during development. Kindergarteners are encouraged to play, and classroom activities promote movement around the room. "As they progress into higher grades where classroom instruction is more didactic, the amount of sitting time increases," writes Wendel. "If students are always given the opportunity to stand or sit, they are not a distraction when they choose to stand, and they’re not automatically conditioned to sit as they get older."
Wendel knows of a few schools outside her research that have incorporated standing desks. She’s found the barriers are financial, even though the desks themselves are no more expensive than the traditional sitting desk—meaning it might make sense to grandfather the furniture in, swapping out old worn-out desks with new standing ones.
"We had a couple of parents ask about potential for injury (i.e., falling off the stools). Teachers told us that they didn’t fall off the stools anymore than kids typically fall out of their chairs," writes Wendel. "And a couple of parents were worried about their already 'skinny' children who didn’t need to be more active and lose weight. Interestingly, what we found is that normal weight students burn fewer calories standing than their overweight counterparts (takes more energy to hold up a larger mass), so they didn’t have dramatically increased caloric expenditure."
No doubt, research will only continue to grow on the benefits and costs of standing desks for all of us. But in the immediate—for the youngest members of our society, who are facing health repercussions of our own design—it seems like giving them the option to stand a few hours of their school day could be the least we could do.