Taking a Stand for Healthier Kids

How one non-profit is hoping to end the obesity epidemic, one classroom at a time.

As kids head back to school this fall, there’s one organization that’s trying to make sure more of our students are moving around — ultimately leading to healthier lives and the end of America’s obesity epidemic.

StandUp Kids, a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Kelly and Juliet Starrett, has a mission to get every public school kid into a standing desk in 10 years. The Starretts know that their mission is a big one, and they don’t expect to do it alone. Beginning with private donations, crowdfunding initiatives and grants, the Starretts want to make standing desks the norm in classrooms, so that local governments start to take notice and eventually support the change for all schools.

They are clearly onto something. A very recent study done by Dr. Mark Benden, out of Texas A&M University, followed a group of fourth and fifth graders for two years, with some kids using standing desks and some using sitting desks during the school day. What he found is that the students using the sitting desks saw their BMI (body mass index) go up two percentage points over the two years, which tracks along with the national average for adults who sit all day. However, the students using the standing desks saw their BMI go down by nearly three percentage points. The Starretts point to that delta of five percentage points as a significant finding: Standing desks work.

An epidemic that starts in school

The Starretts are passionate about human performance and injury prevention, and they have worked with athletes for many years while owning their own gym and running a successful, mobility-focused education website out of San Francisco. But several years ago, they realized that their work was actually missing an entire population — kids.

They found that the mechanics of school require kids to sit nearly all day long, and this sitting is doing kids a major disservice. In addition to that, while conducting research for a book, Dr. Kelly Starrett saw that as kids progress into first grade and beyond, their ability to run with proper form changes — which he attributes to increased sitting throughout the day, resulting in tighter hips.

With kids sitting more than six hours during a normal school day, even an hour of soccer practice after school doesn’t help, say the Starretts. They’ve also discovered that while gym memberships are increasing and fitness is important among today’s adults, overall movement for kids needs to be treated with equal importance.

“This is where we’ve made a mistake culturally,” said Juliet Starrett. “Kids and adults should be conscious of how much non-exercise activity they are getting every day. Even though we all belong to a gym, it doesn’t seem to be making a difference in our overall health numbers. We need to keep track of all of those other hours.”

It doesn’t stop there: how kids are sitting these days is far from accommodating to their growing physique and musculature.

“When you look at the variability of children’s bodies,” said Dr. Kelly Starrett. “It’s like making all kids wear the same size shoes.”

The average desk in a classroom is the same size for multiple ages and heights, and is made to be easily stackable for the janitorial service — not exactly criteria for a piece of furniture that will help kids maintain proper spinal alignment during long periods of inactivity.

That’s why StandUp Kids proposes that classrooms transition to a moving standup workstation with a foot plate for kids to move their feet around. The more moving, the better.

More movement, better students

Through further research, the Starretts uncovered that movement — the kind a kid can get when they are set up at a standing workstation — creates a richer environment for them to learn to behave properly and burns more calories throughout the day. Also, children have better circulation and clearer heads when not sitting still in a chair.

“A lot of people think the trend of standing desks is going away because they find it difficult to transition to one,” said Juliet Starrett. “But kids don’t actually take that long to transition to a standing desk, because it’s more natural for them. They’re able to get their wiggles out, think and move. And then they can transition into the workforce into standing desks, as well.”

For adults, it’s best to treat the transition to standing like training for a marathon. Just do a little at a time and keep building — maybe starting for one hour a day, said Juliet Starrett.

“We know that changing people’s habits is hard — starting an exercise routine or changing a diet is very difficult,” said Juliet Starrett. “But a standing desk in an educational institution is just a piece of furniture. It’s a very simple intervention. If we can just change the environment a little, it’s a big deal.”

Teaming up with “Let’s Move”

StandUp Kids was recently invited to partner with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move Campaign.” Through that campaign, StandUp will be offering teachers a chance to apply for $50,000 in grants for standing desks for their classrooms. (Right now, outfitting a classroom of 25 kids with standing desks costs anywhere between $5,000 and $7,000, and the desks run anywhere between $100 and $150 each.)

“We know schools have fixed costs, but we believe one classroom at a time, by one teacher or parent at a time, will help make change,” said Dr. Kelly Starrett.

When it comes to moving more, the Starretts live their motto. By taking standing meetings, walking their own kids to school and inspiring people one conversation at a time, they are truly trying to change the world.

Put it into action

In order to maintain the integrity of our bodies, both children and adults need to move more, and doing that often requires profound changes to our environments. You can get an honest picture of how much you are sitting by trying out the sitting calculator on the StandUp Kids website.

Juliet’s tips for incorporating more movement into your life Take a family walk to pick up breakfast on the weekends. Choose a few days a week for your kids to bike or walk to school, if possible. Create a “walking schoolbus” for your neighborhood, in which every morning, a couple of adults walk along a prescribed path to pick up kids and head to school on foot as a group. Parents who live further from the route can also drop their kids off at any stop to walk with the rest. Purchase a wearable tracking device. (Her personal favorite is the inexpensive Withings Go Tracker [http://www.withings.com/us/en/products/withings-go] for less than $80.) Wearing a tracker helps you keep in mind how many steps you have taken each day, and alerts you if you’re inactive for too long. Make yourself a standing desk at home via a low-priced TV stand from IKEA, or just stand at your kitchen counter to get some work done and encourage your kids to do the same. (Or, purchase a cardboard Oristand [http://oristand.co/] for less than $30.) When in doubt, move more!


Find out other useful tips on how to transition to a standing desk in Dr. Kelly and Juliet Starrett’s book, Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World, or visit StandUpKids.org to support the cause and help get more standing desks into classrooms across the nation.