Combatting A Sedentary Education

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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How can we combat childhood obesity?

Children are not office workers but they spend so much time sat at their desks they do a pretty good impression. Sitting still for long periods of time is not natural and we shouldn’t expect children to do it. They have a lot of pent up energy and it’s got to go somewhere. Energy doesn’t just evaporate after break time!

A lot of children’s educational experiences are sedentary and whilst it is important to get up and go outside, this isn’t always possible or practical – no wonder they are restless and resort to fidget spinners. Little wonder too that many children are obese.

But getting in a spin doesn’t just involve fingers – what about restless legs and tapping toes?

Cycle and Recycle

Nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and reducing obesity, particularly among children, is one of the priorities of Public Health England (PHE).

The Government’s new Childhood Obesity Strategy calls on primary schools to provide 30 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis. Fine, we can do that and more if we think about ergonomics.

One novel solution for getting children more active in the classroom without jumping about and doing lots of jazz hands is to ‘deskercise’ using pedal power.

In America, one school teacher has done just this and uses under-the-desk bike pedals in her classroom and she has noticed that students don’t fidget as much and their work is better.

Bethany Lambeth teaches maths at Martin Middle School in North Carolina and noticed what all teachers notice: children can’t sit still! Her answer was to put pedals under their desks so their energy could be better spent. She also found that their grades improved as well.

They were able to recall a lot more of what I was saying and because they participated more they understood more and they did better in tests.

Bethany noticed that for the most part, children aren’t being fidgets ‘on purpose’ or being deliberately disruptive but sitting glued to a seat makes life difficult – shuffling in your seat is completely understandable. Children that use the desk cycles can soon rack up a few miles in a short time and they say that it helps them focus and concentrate.

Some children have reported that when they get stuck on a problem then they pedal faster and this helps them to think: when in doubt, pedal it out. Other children have said that they are more interested in being in class because of the desk bikes and they like keeping an eye on their step count and calorie expenditure.

The bikes can be adjusted to make them harder to pedal so if a child is feeling tense then pedalling could help as they can also crank up the tension on the bike. Working your legs whilst you work pumps more blood around the body and helps children be more alert and so helps to energise them. Children could easily go a long distance without even leaving their desks and this would certainly help create a healthier and more active school population.

Stand Up For Education

Another solution to the pent up energy, sedentary and obesity problem is to use stand-up desks so that children aren’t sat down all day. This has also proven to be popular because children are able to move their legs and let off a bit of steam. These desks come with a swing foot stand called a ‘fidget bar’ and so gives them wiggle room and a chance to be more active than they otherwise would be – you burn more calories standing up.

Research and teachers have reported that the stand-up desks helps make children more attentive and parents say their children sleep better because they have been more active in the day. Mark Benden, associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health says,

Considerable research indicates that academic behavioral engagement is the most important contributor to student achievement. Simply put, we think better on our feet than in our seat.

He studied 300 children over the course of a year and found those provided with standing desks showed higher rates of engagement in the classroom than their seated counterparts.

How much?

Budgets that have been strangled aren’t going to be able to afford pedal bikes or stand-up desks but these aren’t luxuries are they? The sticking point will always be cost but if they contribute to health and wellbeing, better behaviour, increased performance and enjoyment of school, these are essentials that schools should be investing in.

Even a small amount of activity can improve attention spans so investing in desk cycles or stand-up desks does make sense. Some schools even have a Read and Ride programme where children use exercise bikes for reading their books and magazines.

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