Standing Desks Show Decrease in Obesity

Use of standing desks in elementary schools may reduce long-term health concerns.

Swapping traditional desks for standing desks in elementary school classrooms could slow the increase of body mass index (BMI) in children by an average of 5.24 percentile points, according to a recent study.

Published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers recruited 24 classrooms at 3 elementary schools in College Station, Texas, for the study.

In each school, 4 of the classrooms were revamped to have standing desks, which allowed students to sit on a stool or stand at will, while 4 classrooms in each school acted as a control using standard classroom desks. Researchers followed 193 students in total from the start of third grade to the end of fourth grade.

The results of the study showed that students with standing desks for both years averaged a 3% drop in BMI, while those in traditional desk classrooms showed a 2% increase typically associated with getting older.

Students who only spend a year using standing desks still had lower mean BMIs than students who used traditional classroom desks for both third and fourth grade. Additionally, researchers did not find any major differences between sexes or races, which suggests this intervention could work across demographic groups.

“Classrooms with stand-biased desks are part of what we call an Activity Permissive Learning Environment (APLE), which means that teachers don’t tell children to ‘sit down,’ or ‘sit still’ during class,” said study author Mark Benden, PhD, CPE. “Instead, these types of desks encourage the students to move instead of being forced to sit in poorly fitting, hard plastic chairs for 6 or 7 hours of their day.”

Although prior studies conducted in Benden’s lab have shown that, on average, children who stand burn 15% more calories than children who sit in a classroom, the current study is the first to show that over a 2-year period, BMI decreases over time compared with controls when using a standing desk.

“It is challenging to just measure weight loss with children, because children are supposed to be gaining weight as they get older and taller,” Benden said.

At the start of the study, about 79% of the students were of normal weight category, 12% were overweight, and 9% were obese. In regards to these numbers, the findings suggest that students who are of a healthy weight may benefit from standing desks, along with students who are overweight and obese.

“Research around the world has shown that standing desks are positive for the teachers in terms of classroom management and student engagement, as well as positive for the children for their health, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement,” Benden said. “It’s literally a win-win, and now we have hard data that shows it is beneficial for weight control. Sit less, move more. That’s our message.”