Long durations of sitting in class a major health risk; educators must take action, stresses study

Researchers say that changing cultural norms and expectations regarding classroom etiquette should be aimed at specifically

An increasing number of workplaces are taking cognizance of the perils of prolonged sitting. Standing desks, walking meetings and encouraging employees to take stretch breaks are some of the ways in which organisations are tackling the issue. However, the question remains. Can classrooms adopt a strategy to make such adjustments?

A study by researchers from two departments of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)— Department of World Arts & Cultures/Dance and Fielding School of Public Health — touched upon solutions that are conducive to both teachers and students. Also, the researchers stressed that the solutions needed to be combined with efforts to create increased awareness about health risks associated with extended periods of sitting. Changing cultural norms and expectations regarding classroom etiquette should be aimed at the researchers said.

"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," said Angelia Leung, emerita dance professor, UCLA Department of World Arts & Cultures/Dance

Risks of prolonged sitting

Representational Picture Wikimedia Commons

Studies have established the connection between prolonged sitting and various health concerns such as depression, heart disease, obesity and cancer. Additionally, research has also shown that splitting long duration of sitting with activity at least once an hour decreases these risks. However, regular exercise during other times of the day may not necessarily do so.

Burt Cowgill, an adjunct professor with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said: "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."

'Socially unacceptable' behaviour

Eight guided discussions and focus-group interviews were conducted with 66 students from UCLA. The students comprised approximately 50 percent undergraduate and 50 percent graduate students. Eight faculty members were also interviewed. The researchers observed the level of knowledge that the students and faculty had about the risks of sitting. They also tried to ascertain if the students could refrain from sitting for prolonged duration in class, and also gathered ideas for workable solutions.

In spite of being aware of the risks, more than half of the students who were interviewed said that standing up and stretching in the middle of the class was socially unacceptable. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds held a similar view about doing so during sections of smaller discussions.

Representational Picture Classroom

A surprising finding was that a significant number of participants were unaware of the health concerns that prolonged sitting can give rise to, which does not spare active people as well. "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," said Cowgill.

Overcoming the stigma

In order to address the "social stigma" associated with issue, the researchers stressed that instructors and professors must lead the way by providing group breaks at allocated times instead of asking students to rise and stretch any time they feel like.

Another recommendation made by the researchers is that they encourage students to rise and move during the breaks provided. Drawing the attention of universities, they suggest that administrators must initiate policies that demand the construction of more open classrooms with enabling elements such as adjustable desks.

Despite finding that students and faculty were open towards adopting changes, it is doubtful that people will stand up if there are no efforts made to create awareness about health risks, said Cowgill. According to him, the physical classroom environment and social norms are obstacles while the biggest obstacle was awareness.

This article was first published on February 11, 2020
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