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Archive for Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fidgeting tested as fitness tool

March 29, 2006

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— The fidgety boys and girls in Phil Rynearson's classroom get up and move around whenever they want, and that's just fine with him.

In fact, stretching, swaying and even balancing on big wobbly exercise balls are the point of this experimental classroom. The goal is to see if getting children to move even a little can help combat childhood obesity.

As an added perk, there's some splashy technology, too - laptop computers, a wireless network and iPods.

The data aren't in yet. But anecdotally, Rynearson and Supt. Jerry Williams say the fourth- and fifth-graders are more focused on the curriculum than their peers in a comparison group in an ordinary classroom. And there are fewer distractions than in the traditional setup - where a lot of time is spent trying to get children to sit still.

"Sitting isn't bad," Rynearson said. "But I think kids need to move."

The classroom is the idea of Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. James Levine, also the mastermind of an office of the future that encourages more movement from deskbound white-collar workers.


Stephanie Mueller works at a "standing" desk in an experimental classroom at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minn. Obesity researchers from the Mayo Clinic want to learn whether classrooms really need desks, or if being able to move around helps students fight obesity while they learn.

Stephanie Mueller works at a "standing" desk in an experimental classroom at Elton Hills Elementary School in Rochester, Minn. Obesity researchers from the Mayo Clinic want to learn whether classrooms really need desks, or if being able to move around helps students fight obesity while they learn.

For schoolchildren, Levine says, "My dream was kids shooting hoops and spelling," much like the American basketball game of "H-O-R-S-E."

But the classroom at Elton Hills Elementary School doesn't go quite that far. Instead, the school replaced the standard desks and chairs with adjustable podiums that allow students to stand, kneel on mats or sit on big exercise balls.

To measure movement down to the last muscle twitch, sensors are on their legs. Levine will calculate how many calories the students are burning in the new classroom compared with their old, traditional classroom.

In Levine's experiment, a lot of the movement depends on technology. During a nutrition lesson, a group of students stood at their desks following along on their computers. Meanwhile, another group downloaded an audio file of Rynearson reading a book; a third group listened as their iPods walked them through a spelling test.

The students had mixed views of the experiment. Stephanie Mueller said she liked working on the computers, especially being able to repeat parts of lessons. And the freedom to move is "better than sitting down all day," she said.

However, another student, Mariah Matrious, didn't much like it. "I don't like standing up," she said. "My legs get tired and I like sitting down."

The experiment is due to run through the end of the school year. Rynearson said he plans to add old-fashioned desks and chairs for any students who want them.

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