For at least five years, third-year therapeutic recreation student Laura Barkin has read for classes on a stationary bicycle. She has noticed an improvement in her mood and her learning, but also limitations: A typical stationary bike doesn’t allow a student to write or to use a computer. A late-night GreenHouse conversation with a friend led Laura to wish she could use some of UWaterloo’s adaptive technology — such as programs that read text aloud — while riding a stationary bike.
Exercise has been clearly linked to improved mental and physical wellbeing. The sedentary lifestyle, which would include conventional studying by students, is considered by many to be one of the biggest health problems of the 21st century. Laura shares this concern, pointing out that the suggested minimum study time is two hours of reading per hour of classes. She notes, “We spend way too much time sitting. If a student course load is 15 hours of classes per week, that can result in at least 45 hours of sitting in lectures and studying outside of class.”
She says, “inactivity is the new smoking.”
Originally, Laura and her colleague from St. Paul’s GreenHouse considered developing a prototype that would accomplish her goals, but then she discovered and tested out a kinetic study desk called the FitDesk — and decided it wasn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel. Instead of developing a product, Laura’s project became focused on encouraging the University to purchase and install the FitDesk in key study locations, such as university libraries.
“Improving people’s studying is the essence of why we’re doing this,” Laura says. Benefits to combining study and exercise include reduced anxiety, improved concentration, better academic results and more time to get engaged on campus or in part-time work. While not a replacement for more strenuous exercise, the gentle exercise helps students concentrate better, and is particularly effective for students with ADHD. Laura has also found the time-tracking element of FitDesk keeps her accountable.
Noting that not all students are kinesthetic learners, Laura points out that, evolutionarily speaking, sitting is a new development. “When we were all hunters-gatherers, those who sat down to think were eaten. Our brain is used to moving and learning — this is a way to integrate that into an academic context.”
This project originally came out of a GreenHouse conversation and has continued as a result of multiple conversations that began at GreenHouse. Laura particularly appreciates learning from mentors at GreenHouse about how to talk with potential partners at a broad level to discover how and where they might work together.
“My goal in bringing FitDesk to campus is to help improve the overall well-being of the university student population,” says Laura. “GreenHouse is very helpful in guiding me to accomplish this goal and in helping me know how to proceed.”
- by Susan Fish
Listen to Kwame Ansong's podcast interview with Laura Barkin