Sitting is the new smoking

A veteran teacher shadowed two students for two days and then wrote about her experience. She has a lot of good observations but her overwhelming takeaway is that sitting all day is exhausting. Even as a teacher for decades in classrooms, she never realized how much kids sit and how physically and emotionally painful that experience is.

This should surprise none of us because we already know that sitting for long periods is bad for us. What is also not surprising is how we as a society continue to ignore data that challenges our belief in school.

Remember when smoking was allowed in school? In grade school I’d walk past the teacher’s lounge and notice that some of the teachers were smoking. I was fascinated, but only because I was fascinated by everything teachers did that was not teaching—it was so surprising that they had lives outside the classroom.

Today we would scoff at the idea of teachers smoking in school. I think when my kids grow up they will laugh at the idea that kids sat in school all day. Because sitting is the new smoking.

Sedentary people are less productive.
You know that corporate America does not get on a bandwagon that’s not tied to money. And they are definitely on the movement to keep people from being sedentary at work. This is because reams of data show that people who are sedentary at work are unhealthy and unproductive.

Companies routinely bring experts into the workplace to teach people how to move more during the day. There is also a whole industry of wearable computers that track sedentary behavior and teach people to move in response to their body’s needs instead of in response to the needs of their particular work.

Being motionless is an unnatural way to learn.
Companies all over the US offer employees standing desks because people have longer attention spans if they can stand up whenever they feel like it. Research has shown that this is true for kids as young as elementary school as well—their attention spans increased when they stood up to learn.

The Read and Ride program puts exercise bikes in schools and their data shows kids learn reading more effectively while riding an exercise bike than sitting sedentary. This is likely related to the fact that children who are more fit have more white matter in their brains. And white matter helps kids with attention and memory.

Sedentary life in school goes against medical recommendation
Web MD goes so far to call it a disease: The sitting disease. And the medical research is clear that we need ten minutes of movement for each hour of our day. Web MD goes on to say that it’s fine to do an hour-long workout at lunch, but that leaves 7 hours of the workday where there is no movement.

So schools have the same problem—gym and recess do not address the other hours in the day. And kids have five minutes in between classes to walk around. Which is not enough, right?  Humans evolved as walkers and humans need to move freely for ten minutes each hour in order to feel healthy.

Yet even though we know how much movement people need to stay healthy we apply this knowledge to change work. But not school. We allow kids to sit for a whole hour without getting up to move around.

One reason might be that we are terrified of the ramifications of school being unhealthy for kids. For example, the American Medical Association comes down hard on video games because of their sedentary nature, yet the AMA is suspiciously silent when it comes to kids sitting in chairs all day in school.

School is a staid environment for sedentary kids. It made sense when we were using school to train kids to work in factories. But today we have scientific data to show that kids develop best when they have freedom to move, when and where they want. It’s unbelievable to me that we ignore that research just to continue believing the myth that we are actually doing a good job educating kids in school.





38 replies
  1. Jay Cross
    Jay Cross says:

    One of my favorite quotes is:

    “You will never understand politics until you understand that politicians are not trying to solve our problems. They are trying to solve their problems, of which getting elected and re-elected are numbers one and two. Whatever is number three is far behind.”

    The priorities of the school system are keeping and increasing funding. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same.

    If sitting were a clear and present danger to school funding, it would be changed in the blink of an eye.

    If sitting merely causes irreparable harm to the students who are supposedly the whole point of school in the first place…well, who cares right?

    I hate being this cynical. Reading this post took me back to the days when I hated sitting still and stirred up a lot of old resentment!

    • mh
      mh says:

      On the other hand, sitting makes it possible for teachers to control large groups of people, and to label the wigglers and semi-retarded.

      In public education, labels = dollars. The more labeled kids you have, the more the federal money flows in.

      I hate to be this cynical, but this works for schools.

      • mh
        mh says:

        sorry about the “semi-retarded,” it was a comment my teacher-neighbor made the other day and it is making me seethe.

  2. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Yep, I have long thought that this is one of the cruelest things we do to children.

    Combine this with forced bus rides instead of walking, forced containment in the cafeteria for lunch, and gym class that is a joke and you have created an incredibly stressful environment.

  3. Editormum
    Editormum says:

    Yes! One of the reasons I homeschooled my sons was that I knew they were not cut out for a sit-all-day life. They move SO much! My oldest has decided not to go to college simply because the idea of having to sit through long lectures gives him the screaming heebie-jeebies.

    But it’s not just school administrators who need to pay heed to this growing body of research. Employers, too, should take note and begin to provide workers with standing or treadmill desks to work at. Improve the bottom line (reduce health care costs and premiums) by improving your employees’ — and their children’s — health!

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        What an interesting idea.

        I bet your kiddos have fantastic posture. Do the yoga balls help them focus as well?

        • mh
          mh says:

          Hmmm… Focus… Yes, to a point.

          We put the yoga balls at the kitchen table.

          Of course I’m raising a family of squirrelly boys, and so you can imagine the first week.

          But the balls kept them seated at least long enough to consume a meal.

          We learned quite a bit about electrostatic and it led to cleaner floors. Because the feel of any dust or grit on the ball completely freaked out one child.

          It’s just a different thing to try. It was a good thing for us.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    I read the linked post … the part about teachers just not understanding is key.

    Teachers move around and talk *all day long*. The students sit, and are permitted talk at most twice per hour in class.

    Most teachers are energized by their work.
    As an introvert raising (one of my boys, especially) i-n-t-r-o-v-e-r-t-s, just being in a classroom is exhausting — introverts like to check out and then check back. For me, going to rehearsals and sitting among the other parents for two hours can be a stretch. I need a nap the day after we have company over. Introverts at school have to act … different… all day long. When recess goes away, how do introverts ever escape?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I most definitely need a nap the next day after any outing like you just described.

      There was a meme that I loved that was going around, or has been for awhile. “INTROVERTS UNITE- Separately in your own homes”

      • mh
        mh says:

        Heh heh heh.

        Three big introverts in this family. One is reading in the bathroom. One is reading in the guest room. One is reading in the kitchen.

        Friday night.

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Forcing young kids to sit all day long is like forcing every kid who is left-handed to use their right-hand.

    I saw a “solution” to this a few weeks ago that I thought was hysterical. Students still sitting at desks all day, but the desks were transformed into stationary bicycles… wow. Really? What a band-aid solution.

  6. jessica
    jessica says:

    It’s not just school, though.

    We went to breakfast at a local cafe this morning. Lots of families with their under 5s children.

    I glanced around as my two year old jumped out of his chair at about the half hour mark to just roam around our table.

    Every child was either standing next to their chair (this is such a strange -to me- thing my older son tends to do as well), half sitting/half standing, or wriggling while they ate.

    All were cute. :)

  7. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Never sit on a train, on a bus, on the subway….always take the stairs, always climb an escalator. It should noted that sitting is just one of the many diseases of modernization.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    What’s more boring than sitting at your desk in a classroom?
    Sitting at your desk in a dimly lit classroom watching an educational film on a subject which you have no interest in whatsoever.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      language lab – that was my nemesis. I was bored out of my skull at the slow tape, the glacial speed of progression, the horribly boring stories….

  9. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    You rightly point out the quiet hypocrisy of medical associations condemnation of video games for their sedentary nature while saying nothing about the sedentary nature of schools. However, aren’t you doing the same thing? Your point is not how bad sitting is for children but how ridiculous it is for parents to put their children in school, which compromises their health, for some nebulous (at best) benefits. Don’t you think you are doing the same thing with unregulated amounts of screen time? Even if children have the urge to move, the compelling nature of their screens keeps them sitting still.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Reading books is also sedentary. Watching documentaries is sedentary. Playing video games is sedentary. So… what’s the problem? Get up, walk around, interact, play some games… then go back to your hobby if you are so inclined.

      • Kristen
        Kristen says:

        The problem is that most kids are not as compelled to stay sitting for days on end while doing those other activities. The book ends, the documentary ends, hell, even the schoolday ends. Minecraft doesn’t end nor do its compatriots. I’m just saying that if you condemn school for forcing kids to sit all day, you need to look at what unregulated screen time “forces” them to do. If you’re really concerned then put a Fitbit on your child and take a look at how much he’s moving.
        I agree there are tons of problems inherent in our concept of school but many of them can be duplicated at home. That’s great that you don’t use public-funded daycare (i.e.public school) but if you’re using screens to occupy the kids for 7 hours a day, your horse isn’t that high. This post would ring true if she addressed that as well and how she struggles with it. It’s why I dont “follow” her, too much tainment not enough info, I check in periodically when I want some sensationalized anti-school propaganda.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I do not regulate screen time, but my kids are very self-motivated. So, yes they play video games, some days longer than I would like, but they also go weeks without playing at all and instead focus on learning computer programming, watching videos, playing games… all the other stuff. I really can’t speak for kids who have addiction issues since mine do not, but since we are discussing it I just wanted to say it is possible for young children to self-regulate and be self-motivated to learn what interests them.

  10. kats
    kats says:

    I would agree that it is really strange to have kids sit for long times and also to sit in front of screens for a long time, which is hypnotizing to young children.

    Our son did not watch t.v until 10, and does not spend all his time on video games. He plays outside and enjoys all sorts of projects. He is competent on the computer and uses it for the tool that it is.

    Developmentally, kids are not ready for such an intense, more intellectual approach until high-school.

    I have seen it in my son, that playing and movement makes him smarter and happier!

    We homeschooled for several years. Now, in 8th grade, he is in a public school that fortunately values activity and he is able to bike to and from school.

    Movement and play are such basic needs of chiildren; it is so sad when they are deprived.
    I really think their need for such movement is built into nature!

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Just because you are raising your child differently doesn’t make you better than people who do things in a way that you don’t like.

      • kats
        kats says:

        No, you are right. The way we do things is not necessarily better. I was responding to the info. in the article that was presented about sitting.

        Everyone has to find their way.

        Since parenting is every bit of an experiment for each parent, I was sharing the way that works for us. Others may have different solutions. It is just that when something works, it is important to share that with other parents. I have learned from other parents and have always been very curious about the parenting of other older kids, when I like how their kids have turned out.

        I most recently have talked to a friend of college-aged kids, to find out how she negotiated the teen and highschool years.

        Sometimes I have had to correct my direction
        and apologize to my son for something that I later realized was mis-informed or not good for him. Parenting is a work in progress.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          I tell everyone I meet that my family is a “work-in-progress” :) You either love us or you don’t want to be around us as we tend to all be very intense. LOL.

          • kats
            kats says:

            Yes, we also are a bit quirky: big energy in a little house. We also all talk loud and I hope our neighbors don’t hate us by this time! We also have the one “yard” that has yet to be decided upon on the block. We have great ideas but they keep changing as we do.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Omg, yes I can really relate to that. My husband comes home from work and from outside the house he can hear every single word my kids and I are saying inside, then he quickly comes inside to tell us people down the street can hear us. I’m a very LOUD introvert.

  11. layla solms
    layla solms says:

    just a few years ago, forks were removed from some school cafeterias in our area. have you tried eating lettuce with a spoon?
    i commented to another teacher as i looked out across the lunchroom… huh, no forks, only spoons, looks like prison to me.

  12. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I’ve been reading your posts while overseas the last 2 months, but only now that I’ve returned home, I have time to respond. You have the most interesting and helpful posts, Penelope, including the guest post.

    On the topic about sitting – I am unable to sit while I paint, I find myself uncreative, unproductive, and lack energy in the sitting position. There is no chair in my studio. My almost 3 and 5 year-olds don’t sit much, they crawl, run, walk, climb etc.

  13. RB
    RB says:

    I was homeschooled all the way through and never really cared what the other kids did. When I went to university I got a job tutoring at a local elementary school. I watched the kids fill out worksheets, stand in line, and be reprimanded for wiggling and whispering, and I wondered, “when are they going to get to the teaching part? When do these kids get to learn?” My own experience had been so hands-on and self-directed, I felt trapped even as a tutor who pulled kids out of the classroom to teach them to read in the hallway one-on-one. I quit after three months. I just didn’t have the endurance to do nothing all day.

  14. Kris Costello
    Kris Costello says:

    When my son was in second grade he came home miserable every day from school. I was home building a business, and really wanted him to go to a regular classroom. He was so unhappy that I finally agreed to ‘go with him’ and see how things were going. Well, I ‘sat in’ for 2 months, and at the end of it, I had no compelling arguments. It was awful, boring and the sitting was interminable. We’ve been homeschooling ever since and I am so glad that we are. And of course, from watching me create my own radio show, he has created his own streaming channel, knows way more than I do about how all of that works, but most importantly, he is now a self directed, happy and very social kid.

  15. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Totally agree with you. I have long thought that this is one of the cruelest things we do to children. Maybe I’ll choose homeschooling for my kids. THanks for your post. It’s perfectly timing.

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