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Sitting for extended periods of time in class can negatively influence students’ health

Students should be given more time to stand, stretch, and move around

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Photo (c) Chris Ryan - Getty Images
Although a classroom may not be a student’s favorite place to spend their time, a new study conducted by researchers from UCLA has identified yet another variable that could affect students’ health: sitting. 

The study revealed that sitting for extended periods of time, as most college students are used to doing during class, can increase the risk of disease. The researchers say it’s important that universities make a concerted effort to create opportunities for students to stand up, walk around, and stretch throughout class. 

“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, a professor in the World Arts & Cultures/Dance Department. “My students have an excuse because dance classes naturally involve movement, but we can extend these benefits to any class on campus with something as simple as short stretching breaks -- no dancing required.” 

Misconceptions about moving

The researchers were most interested in learning what students and faculty already knew about sitting still for too long and how they felt about incorporating more movement into class times. They conducted focus groups with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as with several faculty members, to gauge their understanding of the risks associated with being sedentary for long periods of time. 

None of the students were concerned about the health risks associated with sitting throughout longer class times, though they did mention feeling self-conscious about getting up or walking around in the middle of class -- even in classes with fewer students. Professors were similarly unaware of how being still for too long can be bad for students’ health. 

A number of the participants also thought that being active later in the day would be able to reverse the effects of sitting for long periods of time, which researcher Burt Cowgill explained is false. 

“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,” Cowgill said. 

Health risks

The researchers cited previous studies which have linked prolonged sitting with increased risks for diseases and conditions ranging from obesity and heart disease to cancer and diabetes. 

While both students and professors expressed interest and acceptance in having time during class to move around, the researchers explained that the push needs to come from professors. If instructors take the time to normalize these breaks and encourage their students to walk around and stretch for a few minutes, students wouldn’t feel that they’re breaking an unspoken social norm. 

“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,” said Cowgill.  

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