Thinking on Your Feet: Cognitive Function Improves When Using Standing Up to Learn

Do students think best when on their feet? A new study by the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health indicates they do.

Findings published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health provide the first evidence of neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks in classrooms, where students are given the choice to stand or sit based on their preferences.

Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, researched freshman high school students with who used standing desks. Testing was performed at the beginning and again at the end of their freshman year.

Through using an experimental design, Mehta explored the neurocognitive benefits using four computerized tests to assess executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems and organize their thoughts in writing. Because these functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain regions, a portable brain-imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) was used to examine associated changes in the frontal brain function by placing biosensors on students’ foreheads during testing.

“Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities,” Mehta said. “Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.”

In earlier studies that primarily focused on energy expenditure, teachers observed increased attention and better behavior of students using standing desks. Mehta’s research study is the first study not subject to bias or interpretation that objectively exams students’ cognitive responses and brain function while using standing desks.

“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,” Mehta said. “The next step would be to directly compare the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks to school-based exercise programs.”

Image shows students studying at standing desks.

Students may think best when on their feet. Credit: Texas A&M.

“There has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks,” added Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, co-researcher and director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center. “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.”

Continued investigation of this research may have strong implications for policy makers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable environmental changes in classrooms that can effectively increase energy expenditure and physical activity as well as enhance cognitive development and education outcomes.

About this psychology and cognition research

Funding: Funding for the research was provided by the CDC.

Source: Holly Shive – Texas A&M
Image Source: The image is credited to Texas A&M
Original Research: Full open access research for “Standing Up for Learning: A Pilot Investigation on the Neurocognitive Benefits of Stand-Biased School Desks” by Ranjana K. Mehta, Ashley E. Shortz and Mark E. Benden in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Published online November 24 2015 doi:10.3390/ijerph13010059


Abstract

Standing Up for Learning: A Pilot Investigation on the Neurocognitive Benefits of Stand-Biased School Desks

Standing desks have proven to be effective and viable solutions to combat sedentary behavior among children during the school day in studies around the world. However, little is known regarding the potential of such interventions on cognitive outcomes in children over time. The purpose of this pilot study was to determine the neurocognitive benefits, i.e., improvements in executive functioning and working memory, of stand-biased desks and explore any associated changes in frontal brain function. 34 freshman high school students were recruited for neurocognitive testing at two time points during the school year: (1) in the fall semester and (2) in the spring semester (after 27.57 (1.63) weeks of continued exposure). Executive function and working memory was evaluated using a computerized neurocognitive test battery, and brain activation patterns of the prefrontal cortex were obtained using functional near infrared spectroscopy. Continued utilization of the stand-biased desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities. Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed. These findings provide the first preliminary evidence on the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks, which to date have focused largely on energy expenditure. Findings obtained here can drive future research with larger samples and multiple schools, with comparison groups that may in turn implicate the importance of stand-biased desks, as simple environmental changes in classrooms, on enhancing children’s cognitive functioning that drive their cognitive development and impact educational outcomes.

“Standing Up for Learning: A Pilot Investigation on the Neurocognitive Benefits of Stand-Biased School Desks” by Ranjana K. Mehta, Ashley E. Shortz and Mark E. Benden in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Published online November 24 2015 doi:10.3390/ijerph13010059

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