Juliet Starrett is on a mission to convert America's schools to standing desks; if she succeeds, your own kids could improve a lot more than just their physical fitness.
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For years, we’ve been recommending standing desks to adults. This is part of our practice and it’s a part of what we recommend to our clients. Overall lifestyle is key to fitness and health, and when we talk about an optimal lifestyle for fitness, we talk about sleep, hydration, movement — and standing desks. If you want to have good tissues and perform athletically or even just live your life injury free, you need to stand up. You’re going to suffer orthopedic problems if you sit all the time and then try to stand up and do sports.
The World Health Organization considers physical inactivity the fourth leading cause of death, right behind obesity.
I’m hardly the first to make the connection between sitting and poor health. There is a well-documented connection between sitting and various metabolic conditions. The World Health Organization considers physical inactivity the fourth leading cause of death, right behind obesity. Going back to 1994, the U.S. surgeon general predicted that sedentary living was going to be the next smoking. Good data that shows that, for women at least, sitting in excess of 6 hours per day increases your risk of death by 54 percent; for men, it’s 70 percent.
The Sack Race Moment
As part of the research for his book Ready to Run, my husband Kelly noticed something about children and running: He observed that in pre-school and kindergarten, all kids run naturally and well, like miniature Kenyan marathon runners. They sprint. They pull hard. They run on the balls of their feet. By first grade, half the kids start heel striking. By second grade, they have noticeably dysfunctional running patterns. The key difference in the pre-school and regular school environment? Sitting. Children go from not sitting as pre-schoolers to sitting all the time as first graders. As a 6-year-old first grader, you are put into an environment that breeds dysfunctional movement patterns.
By second grade, kids have noticeably dysfunctional running patterns. The key difference in the pre-school and regular school environment? Sitting.
We saw this firsthand. A few years ago, my husband and I were volunteering for field day at our daughters’ school. We always volunteer at the sack races, because of all the events we think it’s the most interesting and the most athletic. What we saw was really alarming to us: The kids — most of them healthy and not obese — lacked the range of motion necessary to lift their legs to get into the sack. And then, when they would jump, they had such insufficient hip range of motion that they couldn’t get into full extension with their bodies when they were jumping.
It blew our minds, and it scared us.
This wasn’t an obesity issue. Most of these children were visibly healthy. The only thing we could conclude is that these children had lost a critical hip range of motion. And these are first to fifth graders! It was obvious: This was a result of sitting. The only environmental load that could cause something like this in young kids was sitting too much. That was the first moment, the first spark of realization about what sitting was doing to children. At the time, we didn’t do anything about it. We just looked at each other and thought, “Jeez, this is bad.”
About a year later, I was perusing the Internet and found an online calorie calculator. I calculated that if I worked 52 weeks a year, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, that I would burn an additional 95,000 calories a year at a standing desk instead of a sitting desk. I was 40 years old and thought, “How many calories does a 40-year-old woman burn running a marathon?” I looked it up: an average of 3,300 calories. Again, my mind was blown when I realized I could stand there every day or run 33 marathons. In calorie expenditure terms, they were the same.
I shared it on Facebook, where it blew other people’s minds. If this is what I would burn, then what about kids?
There are countless well-meaning people working on childhood obesity issues, everyone from Michelle Obama to the thousands of organizations trying to do good and noble work to change children’s health. It’s an active discussion at health conferences, where the focus is how to change children’s behavior. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that getting people to change their basic health behaviors — eating habits and exercise — is incredibly hard. But getting people to stand instead of sit is a matter of changing a default behavior, and when you can change default behavior you can make a dramatic impact in an individual’s life.
My husband and I realized we had to do something. We also knew that we told our adult clients about the virtues of standing desks, but we too were guilty of carting our kids off to school and putting them at sitting desks.
I calculated that if I worked 52 weeks a year, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, that I would burn an additional 95,000 calories a year at a standing desk instead of a sitting desk.
So we took the first step: We spoke to our principal to see if we can fund standing desks for our kids’ classrooms. I thought we’d need to make a big presentation, the equivalent of a Supreme Court argument. As a lawyer, I prepared myself as any good litigator would. I thought it was going to go to the district level, where I’d have to address the Superintendent.
To my surprise, we sat down with the principal, rattled off the facts, and she said, “I’m in!” I found the kids’ standing desk model I thought was best, my husband and I bought 25 of them, installed them and we were a go. It was so successful that we bought the desk for two other fourth grade classes and one first grade class. We have 100 kids with standing desks. We are confident that we’ll raise enough money by July to outfit the entire school. There are pockets of kids with standing desks around the country, but we are quite confident that we’ll be the first all-standing elementary school in the United States.
In the first few weeks, a few kids complained about being tired. We went in and talked to them. We spoke to them about how they’d been sitting for 4 or 5 years, and this would be a transitional period. I know when I myself switched to a standing desk, I was more tired at the end of the day. But over time, the feeling of tiredness waned. My body became accustomed to standing in the same way it had grown used to sitting.
What’s been most heartening is hearing from parents, who reach out to tell us that the standing desks have helped with discipline.
As a solution, we ordered high stools, which the kids could lean against but not sit. At the beginning, the kids fought over the stools, and we had to have them share the stools for 15 minutes apiece. Two months into the experiment, the kids no longer ran for the stools. Their strength and fitness adapted to standing.
Interestingly enough, the first graders never used the stools. They never even asked for them. They never grew accustomed to sitting, because of their experiences in pre-school and kindergarten, so they took to the standing desks more easily.
The teachers have reported the students are more engaged and can concentrate more, which, though anecdotal, is a strong endorsement. The impact is particularly powerful for students who are fidgety. The kids can fidget at the standing desk, but it’s not as disruptive. You can move at a standing desk; you’re not stationary. There’s also a fidget bar that allows them to make micro movements, which means the excess energy has a place to go. What’s been most heartening is hearing from parents, who reach out to tell us that the standing desks have helped with discipline.
Our theory? Those micro movements are important. They help with concentration. They allow children to move in a non-disruptive way. And that’s what standing desks do: They create a movement-rich environment. Kids can be in constant motion at a standing desk in a way they can’t while sitting.
Bring Movement Back
We have a genetic drive to move. It’s strong, but we live in a culture that often inhibits our movement. Our educational model, our current cultural model, and the design of our modern classrooms along with screens, television, commuting, etc. — all of it conspires to make movement something we have to do deliberately rather than something that happens naturally.
And that’s what standing desks do: They create a movement-rich environment.
A few people have said to us, “I grew up in the 1970s. We didn’t have standing desks, and things turned out fine.” Here’s the difference: In the 1970s and 1980s, the only time we sat as kids was at school. We walked to school and then played outside until dark. It was a different era. For instance, The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that kids between ages 8 and 18 are spending more than seven hours in front of a screen. Seven hours! And that’s regardless of socioeconomic status. Screen time, plus school time, plus getting driven to school, and then coming home and doing homework — kids are spending the vast majority of time sitting.
As extreme an experiment as this seems on the surface, we’ve gotten tremendous community support. People are broadly supportive and encouraging, and parents have stepped up to help us and the process. Educators are excited about standing desks, not just in big metropolitan areas but across the board.
Our mission is very ambitious: We want standing desks in every public school in America.
Getting funders to support us has proven challenging. We get it: In a universe where public school systems face countless challenges in resources and funding, this whole standing desk thing can seem like a needless frivolity. Kelly and I see this as a public health crisis, and we’re making it our mission to educate the public and teach funders. We talk about why sitting is killing us and why standing is better for our students, their education, and their future health.
Our mission is very ambitious: We want standing desks in every public school in America. There may come a time when the federal government helps, but for now our goal is to provide as many of these desks as we can using our non-profit, Stand Up Kids.
Juliet Starrett is an attorney, entrepreneur, mother of two, and wife to Kelly Starrett. She is the CEO of Mobility Wod and San Francisco Crossfit.
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