By Al Scotton
Today’s children are more sedentary – and more overweight – than ever. Nearly all (98.5 percent) youth between the ages of 12 to 15 reported watching TV on a daily basis in 2012. Meanwhile, 73 percent of 12 to 15 year olds had more than two hours of combined TV and computer use daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the time spent in front of a computer and TV contributes to total sedentary time, school-age children can spend six or more hours sedentary in the classroom, forced into desks that may wreak havoc on their bodies.
The Healthy People 2020 initiative called for a reduction in the proportion of children and adolescents who are obese. In the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. In 2012, over one-third of children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese, according to the CDC.
Combatting “Sitting Disease” in Schools
Promoting low-level activity and reducing sedentary time throughout the school day may be the key to improving the health of our children.
Recent studies have found that the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly.
The American College of Sports Medicine and researchers at the University of South Carolina have recently published research suggesting that the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle cannot fully be redeemed by meeting the recommended amount of weekly exercise.
In fact, eight hours of sitting per day – between school and sedentary after-school time – could even be as bad as smoking.
A meta-analysis of ten studies on sedentary habits suggests “a 112% greater relative risk associated with a large duration of sedentary behavior for type 2 diabetes…[and] significantly greater odds for metabolic syndrome.” The analysis suggests that low-intensity physical activity can significantly reduce the risks of disease associated with sedentary lifestyles.
Another study suggests that breaks in sedentary time may reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. Integrating healthy activity into children’s daily routine can develop healthy habits that last a lifetime – and may even help children struggling with ADHD.
While traditional physical education (PE) programs have been shown to increase physical activity and various markers of health in children, these programs utilize only a small portion of the entire school day.
Bringing Activity Into the Classroom
In order to investigate the health effects of low-level physical activity during instructional time, Monica Wendel, director of the Center for Community Health Development at Texas A&M, studied the use of standing desks in four first-grade classrooms in Texas.
Wendel told the Chicago Tribune that standing “actually improved attention, on-task behavior, alertness and classroom engagement.” And good news for the childhood obesity epidemic: the most overweight children in the study “burned 32 percent more calories while standing.”
Some classrooms are being equipped with standing desks, while others are being equipped with desks attached to stationary bicycles to allow for more movement. Use of stationary bicycle desks is in various classroom settings is a current topic of research at Clemson University, where “active workstations” have recently filled the university’s library.
Most classroom learning can be done while standing, pedaling, or stretching. Forcing children into desks for long periods of time may have long-lasting negative consequences for their health that can last well into adulthood.
Is there an opportunity for Vermont to help students be more active? UVM Assistant Professor Bernice Garnett of the College of Education and Social Services thinks so.
“Vermont schools are in a unique position to integrate physical activity into settings beyond traditional physical education classes as the updated educational quality standards (EQS) for Vermont schools now encourage schools to offer at least 30 minutes of physical activity outside of PE time,” Garnett says.
Garnett points out that while evidence-based models of integrating physical activity into classroom settings exist for elementary and middle grades, there is “a dearth of evidence-based practices for high schools, which will be a challenge but also an opportunity for Vermont high school leadership.”
Let us accept the challenge to promote more classroom movement and reduce health risks for our children. We should give our children the tools they need to live active, healthy lives, by supporting funding for research and initiatives that explore the use of standing desks and pedal desks in classroom settings.
Al Scotton is a full-time graduate student in UVM’s Master of Public Health Program and lives in Montpelier, Vermont.