Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Interview with Juliet Starrett of StandUpKids

I have discussed the connections between cognitive function and physical movement and health in several previous articles (see especially "Fitness and Intelligence," "Fitness, Cognitive Performance and Longevity Redux" and "Cognitive Ability and Physical Performance"). In this piece, I welcome some further insight on the subject from Juliet Starrett, founder of StandUpKids. Juliet is the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco Crossfit and and the recipient of the 2007 Jefferson Award for public service for her work with GirlVentures, a girls empowerment organization, and Liquid, a kayaking camp for children with HIV. StandUpKids is a 501(c)3 charity whose mission is to get every public school child at a standing desk in the next ten years in order to combat the epidemic of sedentary lifestyles and inactivity and better reflect twenty-first-century education goals. You can read more about the history and implementation of StandUpKids at

Greg: StandUpKids aims to bring standings desk to all public schools. How does standing impact learning?

Juliet: Students who stand at school are more attentive, focused, and have better cognition and executive function. Standing can be particularly helpful for kids with attention issues as it allows them to move. For many such kids with ADD and ADHD, they literally cannot learn unless they are moving. Standing desks also allow kids to be in continuous small motion (think fidgeting), and teachers report that the ability to move helps kids' behavior, too. 

Greg: The StandUpKids website has calculations for caloric expenditures of sitting versus standing. How did you calculate these figures and how significant is the difference between sitting and standing in student populations?

Juliet: Our calorie calculator is based on research done by a desk manufacturer named Ergoton but supported by the important research being done by Dr. Mark Benden at Texas A&M. His studies show that kids who stand and school burn an additional 25-35% more calories versus kids who sit all day. Indeed, just last year, he published a hugely important study showing that, over a two-year period, there was a 6% BMI difference between the kids who stood and the kids who sat. The BMI of the standing desk kids went down by more than 3 percentage points, while the BMI of the sitting kids when up by more than 2 percentage points, for a delta of nearly 6 percent between sitting and standing at school. This is a huge deal and could make a significant dent in childhood obesity, especially over a full childhood of schooling. 

Greg: There was a recent article in Scientific American* in which researchers tracked the daily energy expenditures of traditional hunter-gatherers in Africa and compared those numbers to energy expenditures of Western individuals. Contrary to my expectations, the researchers found almost no difference in daily energy expenditures between the two cultures despite vast differences in activity levels. Is it possible that the weight loss Dr. Benden observed is linked to other lifestyle factors (for example, schools that provide standing desks may be more likely to serve healthy lunches)? 

Juliet: I would point again to Dr. Benden's two-year study showing the BMI of standing kids went down, while the sitting kids went up. My only explanation of that is the standing kids are moving more, burning more calories, and not gaining as much weight. All other factors were the same between those two study groups—same school, same PE (or not), same amount of recess, etc.

Students who stand at school are more attentive, focused, and have better cognition and executive function. Teachers report that the ability to move helps kids' behavior, too.

Greg: I use a standing desk at home and work. For more creative tasks, I find that walking stimulates my thoughts, but I prefer to sit down if I need to focus on a particularly complex problem, especially one involving mathematical calculations. I'm thirty-one years old and grew up in schools with sitting desks. Is thinking while standing is a skill that is especially important to develop early in life?

Juliet: Yes. Here's a story for you. When we converted our pilot school from sitting to standing, the older kids (particularly fourth and fifth graders) took much longer to adjust to standing at school. The younger kids adapted almost immediately and it literally seemed normal and natural for them right away. We also see many adults fail in their efforts to convert to standing for a variety of reasons—they don't adjust their desk correctly, they stand still, they don't create a bar or place to put their foot, and so on. Imagine a world where ALL kids stand and move at school—when they get to the workplace, they will, of course, choose to stand and move at work. They will consider a sitting desk a "beta" desk.

For more news and research related to the benefits of standing desks in schools, follow StandUpKids on FacebookTwitter and Youtube. And to learn more about the organization and contribute to its mission, visit

*-The original Scientific American article by Herman Pontzer can be found behind a paywall at A free summary of this study is available at A list of Dr. Benden's research is available at

To evaluate energy expenditure for sitting and standing students, Dr. Benden and his coauthors used a Sensewear Armband, which measures motion, sweat and body heat and uses these data to estimate energy use. Students in this study wore the Armband during school hours for five consecutive days.

In contrast, Pontzer and his team used the doubly labeled water method to track their subjects' total energy expenditure over the course of entire days. In this measurement technique, considered the "gold standard in public health" for measuring daily caloric burn, subjects drink water enriched in deuterium and oxygen-18, which allows researchers to analyze the concentration of these isotopes in their urine in order to calculate their daily carbon dioxide production and energy expenditure. Several previous doubly labeled water studies comparing humans around the globe with varying activity levels show similar figures for energy use across all subjects.

I would hypothesize that both studies are accurate. Taken in isolation, standing and moving require more energy than sitting. But Pontzer suggests the bodies of active hunter-gatherers may make up for energy demand during activity by working more efficiently and commanding less energy during rest and when undergoing routine physiological processes. Applied to the matter at hand, standing students burn more energy during the school day but their bodies may conserve energy at other times so that sitting and standing students expend the same amount of energy over the course of an entire day.

As Juliet pointed out, Dr. Benden also found that students using standing desks showed a smaller increase in BMI over a two-year period, compared to students in the same schools who used sitting desks. If Pontzer's paper and the supporting evidence cited therein are correct, it is still possible to attribute Dr. Benden's results to changes in lifestyle that accompanied standing desk use. For example, students who used standing desks may have become more active in general, spent less time eating and consumed fewer calories. They may have consistently left the lunch table earlier than their sitting counterparts or they may have been more likely to play outside instead of snacking on the couch. Yet whether the relationship between desk type and student BMI is direct or indirect, this relationship exists.

Finally, both sets of researchers agree on the benefits of movement beyond its effects on energy expenditure. Juliet cited several non-energy benefits of standing desks, and Pontzer notes "You still have to exercise... Exercise has tons of well-documented benefits, from increased heart and immune system health to improved brain function and healthier aging." Isolated energy expenditure is probably less important on a large scale compared with the many benefits of physical activity on disease, cognition and potentially on other lifestyle factors.

Image Credit:
"" Image. 21 July 2015. Online. 18 April 2017.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Interview with Laps filmmaker R.J. Lozada

R.J. Lozada is an award-winning multi-media journalist and filmmaker who explores and engages multiple diasporas. He earned an MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University, where he produced four short films: Justice is a Warm Cupcake, Andy's Youth, Distance Between, and Laps, a documentary about the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club, whose membership is comprised of inmates who seek peace in long distance running within California's San Quentin State Prison. He has also been a contributor and host for APEX Express, one of two weekly Asian and Pacific Islander radio magazine shows on Pacifica Foundation’s network, and has served as Multimedia Editor for Hyphen Magazine. More information about his past films and future projects can be found on his website In this interview, we discuss his film Laps, which I featured on KineSophy last year.

Greg: What was your inspiration for this film?

R.J.: 2009: I was an avid runner, I was also working as a paralegal for a state agency that represented the men on death row in their appeals process. I hadn't gotten as close to the criminal justice system as I did as a paralegal for the state, so being able to bring both worlds together was a hard to come by concept that only manifested when I was visiting the recreation yard filming another project called Breathin': The Eddy Zheng Story. During that production day, I caught sight of three runners running the same lap over and over and over for the two hours that our film crew was out there. Even though I didn't film the runners at all, the image and my imagination took hold, and I thought, "if I run alone and run all over San Francisco and still find it limiting, how are these guys doing it in prison?"

Fast forward to 2015, I'm approaching my final year as a documentary film grad student at Stanford, and—while no longer a runner and no longer a paralegal—was still deeply interested in this long-held image in my mind. I wanted to understand long distance running in confinement, in their context, when the criminal justice system, and by extension, mainstream society, has already dehumanized you, how can running bring your soul to clarity, to peace? How can I best convey all of this in this incredibly limited form known as documentary film?

Laps by R.J. Lozada. Watch in HD.

Greg: How long did it take you to complete the project? Were there any particular struggles unique to filming in this environment?

R.J.: The entire project took a year to make. Most of the work was spent on the ten months of pre-production, and of that ten months, nine were spent building with the guys inside. Building with them meant making a trip out to San Quentin two to three times a month and either running with them or just hanging out during practice runs. With no cameras, no recording devices, just curiosity and respect.

I had significant struggles with prison bureaucracy—despite the fact that I cleared my background check to enter as an employee for a legal outfit with the state of California, I had to go through a different process as a media producer. Additionally, my status as a film student meant additional hoops to jump through, but I almost didn't get approved on account of a prison administrator delaying my application to the state office up in Sacramento. If not for running coach Frank Ruona, and his commitment to the project, then I wouldn't have been able to get my project approved.

When it came time to film, I pitched four consecutive days—which was rejected. Prison administration gave me two days, and because of scheduling issues, spread each shoot date three weeks apart. I definitely had to change this up from how I had been building the project in my mind's eye and production treatments—I was deeply invested in a look and when that was compromised a week before the first day of shooting, I had to think quickly. Despite my scramble, I still had to adjust my ideas during the shoot as the filming conditions were far more limited than discussed.

Thankfully, I had built up a strong enough relationship with the runners that they were game for anything I needed in the time that I had, no questions asked—even if that meant they had to run three to four hours straight so I can recreate a marathon-like experience on film. For that, I am humbly indebted and really learned the strengths of honesty, sincerity, kindness and respect for my fellow human no matter the context.
Running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape their world view.
Greg: Can you tell me a little more about your practice runs with the inmates? How did those sessions influence your attitudes toward running and toward the inmates?

R.J.: Frank Ruona is the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club coach (—he's one of the main faces out the outside and also one of the mainstays. The men have so much respect for him and his commitment to running. Coach usually goes into San Quentin on Monday evenings and some Friday mornings. Running with them was very humbling for me—they have strong running principles, and also push themselves incredibly hard. I have a tendency to give most people the benefit of the doubt, and these men are no exception—I'm reminded of [lawyer and activist] Bryan Stevenson who often states a well-known and really universal truth that you are not your worst act. Framing my position from that starting point really allowed me to, dare I say, appreciate the opportunity and privilege to learn about who these guys are and what they're trying to do with their lives, given their circumstances. I understand that they're in prison for some choices that they made in the past, but they're making choices now to rectify and be at peace.

Greg: How much did the makeup of the running group change over your year with the runners? Did most individual runners tend to stick with the group throughout your time there?

R.J. I can't really answer this accurately,  but I will say that the group stayed pretty consistent at around forty to fifty-plus members. They do attract new runners, and I'm guessing they always manage to lose as many (men who are paroled) and gain as much back.

Greg: In the film, prisoners talk about how running helps them work through the problems and confrontations in their daily lives and escape mentally from the harsh realities of prison life. What were some of the other benefits the prisoners felt they gained? Were you able to notice any changes in the prisoners over the course of your filming?

R.J. A lot of the men felt that running helped build up their mental endurance and gave them emotional resources that when combined with whatever prison programs they were participating in, made them feel like they were attaining a goal that would ultimately reshape (or in some cases, reaffirm) their world view. Additionally, they all talked about a lot of the health benefits as a result of sustained, regular running, from pulling them from depressive emotional states to major weight loss, a lot of guys were reaping so much. However, they still got injured—messed up knees, rolled ankles, and while this meant runners would have to sit out for a couple of weeks, most of them always showed up for regular running events and some practices to show support.

Check out more of R.J. Lozada's work on his website, or on Vimeo and Instagram.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why this pet-care product is the harbinger of humankind’s demise

For some dog owners, playing with their pets has become a chore instead of a game, a shift that reflects our increasingly sedentary and time-obsessed society.

Fetch is a game you play with your dog (or perhaps, a game you play on your dog), in which you throw an object, your dog chases it down and brings it back to you, and you restart the process by throwing the object away again. Fetch requires next to no effort from the dog owner. It is so simple and monotonous that telling another person to go fetch something is almost demeaning. But humans, in our infinite quest for ease and comfort, had to make fetch even easier. Hence, (for lack of a better term) the fetching stick:

In short, some dog owners have decided that fetch is no longer a game, but a chore. Grabbing a ball off the ground became too burdensome, so they needed a tool to make it easier. Perhaps their bodies were no longer accustomed to the simple movement of bending over to pick up a ball. Perhaps they simply became lazy.

But, really, how hard is it for a perfectly able person to bend down and grab something off the ground? Are humans so indolent they no longer want to perform basic movements? Or so deconditioned that even touching their toes is an injury risk?

Advertisements for these products offer excuses for their existence:

1. "Never pick up a slobbery ball again!"
You pick up your dog’s poop and you’re squeamish about saliva? And if your dog hasn’t tried to lick you before, you haven’t owned a dog.

2. "Throw farther and faster than ever before!"
Whose dog needs them to throw a ball 200 feet for a proper game of fetch? If you can’t toss a tennis ball far enough for your dog to chase it, figure out why you can’t throw instead of disguising that glaring movement hole.

3. "Exercise your dog in a fraction of the time!"
Because it takes so long to bend down and pick up a ball with the intricately evolved tool Nature has given you called your hand. Besides, playing with your dog is not a race. It’s not a chore. If it is, don’t get a dog.

These products would transform a game of fetch into a menial duty. They are marketed toward dog owners who acknowledge the importance of play and exercise for their pets but find it too burdensome to engage in minimal movement themselves. And even worse, the most preoccupied owners can purchase an automatic ball launcher so that they don’t even have to spend time with their dogs at all:

Of course, the symptom of the fetching stick goes far beyond pet care. In an increasingly sedentary and burnt-out society, personal health and the necessity and pleasure of physical movement have become casualties of the perception that there is never enough time. Many people have developed a pathological fear of physical discomfort that prohibits any type of exertion. Many wrongly imagine life as a constant, progressive race against time. The fetching stick is merely a symbol of a society that has neglected movement in favor of sloth, play in favor of unending work, relaxation in favor of efficiency. It’s time to make a change, and maybe that change needs to start with man’s best friend.

Image Credits:
1. "ChuckIt-grass." Image. Online. 24 March 2017.
2. "godoggo-remote-fetch-automatic-tennis-ball-launcher-for-dogs-xl." Image. Online. 24 March 2017.