by Dr. Stuart Grauer on October 29, 2013
The famous mantra for powerful teaching is “stand and deliver.” Wow. The hidden message there is that the ultimate teaching goal is for students to “sit and receive.” And they do! The average U.S. student sits 4.5 hours per day just in school. Can the human child really have been designed in nature to withstand this much confinement? If we implemented this much sitting as a torture, would we all be appalled at the cruelty of it? Add in 3.5 hours of daily television and digital screen viewing time, not uncommon, and it would appear our kids are sedentary.
It’s a good thing that at least teachers can stand all they want in class. Researchers are now showing that eight hours of sitting per day is as bad for you as smoking. And yet, we actually require our children to remain seated for many hours each day, in class and doing homework. Why not put a pack of cigarettes on each desk? Why are there no skulls and death messages on student desks and chairs like there are on packs of cigarettes? Why do we not give students a pamphlet with their desk, showing them foot and leg exercises that can be done while still confined in the chair? At least the airlines do this.
Occasionally, some students start to manifest normal responses from incarceration in chairs for inhuman amounts of time. When they do this, rather than letting the kid out of the chair and into a natural or green environment, we typically have a more efficient response: we tell their parents their child has a hyperactivity disorder, at which point a it is considered a normal response to medicate the child.
The world renowned Mayo Clinic has studied the American sedentary lifestyle, linking it with increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers (breast and colon), all of which are now at record levels in affluent nations. These diagnoses are the new millennial badges of honor any nation has to show for its emergence into the modern version of economic success.
Any extended sitting — in front of a screen, behind a desk at school, or behind the wheel — can be harmful. What’s more, spending a few hours a week engaged in moderate or vigorous activity doesn’t seem to significantly offset the health risk, according to the Mayo Clinic. Not even running afterwards. Rather, the solution seems to be simpler than that: less sitting.
Get out of that chair! According to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, even four hours of chair time per day seems to put us into the risk zone. SaysJames A. Levine, MD, PhD, “Every two hours spent just sitting reduces blood flow and lowers blood sugar, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.” 
The impact of replacing sitting with movement — even leisurely movement — can be profound. For starters, you’ll be burning more calories. This typically leads to weight loss and increased energy. Since movement burns energy, it might seem counterintuitive to some that you need to use energy to get energized, but this is true for both physical and mental energy. The muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall — and your health risks increase. When you’re standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action.
Benefits of not sitting are not just physical. Research on the benefits of physical activity on the brain and on our ability to think well is breaking out all over. One researcher calls physical activity “cognitive candy.” Neuroscientists call play a “fundamental organizer.” Regular exercise transforms the brain, improving the ability to remember and think. And a growing and very appealing body of science has established that exercise spurs the creation of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis. Physically fit people suffer less from depression and anxiety, as well.
It is astonishing what people in the habit of sitting will do to avoid getting up and recreating. Transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS — the passage of very low-level electrical current through targeted areas of the brain—is a potential fad sweeping strange corners of the World Wide Web. One wobbly idiot with wires from a nine-volt battery and homemade tDCS device sprouting from his head appears in a recent YouTube saying, “I’m stimulating my parietal lobes right now because I ran across some research that it increases mathematical abilities.” There is zero data on the long-range impact of this practice. Honk if you find this as horrifying as I do.
Teachers who get students to stand and stretch every 20 minutes, or to hold some parts of classes out of doors are showing kindness and wisdom. This requires courage and conviction, since teachers are held to high standards for the complete delivery of heavily impacted curricula.
When I was in Seoul, Korea recently, I learned that their kids sit in school for one more hour per day than kids in the United States, and that they also have even more homework and more extra tutoring classes than U.S. kids. School classes are from 8AM to 4PM with frequent nighttime study sessions and homework. After all this, kids in Seoul have time for only six hours of sleep on a typical night. (Teens need about nine hours a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, and WebMD.)
This is a great example of the kinds of sacrifices many nations around the world are making these days so that their kids get higher scores on standardized tests than kids from other nations. To all my friends who are highly impressed about the test scores of their kids, I say this:preparing our kids for scoring higher on tests is making them better only at taking those tests and not much else. If you want to win that race, you can have it. I will do my best to make sure that any students under my care will only sit for tests if they are balancing all that sitting with time out of doors, in green spaces, and after a good night’s sleep.
If we are satisfied with a “safe,” predictable, bureaucratic life where happiness is not an issue, I suppose we could keep kids and ourselves seated for most of the day. But if we want to increase joy and live long lives, we’ll just have to stand up and move. After all: You can’t leave footprints in the sands of time if you’re sitting on your duff! Thank you for reading another of my posts. I appreciate it.
Above: Stuart was featured in a Seoul newspaper article after his visit in October 2013.
Sitting time and cardiometabolic risk in US adults: associations by sex, race, socioeconomic status and activity level. Staiano AE, Harrington DM, Barreira TV, Katzmarzyk PT. Source: Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.