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Maine School Kids Bouncing in their 'Chairs' to Fight Obesity
01/04/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

A recent economic analysis run by the University of Maine found that obese youth could cost the state $1.2 billion over the next 20 years. Factor in adults who are currently obese and the number skyrockets. The obesity epidemic is being addressed on the diet and exercise fronts, including getting people to take a stand - literally. According to experts, modern Americans spend almost 10 hours sitting down each day. They sit on their commutes to work, spend eight hours sitting behind a desk - and then go home to sit on the couch. But now, some schools and hospitals are taking steps to combat Maine's love affair with the chair.

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Maine School Kids Bouncing in their 'Chairs' to Fi Listen

Exercise balls 2

Mrs. Robin Norsworthy's class at Zippel Elementary School in Presque Isle on their fitness balls.

"This is an ergonomic work station whereby the employee can either sit, or the employee can stand and do their work. And what we'd like the employee to do is sit and stand throughout the day so they're not sitting 7 1/2 hours, on average, like most employees," says therapist Sarah Knowland.

Knowland is demonstrating one of the non-traditional desks installed at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor through its Wellness program. Not surprisingly, hospitals are often at the forefront of health trends, and this is no exception. Where people once worked hard, physical hours - slaving over laundry tubs and hoeing gardens that would feed a whole family - today people work just as much, but the strain is of a different kind. Debi McCann heads the hospital's wellness program.

"The latest research is indicating anybody who sits for longer than six hours a day significantly increases their risk of death and disease," says Debi McCann, who heads the hospital's wellness program.

This could include anything from neck pain and back pain, to potentially deadly blood clots, to actually changing how the body metabolizes fats and sugars. Prolonged sitting has also been linked to bone depletion and osteoporosis.

And that's not all: According to a study conducted last year by Northwestern University, trying to make up for a day of sitting with a big burst of exercise at the end of the day doesn't reduce the risk factors at all. Rather, the study concluded that people need to use their bodies continuously throughout the day.

That means popping up and down periodically from your chair - if you have one - sitting up straight to use core muscles, taking a walk around the office, and even wiggling about and fidgeting more.

"Some of the computers that we have, have a little work notice that pops up that tells the employee to get up and move every so often, and so you'll people actually get up, do some stretches," says therapist Sarah Knowland.

The notion that one needs to be reminded to move would have been ludicrous a hundred years ago. But it's a different world now. As Debi McCann points out, employers have a big part to play in whether today's desk job is a health liability or not, "because it is important that people get breaks, and it is important that people get lunch, it is important that they move around."

One-hundred-sixty miles to the north, one elementary school class is actually moving around all day long.

"It's more comfortable, like, your not, like - you know how you see people leaning back in chairs? You can't lean back," says Riley, a fifth grader in Mrs. Robin Norsworthy's class at Zippel Elementary School in Presque Isle.

Riley and his classmates have been sitting - not slouching - on stability balls this year, instead of chairs, as part of a project to gather data and track how alternative seating affects kids' behavior, health, and learning.

So far, the kids seem to be sold on balls. Classmate Taylor says that you can quietly bounce on the balls all day long. "People should try it," she says. "It's a lot of fun, you get good benefits out of it, good posture. It's very healthy."

Teacher Robin Norsworthy, who is observing her students throughout the stability ball project, agrees, and says she expects that when the data are analyzed in the coming months they will show that her students have already benefitted by getting rid of their chairs.

"They are happier. They're more attentive. Especially any of the kids that have ADD (attention deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)," Norsworthy says. "They work their energy off on the stability ball, so they're not sitting in hard chairs, and not focused. They tend to be more focused."

And their grades are expected to go up as well. But as with more traditional notions of fitness, stability balls and standing computer terminals only work if you can adapt. We spoke with one office worker at Aroostook Medical Center who eagerly sat on her fit ball for a while at the office; now she can't even remember where it is.

It's a tale to which many will relate. Sitting on a ball was just too much of a novelty: She says visitors to the office kept commenting on it, which made her uncomfortable. So she gave it up.

As for Mrs. Norsworthy's fifth-grade class, the kids don't seem to mind at all that the balls make them a little different than the other students in the school. And besides, says student Riley Roderick, it's helped him improve morthan just his circulation - he credits the ball for his sudden A+ in spelling.

Photos and video by Nick Woodward.


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