Standing desks have been lauded previously for their positive effects on physical health, reducing sitting time and lowering certain health risks linked to prolonged sedentary time. But could standing desks confer positive mental effects? A new study, published in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, investigates.

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The new study finds that students’ executive function and working memory improves with the use of standing desks.
Image credit: Texas A&M

Co-researcher Mark Benden, PhD, from the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, says there “has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks.”

In previous studies that focused on energy expenditure, teachers reported increased attention and better behavior of students who used standing desks.

He adds that 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.”

Lead researcher Ranjana Mehta, PhD, from Texas A&M, studied 34 freshman high school students who used standing desks.

She and her team tested the students at the beginning of their freshman year and then again at the end of the year by using an experimental design that looked at neurocognitive benefits.

They used four computerized tests to evaluate executive functions, which are cognitive skills we use to assess tasks, break them into steps and hold onto them in the mind until we complete them.

Mehta explains that these abilities are in line with many academic skills that students use to manage time, memorize facts, digest what they have read, solve problems and organize thoughts through writing.

The researchers note that such functions are mostly regulated in regions at the front of the brain. As such, they used a portable brain-imaging device called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to look at changes in the frontal brain.

This involved placing biosensors on the students’ foreheads as they were being tested.

Mehta explains that their results “indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities.” They also observed changes in corresponding brain activation patterns.

She and her team say their study provides the first evidence of neurocognitive benefits of standing desks in classrooms. Next, she would like to compare the benefits of standing desks to school-based exercise programs.

The researchers conclude their study by writing:

”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.”

They add that further research into this topic could have implications for policy makers, public health professionals and school administrators.

In 2015, Medical News Today reported on new guidelines published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which advised that desk-based employees should work standing up in order to curb sedentary time.

And another study suggested that sit-stand desks help workers stand for 1 more hour each day at work, compared with co-workers who have sit-only desks.

Written by Marie Ellis