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For Better Brain Health, Just Stand Up

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I wonder what Presbyterian minister Job Orton would have made of the dramatic growth in the sales of standing desks. 220 years ago, he wrote, “A sedentary life may be injurious. It must therefore be your resolute care to keep your body as upright as possible when you read and write; never stoop your head nor bend your breast. To prevent this, you should get a standing desk.” Being sedentary – in plain English, sitting too much -- has been linked with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from any cause. But can the simple act of standing rather than sitting make any real difference to our health, and can it affect cognition or the risk of Alzheimer's?

Run Ten Marathons Without Taking a Single Step

Dr. Mike Loosemore, a leading sports medicine consultant from University College London, is convinced that profound health benefits can result from small changes in lifestyle. The rewards include relief from depression and a lower risk of Alzheimer's. "There is now enormous evidence that simply standing makes huge differences to your health...regularly getting off your seat can change your life forever." That's quite a dramatic statement. But it's backed up by a study published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2014 that assessed the impact of standing on cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Eight women and two men aged 21 - 61 were fitted with heart rate and blood glucose monitors to take ongoing measurements during the working day. A normal day sitting at their desks was compared to another day spent at a standing desk. The findings were that three hours after lunch, glucose measurements were 43% lower after standing up on the job compared to sitting. The slight increase in heart rate and energy expenditure was described by lead researcher John Buckley as "the equivalent of running about ten marathons a year..." Since diabetes and heart disease are known risk factors for Alzheimer's, Dr. Loosemore's assertion looks to be 'on the money.' There's also direct evidence for its brain healthy effects.

Standing Improves Mood and Cognition

The Take-a-Stand Project was conducted over a five-week period and involved 24 sedentary employees who switched from a sitting to a sit-stand workstation. Changes in their physical and mental health were compared with ten employees who remained at their regular sitting desks. Besides a significant decline in upper back and neck pain, participants in the intervention group reported that they felt more comfortable, energized, healthier, focused, productive, happier and less stressed. In a study from Israel published in September, the authors assert that in reality we’re all doing two things at once – “dual tasking” -- when we stand because the brain has to control body posture as well as any cognitive task we’re engaged in. Multiple muscles are active even while standing. This puts the brain under more stress – “good stress,” of course. Previous studies have indicated that the additional demands improve our ability to carry out certain mental tasks. For the Israeli study, 50 students were given the Stroop test while either sitting or standing. This test asks subjects to speak a list of words that are all the names of colors. They also have to name the ink color the words are printed in. For instance, the word blue may be printed in blue or red ink. Naming the ink color takes fractionally longer when it doesn't correspond with the word. Measurements revealed that the gap between students who were standing and sitting was 20 milliseconds -- a 20% improvement in cognitive performance when standing. The researchers concluded that standing improves cognition and raises productivity.

Standing Desks Increase Proficiency at School

And now, for the first time, standing desks have also been found to benefit cognition in high school students. Lead researcher Ranjana Mehta, PhD, assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, summarized the findings: "Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities." Although it seems hard to believe that standing for several hours a day could have such profound benefits, the evidence suggests it does. You really couldn't ask for a simpler way to improve physical and mental health.

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