One of the most frequently asked questions MoveSafe gets during our Webinars and Ergonomics Assessments, is, “what do we think about ball chairs?” Well that is a loaded question, so here is the loaded answer!
Tl;dr: Ball chairs could have their time and place, but they shouldn’t replace your traditional office chair for an entire 8 hour workday.
What is a ball chair?
A ball chair or balance ball, Swiss ball, exercise ball, or stability ball chair, is a seated solution that has the user sitting on a large exercise ball instead of a traditional office chair. Some people use an exercise ball placed directly on the floor while others invest in a base with wheels. Some of these bases also come with a short backrest that typically only reaches up to the small of the back.
Why do people want to use ball chairs?
Conversations and narratives regarding the negative consequences of sedentary lifestyles are becoming increasingly prevalent in the media. According to the WHO, some of the physiological effects associated with inactive lifestyles include an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure as well as psychological risks such as anxiety and depression.1 One of the leading causes of physical inactivity in adults is increased occupational sedentary behaviours from jobs such as office work.2
This has left many people searching for innovative ways to increase their physical activity while at work. This in turn has led to the rise in popularity of treadmill desks, stationary bike desks, under-desk pedal units and of course ball chairs.
Manufacturers of ball chairs often market these chairs as better seat alternatives because they facilitate better posture and spinal alignment by encouraging active sitting. They claim you can activate and strengthen your core and burn a few extra calories as you sit. But is this true?
Before I even break down the research for you, I want you to think about the last time you sat on a stool, bench, or bleachers that didn’t have a backrest. How long did it take before you started to get uncomfortable? What started to hurt first?
I would bet your answer was along the lines of; within the first hour your back started to hurt with your butt being a close second, especially if the seat wasn’t padded. So why is that?
Do ball chairs help activate your core while seated?
The desired effect of increasing core activation when seated on a stability ball is in direct opposition with the commonly held ergonomic principle that it is best to reduce the overall work required of the trunk muscles when seated for long periods of time.3 Studies have assessed the claim that stability balls promote increased core activation to be unfounded and that the unstable surface of a backless stability ball does not result in an increase in trunk muscle activation when compared to a stable seated surface without a backrest.4
The researchers actually suggested that the lack of a backrest had a greater influence on trunk muscle activation than the stability of the surface did.4 Further to this they found that reports of lower back pain and muscle fatigue were associated with the backless seated solutions in part due to the increased muscle activation when compared to a chair with a backrest.4 But what about the bases that can be purchased that have a short backrest, that should help right?
Unfortunately the answer would still be no. The short backrests that are often included on these chair bases typically only extend up into the lower back which leaves the mid and upper back unsupported. And while you might start out sitting with good posture and neutral spinal alignment, you won’t be able to hold that position for extended periods of time because without support for the upper back many individuals will start to hunch forward and sit with slouchy posture. This happens because the postural muscles in our back begin to fatigue and struggle to keep our surprisingly heavy upper body upright against the force of gravity. This hunched forward posture not only strains the muscles in our backs but it also leads to stress on the back walls of our spinal discs and unequal pressure distribution which could result in disc herniations.
One of the goals of ergonomic chair design has long been to reduce trunk muscle activation and is the reason chair backrests are slightly reclined and contain a lumbar bolster. This slight recline and support for the lower back allows the user to sit back and un-weight the effects of gravity on their spine, thus reducing the pressure on spinal discs and limiting fatigue and discomfort in the postural muscles of the back.
Is there a better alternative?
Even if you have a fantastic ergonomic task chair that has the perfect backrest that allows you to sit with optimal posture, you may still end up with discomfort. That is because the body was designed to move, it doesn’t want to stay in a static position for long periods of time. This desire to move is why we see people fidget at their desk or start to slouch into awkward postures after they have been seated for more than an hour.
Research out of Cornell University, centred primarily around the use and benefits of sit-stand workstations, expressed that frequent movement is key and changes in posture provides the greatest benefit to the body and mind. The researchers recommended that an individual should try to sit for approximately 20 minutes, stand for 8 and move for 2 minutes every half an hour. They further explained that the length of time spent in each position is flexible and the most important aspect of the rule is that the body position is changed often.
MoveSafe consultants usually round these numbers up to sitting for 40-45 minutes, standing for 10-15 and moving around for 5-10 minutes every hour as we feel people will be more compliant with 8 position changes in a workday versus 16. But ultimately, your guide should be your own body. If you are starting to feel uncomfortable or you notice that you are beginning to fidget/slouch, it is time to change positions, regardless of the time!
Not every person has, or wants, a sit-stand desk. Even the researchers noted that it is not always a cost effective solution. This is where the ball chair comes back into play! If you are looking for a way to have a change in posture that doesn’t require a fancy electronic sit-stand desk you could choose to sit on the ball chair for the duration of time that was recommended for standing. Because the ball chairs do not have sufficient back support you will experience the claimed increased trunk muscle activation compared to your traditional office chair but you will be using it for short enough durations that you will not use the muscles to the point of fatigue. It can be a win-win!
Alternatively, if you are an individual who doesn’t like to sit still or prefers the feeling of muscle activation due to an unstable surface, you can try using a balance disc. A balance disc is a flat, thin, inflatable cushion that can be placed onto your existing office chair. It can allow you to get the small amount of desired movement while still providing you the support of your chair backrest. You will still need to get up and change your position frequently as this is not a substitute for movement!
To round it all out!
A ball chair can be used as an alternative seated solution for short periods of the day, but you should not use a ball chair as your dedicated office chair as the negative effects far outweigh the perceived benefits. You need to have an office chair that fits you and supports the entirety of your back. Check out our articles on Features To Look For In A Home Office Chair and Anatomy Of A Chair to help you find the right chair for you!