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A new study found improvements in the basic cognitive skills of high school students after several months of using stand-up desks.

BEN GARVIN/NYT

Schools that use stand-up desks may increase more than the physical activity of students. A new U.S. study suggests that the desks could improve students' brain function too.

The small pilot study, published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found improvements in the basic cognitive skills of high school students after several months of using stand-up desks.

Researchers from the Texas A&M Health Science Center examined 34 students, aged 14 to 16, at two points during their first year of high school: once in the fall, just weeks after they enrolled in school, and again 27 to 34 weeks later.

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During lunchtimes, the students were given computerized neuro-cognitive tests, which asked them to complete simple tasks, such as pushing a key when they saw a star and not pushing anything if they saw a circle. These tests measured their inhibition, reaction times and decision-making abilities.

The researchers also used a neuro-imaging tool, called functional near infrared spectroscopy, to examine frontal brain activation patterns in some of the students.

Between the two testing periods, during which students' average sitting time declined to five hours from about six hours per day, the researchers found a 7-to-14 per cent improvement in the students' executive function and working memory. Executive function involves making decisions and organizing and analyzing thoughts, and working memory involves storing and retrieving information.

"This is basically a set of cognitive skills that children are supposed to develop that help them in everyday activities," says lead researcher Ranjana Mehta, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Mehta notes that an improvement of 7 to 14 per cent is "not a lot," but she points out that these results are similar to those of a 13-week exercise intervention program, published in a 2011 study.

Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function as it improves blood flow and blood volume in the brain. Mehta says she suspects that using stand-up desks may have a similar effect.

"To understand whether this is practically significant – does it mean anything? – we need to do a larger study with multiple schools and multiple classrooms maybe over a year or two," Mehta says.

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She adds that researchers will also need to show how stand-up desks affect students' academic performance scores to help school administrators decide whether to introduce them into classrooms.

Administrators "really are concerned about test scores. More than health benefits, they are evaluated by and budgeted by test scores, how students perform," she says.

A growing number of schools in the United States and Canada need no convincing, however. Many are already introducing stand-up desks, with positive results. As students at Toronto's Donview Middle Health and Wellness Academy documented in a blog, the desks improved their ability to focus during lessons.

However, Mehta says her study suggests that the benefits of standing go beyond merely boosting students' concentration and classroom engagement. The participants were tested on basic cognitive function, not on alertness, nor were they examined during class time.

Mehta says she intends to next examine how long it takes before the cognitive benefits of stand-up desks take effect.

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