Dr. Mark Benden holds a Master of Science degree in Industrial Engineering with a specialization in Ergonomics and a minor in Safety Engineering and a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Engineering. He is currently the head of the Environmental and Occupational Health department at Texas A&M University and director of Texas A&M’s Ergonomics Center. He is the author of several research papers on the benefits of standing desks in schools and workplaces as well as the book Could You Stand to Lose? Weight Loss Secrets for Office Workers. His website is markbenden.com. In this interview, we discuss the implications of his research and new developments in the ergonomics of schools and workplaces.
Greg: You’ve done a considerable amount of research on standing versus sitting desks in both schools and the workplace. What are your biggest takeaways from those studies?
Mark: During the past 40 years, work in general has become more sedentary. I call this “technology induced inactivity.” Similar impacts have occurred on free play time for kids in and out of school. Activity permissive learning and working environments are more productive (as high as 42% in one of our studies), allow for greater ambulation (up to 2,000 more steps per day on average), improve cognition (5-15% depending on the measure) and reduce weight gain in children (5% over 2 years in our 500 elementary student study). Impacts and benefits are determined ultimately by human behavior, fitness, age, work or school culture and other covariates like diet and organized exercise.
Greg: You mention how work has become more sedentary in the last 40 years. Is the same true of the classroom environment in schools?
Mark: For sure, school in general is less active than in years past. This has to do with many factors including full loss of recess for younger students and loss of PE and many school sports due to budget cuts. More kids walked both ways to school in years past and that has been a dramatic change.
Greg: One explanation for children at standing desks gaining less weight is they burned more calories than their sitting counterparts. However, a recent paper in Scientific American showed that adults in an African hunter-gatherer tribe burned the same number of calories per day as adults in the U.S. and Europe. Other studies have shown similar results. The author suggests more active bodies find other ways to conserve energy to maintain the same net daily calorie expenditure. Is it possible this research and your study are both correct? Is there another mechanism for the reduced weight gain you observed besides standing-induced calorie expenditure?
Mark: I feel the article you noted ignores many of the epigenetic variations we are seeing today within our species. Groups of hunter-gatherers on the plains are unlikely to have been exposed to many of the same factors as an urban kid in the USA so comparing how they make use of calories consumed is apples to oranges. I have also seen many articles that estimated that our ancestors burned 5,000-6,000 calories per day trying to eke out a subsistence lifestyle in harsh conditions. If pro swimmers can burn 6,000 calories per day during training and look lean and never gain a pound, the idea that you and I could do that with limited daily activities and “adjust” without weight gain is absurd.
I do agree that students who slowed the weight gain trajectory in standing desks were likely impacted by multiple factors as a result of that intervention. Movement and activity were all we measured. What if they gained muscle mass? That would equal higher calorie burn capacity per pound of body mass. What if it altered their hunger/satiety response? That could have changed eating times, patterns amounts and cravings and therefore food choices. Bottom line, we are just starting to understand what has happened to us let alone how to reverse or slow the trend.
In the very near future your desk will be modified automatically to maximize your comfort, productivity and health.
Greg: Yes, we’re reminded every Olympics of Michael Phelps’ daily food intake. And it seems intuitive that standing all day would result in greater total energy expenditure than sitting. But your hypotheses about gaining muscle mass and changing the hunger/satiety response (as well as incorporating the Scientific American theory of calorie expenditure) suggest that standing desks have benefits that extend beyond the simple act of standing a few extra hours each day. They may alter an individual’s hunger/satiety response or they may help make activity a habit, so kids spend less time snacking on the couch after school and more time playing outside or workers walk home instead of driving through McDonald’s.
You’re also the director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center. Aside from sitting versus standing desks, what other topics are you studying in ergonomics? Where can a student or office worker see the next big benefit in modifying their study/work station?
Mark: We are currently exploring the impact that aging and obesity have on our workforce readiness. Fatigue, hearing, vision and strength or work capacity are just a few of the areas where we are detecting differences in our modern workforce compared to that of workers 50 years ago who on average were younger and more fit. We are also conducting studies with workers where the worker and the work environment are being monitored continuously for hundreds of different measures every second. This new big data reality is both exciting and daunting. Finding what matters and when (preferably before something bad happens) is going to take years but the promise of better predictive analytics for our health is very exciting.
For workstations, this means that in the very near future your desk, chair, lighting, temperature, etc. will be monitored and sometimes modified automatically to maximize your comfort, productivity and health while minimizing distractions and stress—mostly without you even realizing that it is happening. Today we have elemental versions of this that are timers or prompts to do something. That will seem like the dark ages compared to what is coming with the Internet of You.
Greg: You mentioned how today’s workforce is older than that of 50 years ago. How common and significant are negative outcomes in the older segment of today’s workforce?
Mark: An old axiom is that every decade after 40 you lose 10% of your senses (sight, smell, taste, etc.) and also things like balance, lean muscle mass and resistance to soft-tissue injury. For sure, these are all impacted but there is a protective effect amongst workers. Self-awareness of limitations means I don’t choose at 70 to attempt to be a furniture mover or some other equally manually intensive job, I self-select out and that helps a bunch. As for those that must do tough jobs due to economics, they still pace themselves better and put themselves at less risk than their younger counterparts. Once hurt, they take longer to heal and are less likely to return to work.
However, not all 70-year-olds are the same! They can condition and tone, they can improve balance and stamina to levels that make it safe for them to perform many jobs, but they are not going to be Olympic competitors in track and field until we figure out some other trick to put off the effects of time spent on earth. There is a lot of research on determining a worker’s functional capacity versus job requirements. When there are mismatches, people get hurt, no matter the age.
More information from Mark Benden can be found on his website markbenden.com. His research publications can be read at researchgate.com, and the desks he designed for students are available at stand2learn.com.