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Standing up at school improves students' cognitive performance, study finds

Study hack: on your feet!

PETER DOCKRILL
15 JAN 2016
 

There's no shortage of research on the physiological health benefits of standing up during the day instead of spending your time in sedentary positions, but what about the effects on mental performance?

A new study in the US has found that high school students demonstrated improved cognitive functioning after half a year of using standing desks, prior to which they had only used conventional sitting desks during lessons.

 

"There has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks," said Mark Benden, one of the researchers from Texas A&M University. "This is the first examination of students' cognitive responses to the standing desks, which to date have focused largely on sedentary time as it relates to childhood obesity."

The researchers recruited 34 freshman high school students to assess their executive functions via a series of computerised tests at two points during the school year. Executive functions are the kinds of cognitive functions we use to analyse tasks, and they're directly related to academic skills such as our ability to memorise and comprehend facts, organise our thoughts, and solve problems.

Executive functions are largely regulated in frontal brain regions, and the researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to image the students' brains as they did the tests. The two tests were roughly half a year apart, during which time the students involved continuously used the standing desks. 

The results, reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, showed that "continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities," according to one of the team, Ranjana Mehta. "Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed."

The boosts were significant too, with the students showing an approximate 7 to 14 percent improvement in cognitive performance across several executive function and working memory tasks after half a year of standing lessons. Further, brain imaging using fNIRS revealed significant left frontal lobe activation during three of the five tasks. 

Despite the promise of the research, there are a number of caveats to this study, which the authors acknowledge, calling their exploratory paper a "first contribution to the existing knowledge base" in this area.

Specifically, only two testing sessions were recorded with the students, and the number of volunteers was very small (and dropped to just 27 students by the end of the study). It's also important to bear in mind that there was no control group with which to contrast the results of the students using standing desks. 

However, the authors are also involved in a larger two-year study converting a Texas high school from traditional seated classrooms to stand-biased classrooms. If that larger study and subsequent research in the field can back up some of the preliminary findings here, a move to standing desks could well turn out to be a simple and effective change for schools to implement – and one which may improve students' health and academic performance at the same time.

"Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs," said Mehta. "The next step would be to directly compare the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks to school-based exercise programs."

One of the advantages of standing desks over exercise programs is  the ease with which they can be installed and used within schools. 

"In comparison to most school-based physical activity programs, standing desk interventions are non-intrusive – i.e. does not require any additional training, instructional time, nor accommodations and therefore does not tax school resources," the authors write. Sounds like a win-win, provided these encouraging early results can be replicated in future research.

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