Thursday, October 30, 2014

Change the Stimulus

Do you do the same workouts all the time? Do you have a favorite running route you just can't break away from? Do you wear the same running shoes every day?

The beauty of the human body is its ability to adapt. In a training context, the body adapts over time to the stimuli (i.e. training) we throw at it. It's the basic "overload principle" of exercise physiology. A muscle must train at a level it isn't accustomed to in order to adapt. Over time, with the same stimuli, that's exactly what it does: adapt.
Once sufficient adaptation occurs, gains begin to slow and then plateau. So, we need to change the stimulus. 

Earlier this week I went for about a 45 minute base run. Nothing crazy, just a moderate effort with no watch running by feel. The change up came when I ditched running on the asphalt- or concrete-paved road, to running on the grass alongside it.

I spend about 95% of my time running on paved surfaces. This after about 15 years of playing soccer where I ran almost entirely on grass. Since taking up running, my leg muscles have slowly adapted to the needs of running on pavement. But, when it comes to running on a trail, grass, or some other uneven surface, the muscle demands are different (think stabilizing muscles around your ankle). By running on grass, I reintroduced a different stimulus my legs haven't felt in a while.

So, when you decide to go for your next run, bike ride, swim, or any other workout, ask yourself if you need to throw something new at your body, or if it's just the same thing over and over again with the hope of improve results. And we all know what that means. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Health Implications of Chronic Sugar Consumption Among Endurance Athletes

In endurance sports, sugar-based nutrition products reign supreme. Take a look at the ingredients of any sports drink, gel, or energy bar on the market. The chance it contains sugar as a primary ingredient is pretty high. 

It's because of demand, right?


Conventional approaches to sports nutrition do revolve around high consumption of carbohydrate, and simple sugars, especially immediately before, during and after hard training sessions and racing. Just the other day, for example, I had breakfast with a fellow triathlete and coach, whose plate was filled with pancakes slathered in maple syrup. He took down the entire thing.

From a purely performance standpoint, there is some evidence supporting a predominantly carbohydrate diet/fueling strategy, particularly at higher intensities. But, more and more research on lipolysis and "fat adaptation" among endurance athletes is showing simple sugars and carbohydrates shouldn't be the primary fuel source, it should be fat. 

Research continues to also pour in showing the long term health implications of chronic sugar consumption. The basic point is this: consuming lots of sugar accelerates the aging process, possibly just as much as smoking. (For example, read this article.)

But, back to endurance athletes. There isn't a ton of research available specifically on this population, but a few studies have emerged. One from earlier this year, I think, is indicative of the caution we, in the endurance sports community, should be taking with an over reliance on sugar-based nutrition.  

The study compared 35 triathletes with 35 non-exercising control individuals. It found an increased risk of dental erosion among triathletes, and a significant correlation between dental caries and cumulative weekly training volume. Basically, a higher prevalence of dental caries was seen among triathletes with higher training loads, presumably due to the larger amounts of mostly sugar-based exogenous fuel sources.

In trying to limit simple sugar consumption during training and racing I take three basic approaches:

1. Don't carry fuel for 90-95% of my workouts. Because I've adapted my metabolism over time to better tap into fat stores, I can easily go for a 2 hour run or a 3 hour bike ride with just water and be perfectly fine. Daily nutrition influences performance.

2.  If I'm in need of a clean fuel source, like during a marathon, I use UCAN Superstarch. It's been my go-to for almost two years, and I don't plan on changing that any time soon.

3. When possible, though, I'm a fan of using whole food sources of nutrition. This is what I did earlier this year during a 16-hour, 300k bike ride through northern New Jersey. I carried plastic bags filled with coconut flakes, coconut oil, almonds, cashews and flax seed crackers. More resources, like the Feed Zone Portables Cookbook, are available to make this approach easier too. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this in the coming year.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Women Make Tough Choices When it Comes to Family and Wellness

Working mothers make difficult trade offs when it comes to career and family. While trying to pursue career aspirations, mothers often try to balance the responsibilities of being a parent.  

Workplace policies aren't always supportive of a healthy balance between the two. Inflexible work arrangements mean mothers make hard choices when it comes to taking care of a sick child or earning a paycheck. 

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, sheds light on some of these trade offs that working women (now comprising about half of the US workforce) must make.

In the majority of households across the country, women manage health care decisions for the family. Roughly three out of every four women decide on a doctor, take children to appointments, and then execute a health provider's recommendations on care.  

When doing these things though, many women take time off from work. And 60 percent of women who take time off are not compensated.

Such inflexibility has a number of ripple effects:

1. Women lose out on valuable pay, which is already not on par with their male counterparts.

2. Seeking health care turns into a last resort. Out of fear of losing pay, women may opt to forgo seeking heath services for a child.

3. Decisions related to health and illness are major sources of stress by themselves. Work challenges and trade offs only add to this stress.

The good news is that more employers are thinking about employee wellness. Organization policies and culture, however, don't always find their way into these conversations. If wellness is indeed a priority, we need to think about the ecosystem of factors that influence our entire physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.     

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tempo Progression Run on the Treadmill

I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this week for work and that meant only one thing: treadmill workout at the hotel gym. 

Whenever I'm able to, I like to run the same day I fly into a new city. Ideally I run outside, which is my way of seeing the sites and getting the blood in my legs recirculating. But, since daylight was running out after I arrived, I hit the hotel gym for a treadmill session. Just a few minutes after warming up my legs felt surprising fresh. I'm still in the early phases of getting back into training, so most of my workouts have just been whatever I feel like doing on that particular day.

I felt great on this particular day. On the fly, I came up with this progression tempo run. It will definitely find its way back into my training down the road.


(Everything at 1% incline)

20 minute warm up (build to about 30 seconds above lactate threshold, LT)

Alternate 5 minute work intervals and 5 minute recovery intervals as:
  • (4) Work Intervals: #1 @ marathon pace --> #4 @ 5k pace (decrease by ~10-15 seconds every other 5 minutes)
  • (4) Rest Intervals: #1- 45 seconds slower then work interval --> increase pace by same amount work intervals are decreased  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

3 Focus Areas to Improve Biomechanics, Generate More Power, and Help You Run Faster

Biomechanics are a bit of a Pandora's box in the running community. Some say they're the ticket to getting faster and building endurance. Others think runners should just stick with what's comfortable and natural.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, there are a few fundamental aspects of running biomechanics that could influence running economy and performance, and certainly relate to injury prevention. Here are three areas to focus on if you're looking to improve your biomechanics, generate more power, and get faster.

1. Back Kick 

During the swing phase of the gait (when the foot is off the ground and moves from behind to in front of you), the foot acts like a pendulum. Your hip is the pivot point, and your leg and foot are "suspended" from the pivot point. When it comes to pendulums, there's one really important variable: the length between the pivot and whatever object is at the end of the pendulum. In this case, it's your foot. A shorter pendulum is faster (or in physics speak, oscillates with a smaller period). Applying this to running, from a biomechanical perspective, having a shorter leg pendulum would be most economical. How do you "shorten" the leg while running/walking? The back kick. In the picture below, you'll see how pronounced the back kick is in many elite runners (this one from the front group at this year's Twin Cities Marathon). The runner then actively brings the foot and leg forward through the gait by driving his knee. (One other thing to note: this is at mile 25!)

2. Knee Drive

As the right foot comes forward, the runner aggressively drives the knee upward and forward. This is where a lot of the runner's power comes from. But, he's only able to do this because of strong hip extensor muscles (muscles that are somewhat notorious for being weak in many runners). He engages his hip extensor muscles, and with a strong knee drive, also drives backwards with his left leg (the toe off part of the gait cycle). A pronounced knee drive also sets up the runner for an effective foot strike. See the next picture, particularly looking at the right leg/foot. The knee drive helps avoid excessive dorsiflexion of his foot. Dorsiflexion is when you point your toes upwards. Too much dorsiflexion usually sets a runner up for heal striking, while a more neutral position, such as in this picture, usually means a more mid-foot strike.

3. Foot Strike

Two big points on the foot strike. The first is that the runner strikes mostly at his mid-foot, which tends to generate less impact forces on the lower limb joints compared to heal striking. The second point is where the foot lands relative to the rest of the runner's body. It's almost directly under the runner's head and hips. In fact, you can basically draw a straight line from the top of the head, through the torso and hips, and finishing at the heal of the foot. Having this type of alignment, with the foot striking under the hips, enables the greatest amount of power to be generated.

By focusing on these three main factors over the past few years, I've seen some huge improvements in my own racing. For example, here's a side-by-side of what my "knee drive" looked like five years ago and what it is this year.

Take time to revisit the basics. Set a good foundation and the rest will follow.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Secret to Making a Kick-Ass Salad You'll Actually Crave

I'm known as the salad guy. Every day, without fail, lunch is always a salad. Sometimes I'll go a few months eating more or less the same one. Other times, I'll vary things up. Either way, my salads are one of the most nutrient-dense meals I prepare. Especially during periods of heavy training, this is critical for getting a lot of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients I need to recovery properly. The high nutrient density is also why I'll actually start craving dark leafy greens and vegetables if I'm forced to go more than 36 hours without a salad (like if I'm traveling). Ask my wife, I can get pretty cranky.

So, what's the secret recipe?

Well, recipe might be too much of an exact word for my salads. I don't really measure things out, unless a handful of this, a shake of this, and a pinch of that is considered "measuring." Mostly, I just like to take a bunch of different vegetables, throw them in a big bowl, add some seasoning and fat, and dig in.

Here's how it goes:

Step 1: Start with a nice, large bowl, something that can fit at least six cups. But, don't be shy, I've used some of our largest mixing bowls for salads.

Step 2: Add in your favorite dark leafy green. This can be spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, arugula, chard, mustard greens, or some combination. Stick with organic when you can to reduce the chances of being exposed to pesticide residue.

Step 3: Chop 3-4 vegetables of your choosing: cucumber, bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes, really whatever looks good at the grocery store and you're in the mood for. The "organic rule" applies here too. Instead of chopping them, I use a peeler and shave pieces of carrot on top.

Step 4: Add an herb: parsley, cilantro, oregano. They add a nice flavor and many herbs, particularly parsley and cilantro, are great at helping to detoxify.

Step 5: Add some fat and protein. My one-two combo for this are avocado and sardines. I love sardines because they are low on the food chain, so you don't have the same heavy metal risk as larger fish, and they pack an amazing nutrient profile, particularly omega-3s. So, if you're a hard charging athlete, or just want to support a healthy nervous or immune system, these should be a go-to. One word of caution with sardines: be mindful of the brand you buy, particularly where the sardines are from and if the can is BPA-free (BPA is a known endocrine-disruptor, aka messes with your hormonal system, and has been linked to a number of health problems). A favorite brand of mine is Wild Planet.

Step 6: Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Because I follow a fairly low-carbohydrate diet, I find I need to add salt to a lot of my food to ensure my blood pressure doesn't get too low. I stick with himalayan sea salt when I can.

Step 7: Dress with extra-virgin olive oil (again preferably organic, cold-pressed, and packaged in a dark bottle to avoid too much sun/heat exposure, which can damage the delicate fats). I stay away from any commercial dressings since many are made with soybean or other vegetable oils. One brand I've found to be the exception is Tessemae's, which has olive oil-based dressings. I'm fairly liberal when it comes to the olive oil, since that, the avocado, and sardines are the largest sources of calories in the meal.

Step 8: Grab a fork and dig into your kick-ass salad!

Try one this weekend and let me know how it turns out! If you have a favorite version of your own kick-ass salad, share in the comments.

Monday, October 6, 2014

21 Inspiring Quotes from "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday to Turn Trials into Triumphs

If you haven't read this book yet, you should. Ryan Holiday deconstructs the basic, timeless principles behind stoic philosophy, first pioneered by thinkers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, into a practical guidebook for how to live life. Totally accessible and grounding, it's a book you'll likely go back to over and over again for inspiration. I have already.

Here are 21 of my favorite, inspiring quotes:

1. "You will come across obstacles in life - fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming - or possibly thriving because of - them."

2. "Too often we react emotionally, get despondent, and lose our perspective. All that does is turn bad things into really bad things."

3. "...if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something - a judgement - that we, as human beings, bring to them with our perceptions."

4. "There is always a countermove..."

5. "We can't change the obstacles themselves - that part of the equation is set - but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome."

6. "Where the head goes, the body follows."

7. "But every ounce of energy directed at things we can't actually influence is wasted - self-indulgent and self-destructive. So much power - ours, and other people's - is fritted away in this manner."

8. "Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead."

9. "When given an unfair task, some rightly see it as a chance to test what they're made of - to give it all they've got, knowing full well how difficult it will be to win. They see it as an opportunity because it is often in that desperate nothing-to-lose state that we are our most creative."

10. "No way around it: It's on you."

11. "...genius often really is just persistence in disguise."

12. "Stop looking for angels, and start looking for angles."

13. "Respect the craft and make something beautiful."

14. "How you do anything is how you can do everything."

15. "Just our best, that's it. Not the impossible. We must be willing to roll the dice and lose."

16. "True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition."

17. "We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us."

18. "But there is always some good - even if only barely perceptible at first - contained within the bad. And we can find it and be cheerful because of it."

19. "Perseverance is something larger. It's the long game. It's about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after - and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end."

20. "Lend a hand to others. Be strong for them, and it will make you stronger."

21. "Behind mountains are more mountains...One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Wheels Fall Off (Part 3 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

This is part 3 of 3 of a series on my race at IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton. Disclosure: I did not receive any form of compensation for mentioning certain products in this posting. 

Part 1: Getting to the Start Line
Part 2: On Pace


I dismount. My first steps off the bike are reassuring. The slight cramp sensations in my hamstrings from removing my feet from my cycling shoes are temporary. They faded for the time being just moments after they began 100 meters from the dismount line of the bike course. My calf, hugged by a black compression sleeve, feels normal as I dash to the opposite side of transition to rack my bike. Caution, however, still shields it from the violent force of a normal stride. When I reach my spot in transition, I quickly rack my bike, place my black, Specialized helmet on the handlebars, and insert my feet, one after the other, into a pair of socks, then into my running shoes. The elastic Xtenex laces in my running shoes make shoelace tying obsolete. I simply yank on the ends, and the series of small knots in the laces catch on the shoe eyelets at the exact right tightness.

I pass under the "Run Out" arch. The force incurred during each foot strike comes with a special delivery of confidence, sent directly to my brain. Each step provides a bit more then the previous. Only a few hundred meters into the run, I feel strong and energized. My pace gradually dips close to 6:15 per mile. 

I hit the first aid station. Prior to the race, I completely abandoned the thought of trying UCAN Superstarch in a running flask again. Did I not want to carry the flask? Was UCAN not effective? No and no. I knew I entered the race in a sub-optimal state of fitness. The previous six weeks, as I mentioned in Part 2, were a complete logistical nightmare. There was zero stability. Combine that with Princeton being my last race, wanting to have a good performance in front of my family, and the goal of qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships (which I significantly tempered once our moving calendar became clearer). I'm usually one who tries to strike the balance between health and performance. That got thrown out the window today. 

"Water and two cokes," I call out at the first aid station. I dump the first cup of water over my head and proceed through the buffet line of fuel source options to grab two cups of Coke. Water and Coke worked for me in my last half-Ironman in North Carolina where I placed 2nd in my age group. I stick to that same strategy, at first by choice, later by absolute necessity. 

I feel some tightness in my quads. I definitely pushed the pace on the bike, but never felt I was overly smashing the pedals. It's a similar sensation to the one I felt coming off the bike in North Carolina. With some quickly absorbed fuel early in the run, I figure the tightness will work itself out, just like it has in the past. 

Around the mile 2 mark I find out that's not going to be the case today. I ease up slightly, contemplating a quick stop to stretch, hoping it would help relieve the tightness. Wrong decision. Horrible decision. Both sets of quads seized up simultaneously. Cramps grab hold of each with a vise-like grip. I can't relax them. A loud howl exits my cringing face. Both are stuck in a contracted state. The pain is excruciating, like two knives that have stabbed each. Bent over, I use my thumb to apply as much pressure as possible to each thigh, slowly digging into the muscle to trigger its release. 

It's the most unpleasant and painful deep tissue massage I've ever had. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last one that day.

As I'm slowly loosening my thigh muscles, I hear fellow athletes offer words of encouragement as they run by. It's helpful, but I'm still annoyed with the ground I'm losing, and to one athlete in particular. All of a sudden I hear an audible jumble of words that I can't quite make out, but includes the word "bike." I look up, it's the fellow 25-29 age grouper I sparred with on the bike course. I insert my own version of the rest of his statement: "Shouldn't have gone so hard on the bike." 

It lights a match under me. After a minute or two, I finally work out the cramps to a point where I can resume running. My focus narrows to one goal: pass that one athlete. Seeing his stride as he passed me, I know I'm a much better runner. I just need to hold off these cramps for a little while longer. 

Not long after relief arrives in my quads, I feel a lingering, inevitable pain in my right calf. Instead of walking, which I told myself before the race that I would only do as a very last resort, I modified my stride to a less impactful gliding-like gait instead of my typical stride with more pronounced knee-drive and back-kick. Even so, I still manage to work my way further into the field of athletes ahead of me. 

A mile before the end of the first loop, marking the midway point, I'm within striking distance of my goal. He's been in my sights the previous three miles. I've slowly chipped away at his time advantage. We exit one of the park's trails and onto the main access road. I come up on his left, pausing for a few steps to run alongside him. I glance over, look directly at him, then accelerate slightly to pass him. I don't look back.

Barricades lining the road slowly come into few, draped with repeated logos of Training Peak, Tacx, TIMEX and other IRONMAN partners. My eyes dart back and forth to try and spot my family. They are standing along the right side of the road, somewhat spread out, to offer more smaller doses of encouragement rather than all at once. As I round the left turn to enter the second loop, I shoot a thumbs up sign to my wife and dad. I'm feeling okay.

Long before I made it to this point, I transformed the run course in my mind from a daunting 13.1 mile slog, to a series of one mile repeats. I focus only on running to the next aid station, located about one mile beyond the previous. When I think about the half-marathon in smaller segments, it seems much more manageable. "Just get to the next aid station," becomes my mantra. For a while, it works.

I pass through another aid station, taking water and Coke, which has become standard protocol. It's been five miles since the cramps struck like two lightning bolts. I'm still gliding along, and actually feel optimistic about holding off any more cramps. Just a few minutes after the thought, though, the cramps strike again. The agonizing pain once again shoots through my quads. They seize up. I yell. Once again, it's time to apply as much pressure as possible with my fingers to relax the contracted muscles. Under my grip, beneath the skin, I feel the lively flurry of out of control muscle spasms.

Frustration returns to my thoughts. Cardiovascularly I feel 100 percent fine. It's like my legs won't work how I want them too. They feel totally disconnected from how I'm mentally and aerobically feeling. "And all the people I just worked so hard to pass are now all passing me," I think to myself. It takes a few moments longer this time then the previous to work things out. But, I do. I'm moving again.

A mile and a half up the road, more cramps. Same story. I give up my goal of beating that one fellow age grouper, who since passed me for the second time. It's all about finishing now, however I can. The cramps would come with greater frequency during the second half of the run. I stop five times in all, including one right next to an aid station, and another less than a mile from the finish line. I don't care how often they come, though, I'm determined to run when I can, and finish the race on my terms, giving it ever ounce of mental and physical effort I have left in my body.

I pass the 12 mile sign. The finish feels within reach. I stop once more because of a cramp, just steps from my family. I'm sure they see the pure agony on my face. I grit my teeth, and with a grimace on my face, a limp in my gait, and my cousin running alongside me for the final half mile, I complete the most brutal and painful triathlon I've ever done. 

I cross the finish line with a brief moment of disappointment on my mind. I had ambitious expectations coming into this race, and my five hour and nine minute finish time didn't even come close to them. Instead of proceeding directly through the finish corral after the finish line, I take a few moments to myself, to reflect on the previous five hours, mostly the past hour of torture. The disappointment quickly fades, though, when I see my cousin's two young boys, one three and the other seven. I know perseverance in the face of adversity is a valuable lesson. I hope I played at least some role in helping them understand that lesson. And that's the "win" I choose to leave the race with. 

Run Split: 1:52:48

Finish Time: 5:09:01 (19th in 25-29 age group / 147 overall)  


Stuff happens. Life intervenes. Every race is not always going to be a personal best. Things will go wrong. Stress influences performance much more than we think. Did I have ambitious goals for the race? Absolutely. Do I wish I raced better? No question. Do I know I can race better? Heck yea. But, will there be another race? Yes. Did I learn something from the race? Hand down, without a doubt. Did I experience something during the race I've never experience before? Will these experiences make me a better athlete? A better coach? A better husband? A better person? Emphatically, yes. 

It makes me think of a quote from the movie Life as a House, "Sometimes things happen for a reason. Something bad to force something good." It's all about perspective and finding the good in everything we do and experience. I just finished reading an amazing book, The Obstacle is the Way (stay tuned for a new blog on it), and if anything captures how I feel looking back on the race it's this:

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” 

My story of IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton is one of grit, persistence, and knowing I gave the race what I honestly and truthfully had on that day. I fought through pain. I raced with the unknown of how an injury would hold up, and it turned out okay. I toed the start line even when I could have easily backed out of the race, whether because of moving or injury. I learned something about myself that day. I explored an unknown part of me. I experienced something new and unforgettable in this magical, unpredictable, and sometimes unrelenting world of ours. 

And that's a win. And I'm grateful for it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Should children be using standing desks in schools?

"Sitting is killing you." It might even be worst for your long-term health then smoking, suggests some research. The headline is a bit sensational (in this case by TIME magazine), but the underlying message isn't. In many respects, movement has been engineered out of our daily lives. Now, I'm not talking about the 30 minute jog in the morning or weight session after work. These are laudable activities. I'm talking about the regular movement involved in our everyday activities - essentially, being on your feet for more then a few minutes. 

One technical fix to move (pun intended) people in the direction of increased activity is a standing workstation. They've been around for quite some time, but have become quite the craze recently. 

What's the point? 

Why should we be standing morel? The answer in many public health circles is less about standing for a long duration of time, but rather getting people out of a seated position because of sitting's link to a variety of long-term health consequences. For example, a number of studies, such as this one, have shown a dose response association between sitting time and death from all-causes and heart disease. The more sitting, the higher the risk. Even more important, these results were found to be independent of leisure time physical activity. In other words, your morning/evening run, cycle, swim, row (insert your activity or workout of choice here) does not make up for the eight hours spent sitting at your desk everyday. A similar study, called the Sax Institute 45 and Up Study, which is the largest ongoing study of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere, has found a 40% increased risk of death for adults who sit 11 or more hours per day compared to those who sit fewer than four

Armed with the data, many individuals and employers are making changes. Enter: the standing workstation. More offices have them, and more options are available now than ever before. Some, like this one, can easily shift from a standing desk to a regular seated desk. For employers, it's about trying to minimize ill health-related costs and increase productivity.

Schools, on the other hand, are more of an unknown. Standing desks are still not very common, but new research suggests maybe they ought to be. It's a similar rationale with workplaces. Standing desks would help keep kids healthier and boost learning and academic performance. 

Standing Desks for Kids?
A new, first-of-its-kind study that tested the use of standing desks in 24 classrooms in three north-Texas elementary schools showed some interesting results, at least from an energy expenditure perspective. Researchers compared energy expenditure (EE) data and daily step counts for 337 students from two different grades within the three schools. Four different classrooms were measured per grade. Below is a picture of the standing desk used by students in the intervention groups (right) alongside the desk used for the control group (left), which were just the normal desks used at the schools before the study. Two control classrooms had to be excluded from the study because they opted to use exercise balls in place of chairs during the school year. As a result, the number of students in the treatment and control groups were not balanced.

The results?  

It's a mixture of good and bad. 

Good news: 
All students, regardless of gender or ethnicity, took more steps and expended more energy if they used a standing desk compared to those using seated desks. The following two graphs illustrate this point. In addition, students who were overweight or obese had a greater EE of 0.24 kcal/min and 0.40 kcal/min respectively compared to students of normal weight range. (One point of clarification: 1 kcal roughly equals 1 calorie). One could then conclude that from a purely EE standpoint (i.e. not considering the limitations of an energy-based way of thinking - in other words, only calories - about weight gain/loss and metabolic dysfunction), a standing desk is more effective then a sitting one, particularly for those children who are already overweight or obese.  

Students who had standing desks also took more steps per minute on average throughout the day. In the fall semester it was 1.61 steps/minute more among standing versus sitting students. This difference essentially disappeared in the spring semester, though, calling into question whether it was the desk per se that caused the increase number of steps, or simply the fact that it was something new. Similar to EE, greater benefits were observed among overweight and obese students.

Graph of average energy expenditure (measured in kilocalories) per minute by each student.

Graph of average steps taken per minute by students.

Bad news: 
A few points of bad news:

1. The overall effect of the intervention was relatively small. If you take the combined average increase in EE for all students using a standing desk compared to sitting, it amounted to a 0.08-0.16 kcal/min increase. Over a four hour period, this only amounts to an increase of 19.2 - 38.4 kcals. For some perspective, a single cup of fresh-pressed orange juice is 112 calories; a single hard-boiled egg is about 70 calories; and a single slice of Nature's Own whole wheat bread has 60 calories. The basic point is that we're not talking about much here. 

2. A 50% smaller increase in EE was observed among students using the standing desk in the spring semester compared to the fall. Basically, the longer students used the desk, the more they adapted to them, expending less energy.

A few Unanswered Questions

Two significant areas went untouched in this study.

1. Alignment: Standing in an anatomically aligned position requires significant postural muscle strength in the legs, glutes, abdominals and lower back. When these muscles cannot sufficiently support the body in a functional way, bad habits form, impacting overall body alignment. For a crash course on alignment, read Katy Bowman's blog or book titled, Alignment Matters. One specific area she discusses at length, and warrants highlighting, is the role of footwear. A straight line should be able to be drawn from the top of the head, down to the heals, perpendicular to the floor or ground. When one introduces a healed shoe (in other words, the large majority of commercially available footwear today), this changes the angle by which this imaginary line intersects with the ground. The result? Muscles unnaturally shorten, like those in the calf, hamstring and lower back, changing the entire alignment of the posterior muscle chain as a result. Ever have tightness, soreness or pain in your lower back? Tight calves and/or hamstrings could be the cause.

2. Productivity and/or education outcomes: The link between physical activity and improved brain functioning is well established. For more on this, read the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Exercise essentially turns on parts of the brain associated with learning, creativity, and other executive functions. This is the basic argument for retaining (and even increasing) the amount of physical activity opportunities offered to students during the school day. Though lower impact and less cardiovascularly taxing then say running, standing still has its benefits. Really, anything other then sitting is preferable. Unfortunately, none of these non-health benefits were examined in the study, though the discussion section of the paper says otherwise. Despite the fact that the study did NOT measure any education-related variables, the authors still concluded, "the results of this study and previous pilot studies have established that activity-permissive classrooms...improve behavioral engagement." Popular media outlets picked up on this assertion and expanded upon it, such as Fast Company who ran a story on September 26th about the study with the headline "Standing Desks Are Coming to Schools, To Cure Obesity and Increase Attention Spans." This despite the fact that the study did NOT actually measure attention span or "behavioral engagement."


I've used a standing workstation for several years now, whether commercially bought or one I rigged up using various office supplies. But, is this something that should be standard practice in schools in the US? Should children be forced to use standing workstations? Should they be given the option? Are standing workstations simply overrated? I'd love to hear your thoughts.