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What Impact Does Prolonged Classroom Sitting Have on Student Health?

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Over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece, Aristotle established the Peripatetic ("conversations while walking") school in a multi-purpose gymnasium surrounded by groves and green open space. The classic Greeks seemed to understand that prolonged sedentary behaviors at school didn't align with their mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body) ethos.

Prolonged sitting in a lecture hall with rows and rows of chairs is notably absent from the Peripatetic pedagogy and the school's architectural design. Aristotle and his pupils didn't spend all day sitting in a classroom. Instead, academic and philosophical lessons were taught as teachers strolled with students along walkways (i.e., perípatoi) that weaved throughout the Lyceum campus.

Flash forward to the 21st century: In recent years, a wide range of studies have linked prolonged sitting with a higher risk of psychological and physical health issues such as depression, heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

In 2018, a study of 127,554 women and men in the United States by Alpa Patel and colleagues at the American Cancer Society found that prolonged sitting (≥6 vs. <3 hours per day) was associated with a higher risk of mortality from heart disease, cancer, and "all other causes."

Last year, a meta-analysis (Norris et al., 2019) of 42 different studies led by Emma Norris of University College London reported that school-age children who aren't glued to their classroom chairs for long periods tend to perform better academically than their peers who sit for prolonged periods.

This week, a new paper (Cowgill et al., 2020) by arts and science professors at UCLA is encouraging college-age students and faculty in university settings to "get up, stand up, stand up for your health!" The researchers are advocating for more open classrooms and less prolonged sitting. These findings were published on February 6 in the Journal of American College Health. 

This research was led by Angelia Leung, who is a dance professor at UCLA, along with public health professor Burt Cowgill and other colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles. The title of their recent study on prolonged sitting pays homage to the classic reggae song by Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Get Up, Stand Up" from the 1970s. 

The objective of this study was twofold. First, the researchers conducted informative interviews and used focus groups to assess the level of awareness that university students and faculty had about the detriments of prolonged sitting. Second, the researchers rated the most socially acceptable ways to reduce extensive bouts of prolonged sitting without disrupting the learning environment.

As the authors explain, "University settings represent an opportunity to address issues related to prolonged sitting that may address immediate health implications, as well as establish behaviors and practices that can be continued in work-based settings."

The students and faculty members who participated in this study were from a large public university with undergraduate, graduate, and professional classes. "Many students and faculty were not aware of the detrimental effects associated with prolonged sitting. Barriers to movement in university settings included social acceptability, environmental constraints, and academic requirements," the authors write.

Cowgill et al. found that most students thought it was socially unacceptable and inappropriate to stand up and "stretch your legs" in the middle of a class. To avoid the potential disruption created by students randomly getting up and moving about during a class, the researchers recommend a variety of solutions listed below.

5 Ways to Address Prolonged Classroom Sitting (Cowgill et al., 2020)

  1. Teachers and professors should schedule breaks designed to allow students the opportunity to get up, stretch, and move around. 
  2. Everyone should be encouraged to use breaks to stand and stretch their legs at least once every hour during long classes.
  3. Incorporate activities in long classes that require switching seats or working in small groups while standing.
  4. Create more room between chairs and desks so students can move around without bumping into each other.
  5. Change the structural design of classrooms to make room for some standing desks.

In addition to the above-mentioned strategies for reducing prolonged classroom sitting, the researchers emphasize the importance of raising awareness about the health risks of staying seated for long blocks of time. Cowgill and Leung are also advocating for a shift away from cultural norms that reinforce the status quo of "sitting still" without moving for long periods as "good" classroom etiquette and being fidgety as "bad." 

"Social norms and the physical classroom environment are barriers, but awareness is the biggest obstacle," Cowgill said in a news release. "We need to change the way we teach so that we can offer more standing breaks, create opportunities for in-class movement, and even change the built environment so that there's more room for moving around."

The researchers were surprised to learn that many students and faculty were unaware of the health risks associated with prolonged sitting. "Many people thought they would be fine if they also squeezed in a 30-minute jog, and that's just not what research shows us," Cowgill said.

Cowgill and Leung hope their research will "shed light on misconceptions about the health risks of extended sitting, and help faculty and students learn the ways they can work together to stand up and stretch."

"A cultural change has to take place — that it's OK to take a stretch break, to stand up during a lecture, to fidget when needed — it's 'good' for health's sake," Angelia Leung said in a news release. "My students have an advantage because dance classes naturally involve movement, but we can extend these benefits to any class on campus with something as simple as short stretching breaks — no dancing required." 

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Schedule10 Jun 2023