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Taking a Stand

Texas A&M ergonomist Dr. Mark Benden ’90 ’92 ’06 creates workspaces and school desks that keep us on our feet.

Taking a Stand

Texas A&M ergonomist Dr. Mark Benden ’90 ’92 ’06 creates workspaces and school desks that keep us on our feet.

Dr. Mark Benden '90 '92 '06 is a Texas A&M School of Public Health associate professor whose research focuses on ergonomic design.

Ever since he began his studies at Texas A&M University, Dr. Mark Benden ’90 ’92 ’06 has been in the comfort business. He was on the ground floor of the ergonomic chair movement, even inventing, patenting and marketing an adjustable, rotating armrest while still a graduate student.

But about a decade ago, Benden, now associate professor and head of the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH), had a moment of enlightenment: By making a sedentary lifestyle more comfortable, he was contributing to a behavior that leads to obesity and its plethora of negative health effects.

Benden realized he didn’t need to encourage people to sit: He needed to encourage them to stand.

A Change of Plans

When Benden arrived at Texas A&M from his home on the East Coast, he joined the Corps of Cadets and planned to become a physician. But in his senior year of biomedical engineering, those plans changed. “I took ergonomics as an elective, and it was a game-changer,” Benden recalled. “It presented me with the opportunity to apply my engineering knowledge and skills to make people more comfortable. That class sparked the entrepreneurial bug, which I never got over.”

As a physician, Benden said, he would be able to treat one patient at a time. But as an ergonomist and inventor, he could find ways to prevent illness and injuries from occurring in the first place by either creating products or redesigning existing ones, helping infinitely more people in the process.

Contributing to this entrepreneurial fever was Benden’s college mentor, Dr. Jerome Congleton, founder—and now director emeritus—of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center. As Texas A&M’s first active faculty member to license a product, Congleton pioneered the commercialization culture on campus.

After attaining his undergraduate degree, Benden remained at Texas A&M to study industrial engineering, focusing on ergonomics. Before graduating with his master’s, he had secured his armrest patent.

 

  • Stand Up and Move

    Findings have shown that when given the choice to stand or sit on stools, children stand—and move—an average of an hour-and-a-half longer per day than they did without standing desks. Standing desks also have a positive effect on body mass index (BMI) and calorie burn rates. The impacts on weight are further accompanied by improved academics, increased engagement, fewer interruptions and a more manageable classroom.
  • Benden's Workshop

    Currently, Benden is helping to develop intelligent, customizable software that can be integrated into stand-capable desks.
  • Supporting Scholarships

    With proceeds from the sale of Stand2Learn to Varidesk, a giant in the field of active workplace products, Benden and his wife, Teresa '88, established an endowed scholarship for students in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.

A Good Fit

Early in his ergonomics studies, Benden realized that designing answers relied on a key question: How do we get things to fit people rather than making people fit things? “When there’s a mismatch,” he said, “bad outcomes are bound to happen.”

For 20 years, he developed answers to this question while developing products for companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Bryan-based Neutral Posture, owned by the Congleton family. When Benden's time at Neutral Posture ended in 2008, his partnership with Congleton continued in a different capacity. Benden had received a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary engineering from Texas A&M two years earlier, and Congleton asked him to join the university’s EOH faculty and co-direct the Ergonomics Center.

By that time, Benden’s interest in ergonomic chair design had been overshadowed by his desire to combat America’s obesity epidemic. “As an undergraduate, I was focused on finding what was wrong and then treating it,” he explained. “I had laser vision. But once those blinders were taken off, I realized the question should instead be: ‘How can I keep people from getting sick in the first place?’

“In the U.S.,” he continued, “we’re great at treating illnesses, but not great at avoiding them. If we keep going down this road, we’ll continue to be focused on sick care rather than on health care.”

Americans are obsessed with weight loss, he said, when instead they should be adopting the kinds of everyday calorie-burning behaviors that will keep them from putting on weight in the first place.

“What’s changed in our culture is the act of daily living,” he said. “We’ve taken away opportunities to stay in motion and replaced them with screen time.”

Benden readily concedes that spending the day in front of a computer isn’t a choice for many people—it’s a job requirement. He therefore considered a way that desks could encourage movement, rather than requiring people to leave their desks in order to move. Users of adjustable, stand-capable desks often forget to raise the desks in order to stand up, while those using immovable standing desks don't sit down. But by adding a footrest-equipped stool to the stationary desk to create a "stand-biased" desk, Benden said, users stand more, move more and burn more calories.

With this new mission of movement in mind, Benden created Positive Motion—his first of two faculty startups. The company’s success in creating standing desk office environments that promoted comfort, health and productivity gains was noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2011, the federal agency approached him about creating a similar design for children.
 

Office Hours with Dr. Benden

You’ve delivered lectures all over the world. What were some of your favorite spots?
“Hong Kong, the National Air and Space Museum in Seattle, and a castle in Scotland are the first ones that come to mind.”
 
Tell us about your military service.
“I was a combat medic in the Army National Guard and a combat engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers. I retired as a first lieutenant.”
 
What do you consider to be your coolest invention?
“I designed something called the Ambicycle after learning about an absence of ambulances in Uganda. It evacuates patients in tight, congested areas. It can fit through a 36-inch door and navigate congested streets, narrow alleyways and sidewalks. The driver sits above the patient. Unfortunately, it costs too much for a developing nation to afford.”
 
What kind of music do you listen to in your workshop?
“I primarily listen to KSBJ, a Christian music station out of Houston.”
 
You’ve designed customized workspaces for a number of noteworthy people. Who were some of them?
“There were many individuals in California: Pamela Anderson, Val Kilmer, corporate CEOs and many recognizable names from the technology industry. But the ones most important to me are the children benefiting from my standing school desks.”
  • The Benefits

    By adding a footrest-equipped stool to stationary desks to create a "stand-biased" desk, users stand more, move more and burn more calories.
  • Designer and Creator

    In addition to his stand-biased desk design, Benden holds 22 U.S. patents for ergonomic, health and industrial products, as well as many other U.S. and international patents pending in other fields. The lifetime value of his inventions is estimated at more than $1 billion.
Benden creates and experiments with many of his designs in his home workshop.

A Positive Outlet for the Wiggles

The rapidly escalating detrimental health effects of a sedentary culture is clearly apparent in American children. High rates of obesity-related diseases like diabetes are skyrocketing, while the ages of those affected are declining at alarming rates.     

Benden therefore readily answered the CDC’s call to tackle this epidemic through the use of stand-biased desks. This effort resulted in a second faculty-led startup called Stand2Learn, the installation of stand-biased desks in 24 College Station elementary classrooms, and CDC grants to study the results.

Findings showed that when given the choice to stand or sit on stools, children stood—and moved—an average of an hour-and-a-half longer per day than they did before the desks were installed.

Specific results revealed that children who used traditional desks over the two-year study showed a 2 percent increase in body mass index (BMI)—a rate typically associated with getting older. Those who used the stand-biased desks, however, averaged a 3 percent drop in BMI, and a 17 to 35 percent increase in calorie burn rates.

The impacts on weight were accompanied by improved academics, increased engagement, fewer interruptions and more manageable classrooms. Since the College Station experiment, Stand2Learn’s stand-biased desk design has been used to produce some 150,000 desks used by more than 300,000 children in classrooms around the world.

 

It’s More than Comfy Chairs

Ergonomics is a broad field that studies human interaction with products, systems and environments. Although the term has become mainstream only in recent years, the science is as old as Thomas Jefferson’s standing desk and as all-encompassing as user-friendly levers in World War II fighter planes.               

Comfortable seating, easy-to-hold medical devices and standing desks all fall under the ergonomics umbrella. In turn, ergonomics play a pivotal role in the overall field of public health—the science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health. As a discipline, public health focuses on providing the kind of education and information needed for individuals, communities and organizations to make informed choices in matters that impact wellness.                              

Established in 1998, the School of Public Health was a founding member of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and is one of the university’s youngest colleges. Its Department of Environmental and Occupational Health focuses on the health effects of contaminants and physical hazards in the environment, home and workplace.

 

Looking Ahead               

Today, in addition to his stand-biased desk design, Benden holds 22 U.S. patents for ergonomic, health and industrial products, as well as many other U.S. and international patents pending in other fields. The lifetime value of his inventions is estimated at more than $1 billion.

Currently, he is helping to develop intelligent, customizable software that can be integrated into stand-capable desks. Not only does the software prompt users to raise and lower the desks, but it also monitors such factors as the number of words the user types per minute, the number of times they click the mouse and where their eyes go on the computer screen. Benden explained that this information creates a unique, digital “fingerprint” of each user in order to determine behavioral changes that can lead to better long-term health outcomes.

On the service front, Benden is lending his expertise at the Reynolds & Reynolds Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School. As an Army veteran and entrepreneur, he offers guidance with such skills as developing a business plan and giving product pitches.              

Last year, Benden sold Stand2Learn to Varidesk, a giant in the field of active workplace products. With the proceeds, he and his wife, Teresa '88, established an endowed scholarship for students in the EOH department. Benden hopes their gift will help finance-strapped, first-generation college students like him afford a university education.

While Benden still cherishes the time he gets to play in his workshop, these days, he also thrives on interacting with students. “The part of teaching that is most rewarding is seeing students develop and grow,” he said. “Hopefully, I’m planting seeds like Dr. Congleton did for me. We have so many brilliant, amazing students. The ability to play just a small role in their story is an incredible blessing.”

Only two decades old, Texas A&M’s School of Public Health does not yet have the legacy donors affiliated with other Texas A&M colleges. As a result, support of its faculty, programs and students—40 percent of whom are first-generation Aggies—is greatly needed. To learn how you can support the school, contact Karen Slater '88 below.

Contact:

Karen Slater '88

Sr. Dir. of Development & Corporate Relations Public Health
Health Science Center