Stuck on the school bench

Citizen science: Teachers, pupils and scientists work together to measure sitting behavior in young people.

We all know that a passive lifestyle is bad for our health – but the precise reasons why remain unclear. A group of scientists from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) has now teamed up with teachers and pupils to improve methods of measuring inactivity in our daily lives.

Several aspects of modern life promote inactivity: office workers typically spend hours in an almost motionless state in front of their computers and then go home to plop down in front of the TV. Children are expected to sit still for long periods of time. That’s undesirable in the face of research that reveals a clear association between a passive lifestyle and diseases such as diabetes, obesity and a range of cardiovascular conditions.

To estimate the real degree of risk that inactivity brings, new methods have to be developed to gather data from large groups of people. Finding such approaches is one of the tasks of Tobias Pischon’s research team at the MDC; the group has been participating in studies of thousands of people enrolled in a huge “National Cohort” of patients, families and others. Recently their attention turned to the long hours that children and youth spend sitting in school. Now they are developing a system to capture measurements body activity over extended periods of time. What’s unique about this study is that it has brought in the creative efforts of teachers and pupils from four German high schools: Andreas Gymnasium, Robert-Havemann Gymnasium, the OSZ for Health and Georg-Büchner Gymnasium.

For a week, participating volunteers are outfitted with sensors attached to their thighs and belts that capture every movement and its speed and produce data essential to the study. The scientists evaluate the results, tag them with pseudonyms to mask specific individuals, and then deliver them back to the participants.

Another original part of the study is the much larger role that is being played by teachers, compared to similar studies in the past. The first stage is a workshop that acquaints them with the methodologies needed in epidemiological studies. Furthermore, teachers input was essential for developing a questionnaire that will play a key role in the study, and they will help evaluate the results. This experience should prepare teachers to carry out similar studies of their own in the future, with their pupils, as a part of their lessons. So in addition to collecting useful data, the project is giving participants a direct look at the practice of science. While gaining a deeper understanding of epidemiological studies, they are also learning to evaluate their results.

The project is funded by the federal government and is embedded in two multidisciplinary networks: DEDIPAC, which is collecting data on nutrition and activity in populations across Europe, and the national “Teachers and Scientists” project, developed by Jugend forscht and the Science on Stage program.

At 6pm, Feb. 18, participants in the project will give a presentation at the Georg-Büchner Gymnasium. They will explain the need for the study, the way it is being managed, and the vision behind it all.

An activity sensor, attached to the belt, will help to capture movements. Photo: MDC


Josef Zens
Press officer

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