Students who cycled while studying had more stable sleep quality than those who did not exercise while studying, without sacrificing academic performance.
— By Conn Hastings
Researchers at Clemson University, South Carolina, have found that students who pedaled a stationary bike while studying had more consistent sleep quality and similar academic performance compared with students who studied at a traditional desk.
Staying active throughout the day is a challenge with increasingly sedentary modern lifestyles, which facilitate and encourage inactivity. Office workers typically sit at desks all day, while modern travel involves sitting in cars, trains, or airplanes for long periods, or waiting in stations or airports. Watching television is a pastime for many people, while students studying for exams or completing assignments typically sit quietly in libraries.
So, what are the effects of this inactivity on our health? Many are well-known, and include obesity and heart disease. However, a sedentary lifestyle can also result in anxiety, depression, and decreased quality of life, while negatively affecting performance.
While many people do exercise regularly, they often tend to cram it into just one part of the day, which may not entirely counteract the negative effects of inactivity the rest of the time. “Many people think of exercise as that hour at the gym sweating, or that exercise is separate from the rest of our day. However, we can increase our activity levels throughout the day in less strenuous ways,” explains June Pilcher, lead author on the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.
How can we incorporate light exercise into situations where people are traditionally sedentary, such as workplaces and libraries? Activity workstations, such as FitDesks, which consist of a workstation mounted on a stationary bike, are one option. They allow occupants to pedal gently while working on a computer or doing paperwork.
While exercising at a FitDesk could help to alleviate some of the problems caused by inactivity, you might imagine that pedaling a bike while trying to study or work could prove distracting and might reduce focus. The researchers set out to see what effect using such desks had on the academic performance of a sample of 117 psychology students.
The students were divided into two groups, and one group spent a minimum of two hours a week studying while pedaling slowly at a FitDesk. The other group spent the same amount of time studying at a traditional desk. Before, during and after the experiment, which lasted ten weeks, the students completed surveys, and the researchers had access to their grades.
Pedaling while studying did not impair academic performance, and the FitDesk students scored as well in their exams as students who studied at traditional desks. The FitDesk group reported stable sleep quality over the semester, while the traditional desk group suffered deteriorating sleep quality near the end of the semester. Activity workstations could therefore benefit students, as they commonly experience sleep disturbance, and student health and well-being are linked to sleep quality.
Interestingly, traditional desk users reported that they studied more successfully and felt that they had greater motivation and commitment when studying. However, this did not translate to better grades. The researchers hypothesize that these students may have been influenced by their familiarity with a traditional desk, and felt it was easier to study, but this study was not actually more effective.
“I would be very happy to see more activity workstations in a variety of locations, such as in doctor’s offices and airports,” explains Pilcher. “Activity workstations could provide an option to move while completing necessary tasks or simply waiting for an appointment. I’m not suggesting that they should replace traditional desks, but having periods of time working on an activity workstation could help people be healthier in the long term.”