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Sitting Can Drain Brain Power and Stifle Creativity

A standing desk can improve cognitive engagement and creative thinking.

Workwhilewalking, labeled for reuse
Source: Workwhilewalking, labeled for reuse

“Sitting is the new smoking,” according to Dr. James Levine, of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. Levine is the author of, Get Up! Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, and the inventor of the treadmill desk.

Levine believes that sitting is a bigger public health problem than smoking. Luckily, the detriments of sitting can easily be fixed simply by standing up.

Levine says that we lose about two hours of life for every hour we sit. He blames sitting for a wide range of ailments beyond gaining weight and obesity. In an interview with the LA Times, Levine stated, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death."

Jimmy Kimmel uses a treadmill desk to boost creativity and maintain a healthy weight. He is an early adopter to a trend that is gaining momentum. Levine said,

I think the revolution is coming. It’s going to happen. The cool companies, cool executives are not driving BMWs, they’re on treadmills. My kids won’t be working the way my colleagues and myself have. This is about hard-core productivity. You will make money if your workforce gets up and gets moving. Your kids will get better grades if they get up and get moving. The science is not refuted.

Yesterday, a new study was released that supports Levine’s mission by illustrating that students perform better academically when they’re on their feet.

The April 2015 study, “The Effect of Stand-Biased Desks on Academic Engagement: an Exploratory Study," from the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health found that students who used standing desks performed better in school than their seated classmates.

The preliminary results of the A&M study found a 12 percent greater "on-task engagement" in classrooms when students used standing desks—which equates to an extra seven minutes per hour of engaged instruction time.

Engagement was measured by on-task behaviors such as: answering a question, raising a hand or participating in active discussion and off-task behaviors like speaking out of turn or being disruptive.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

There was a period in elementary school when I spent most of my classroom time trapped in one of these institutional hybrid desk-chairs. Did they use these hybrid chairs when you were in school?

Looking at the image of these chairs under the fluorescent lights gives me flashbacks to elementary school and reminds me why sitting still and engaging was so difficult at the time. This photograph of desk-chairs literally gives me ants in my pants and makes me squirm. To me, hybrid desk-chairs are some type of medieval torture device specifically designed to make the person sitting in the chair feel claustrophobic, constrained, and unable to think outside-the-box.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

On the other hand, standing desks—which are also called stand-biased desks—have stools nearby, and allow students to sit or stand during class at their discretion. Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, is also an ergonomic engineer. He originally became interested in standing desks as a means to reduce childhood obesity and relieve ergonomic stress on spinal structures when someone spends a lot of time sitting at a traditional desk.

Benden's previous studies have shown that standing desks can help reduce obesity—with students at standing desks burning 15 percent more calories than students at traditional desks (25 percent for obese children).

Benden said he wasn't surprised that the results of his recent study went beyond the calorie burning benefits of standing. A wide range of studies have shown that even low levels of physical activity have a beneficial impact on cognitive ability.

"Standing workstations reduce disruptive behavior problems and increase students' attention or academic behavioral engagement by providing students with a different method for completing academic tasks (like standing) that breaks up the monotony of seated work," Benden said in a press release.

Conclusion: Avoiding Sedenentarism Can Boost Brain Power and Creativity

The ancient Greeks understood the link between walking and optimizing cognitive function for students. Based on the principle of maintaining a Sound Mind in a Sound Body, Aristotle founded the famous Peripatetic School where teaching took place while walking on pathways around the Lyceum.

Steve Jobs was notorious for holding important business meetings while walking because he knew that when the body is in motion the mind does its best thinking. This is true for all of us. If you can arrange for your office or classroom to have workstations with treadmills and standing desks it will improve physical health and boost cognitive performance.

Benden concluded, "Considerable research indicates that academic behavioral engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat."

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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