color photo of students sitting in high school classroom (taken from the back)If you close your eyes and visualize a typical high school classroom, chances are you’ll be imagining a class where students are sitting at desks listening to a teacher lecture or working on written assignments.  Now we’re learning that this scenario may increase the risk of depression in adolescents.  A new study in the journal Lancet Psychiatry reported that every 60 minutes that teens spent sitting was associated with a roughly 10% increase in their depression scores on the Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised (CIS-R).  On the other hand, the study emphasized that even light activity (which could include walking, playing an instrument or painting) was seen to be associated with a 10% decrease in depression reports.

Between the ages of 12 and 16, total physical activity declined from an average of five hours 26 minutes to four hours and 5 minutes. On the other hand, sedentary behavior increased from an average of seven hours and 10 minutes to eight hours and 43 minutes.  The study used accelerometers to track teens’ movements on selected study days.  While the study did not separate out the amount of active/sedentary percentages between school and home, the implications are clear for schools:  students should be spending less time sitting and more time engaged in active learning.  Here are 6 ways to accomplish this:

  1. Provide standing desks for doing class work.  These desks, which usually allow for working either in a sitting or standing position, are becoming popular in both business and educational settings because of the link between sitting and poor health outcomes such as increased risk of cardiovascular illness.  Podiums or other ”tall” school furniture, could be used if standing desks are not available or affordable.
  2. Include short ”exercise breaks” to break up sit-down academic sessions into smaller unitsA study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that only 2 percent of U.S. high schools required physical activity breaks in addition to P.E. Teachers should plan on spending three to five minutes every 45 minute school session engaging students in deep breathing, stretching, yoga postures, simple aerobic activities set to music, and/or creative movement exercises.
  3. Integrate role play or drama as an instructional strategy for learning academic material Students can learn about historical periods by acting them out in brief role plays or longer and more elaborate dramatic presentations.  To help improve reading comprehension, I always would have my students role play the action of the story before sitting down to read it, so that the plot became alive for them.  Teachers can also use a tableaux vivant or ”freeze frame” approach, where students form themselves into fixed standing or bending postures to illustrate an event in history (e.g. the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima).
  4. Use the classroom floor as a ”map” for learning new content.  In history, for example, create a time line across the floor with easy-to-remove masking tape, and then take the students along the time line as they learn significant dates and events in history.  Students can learn geography by turning the classroom into a map of a community, state, country, or region, and then having the teacher or a student serve as a ”tour guide” to point out significant natural and cultural features.  In math, students can learn to use the Cartesian coordinate system by drawing the x and y axis on the floor and having students place themselves in positions determined by the values of x and y.
  5. Engage students in hands-on learning.  The Lancet study pointed out that even light activity such as painting or playing an instrument has a beneficial effect on mental health for teens.  The maker movement, where students build inventions using electronics, recycled materials, and a range of tools, provides an active learning environment. Other hands-on strategies include having students build dioramas in history, polygons and other geometric shapes in math class, do lab experiments in science class, and develop their own projects (e.g. Project-Based Learning) that involve active learning.
  6. Include more field trips, nature walks, and other ”get out of school” activities.  Simply leaving the school premises for any learning activity creates the opportunity for plenty of beneficial movement for students. For biology class, visit a science museum.  For music class, attend a musical concert.  For art class, go to an art museum.  Or simply take students out for a walk in the fresh air where they can closely observe the environment and then write about their impressions once they’re back in the classroom.

These are just a few of the many ways in which teachers can get students out of the confinement of their desks and engage their bodies in light to moderate activities.  Not only will you be improving students’ mental and physical health, you’ll also be increasing student engagement leading to improved academic outcomes overall.

For more  information on the important role of the body in improving students’ learning abilities and brain functioning, see my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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