Many of us spend the majority of our professional lives sitting, which makes the office chair an all-important piece of furniture. Lately mine hasn’t been cutting it, so as an experiment, I swapped my chair with an exercise ball. Here’s what’s been great about it, what’s been less than perfect, and what you might want to consider if you’re interested in switching to an exercise ball as your office chair.
Purported Benefits of an Exercise Ball as a Chair
I don’t have one of those $500+ Herman Miller ergonomic chairs, but do have a lumbar support roll for my desk chair, which is sized small enough for my frame so I fit comfortably in it and everything is measured for ergonomic workstation perfection (as best as I could manage, at least). But, maybe it’s my increased awareness of the health hazards of sitting all day or just the years catching up with me, but this regular chair isn’t working so great. Lately I’ve been catching myself standing up to type in bouts of nervous energy or, worse, slouching. My neck and shoulders perpetually ache. Frankly, my butt hurts.
My alternatives were to adopt a standing desk or a treadputer or try a more ergonomically-designed Aeron or similar chair (like a good pair of shoes and a quality mattress, it’s the everyday things that are worth investing in). Being both a yoga lover and a cheapskate, I decided to first try out this exercise ball chair for about $125.
Besides being much cheaper than buying a new desk or a more expensive chair, the exercise ball chair promised to allow me to work in some abdominal exercise throughout the day and possibly improve my years-of-working-slumped-at-a-desk posture.
This is what Isokinetics, the makers of the chair I bought, say about it:
Your body, when positioned on top of an exercise ball, is constantly making small adjustments, often imperceptible, to remain balanced and thus is constantly exercising a large group of muscles in doing so. By strengthening your body’s core muscle group you help improve your posture, have better balance and guard against back injuries.
What Health Experts Say About Exercise Balls as Chairs
The medical community, however, is at best inconclusive about the health benefits or disadvantages of using an exercise ball as an office chair. I found two case studies of patients with low back pain whose conditions improved after consistently using the gym ball, but, on the other hand, The New York Times reports that claims of exercise balls improving posture are also lacking in evidence (and disadvantages regarding spinal shrinkage may offset the increased muscle activity). The folks at Ergonomics Today are flat-out against ball chairs as office chairs, primarily for safety reasons (the potential for air collapse and the instability, partially due to the ball rolling away — something the ball base in my particular chair does away with).
Jeremy Vigneault, a physical therapist at the Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic at the University of Connecticut, told me that “there is really nothing overly good nor bad per se about the exercise ball chair”, noting that this type of setup doesn’t offer any lumbar (lower back) support and it does take practice to maintain a good sitting posture on it. He pointed out that most chairs, of any kind, try to exploit posture and back health as their key selling points, when really the perfect chair doesn’t exist — it’s more about practicing “good posture”.
Chad Garvey, a physical therapist, manual therapist, and patient advocate, also said there’s not much evidence for these fitness balls reducing lower back pain and just advised me not to fall, as that’s the main concern that’s been reported with this type of chair.
I was just glad no one told me sitting on an exercise ball chair was going to kill me.
If you have back pain or another health condition or if you’re the least bit concerned, definitely check with your doctor before attempting this kind of setup. If you decide to proceed, as I did, here’s what you’ll likely experience:
What It’s Like to Sit on an Exercise Ball All Day
The first time you sit on an exercise ball at your desk, your back will probably shoot up so straight you’ll feel like a marionette. If you’re like me, this will be a foreign, even delightful experience (oh, that’s what it’s like?). Twenty minutes later, if you’re like me, your butt will hurt and you will switch back to your regular chair which will feel mushy by comparison.
After a couple more days of this, you may find yourself sitting on the exercise ball chair for much longer periods of time. (A week later, I spend the majority of my day on the exercise ball chair, but still take lots of breaks and occasionally switch back to the old chair.)
Some pleasant things:
- You can bounce on the chair when a nice song comes on.
- You can bounce on the chair in frustration while waiting for a browser page to reload.
- If you’re a kinesthetic/tactile learning type, bouncing on the ball might stimulate your thinking.
- Whenever you need a good stretch, just lean slightly back or to the side as needed.
- Exercise on the spot. The Isokinetics manual provided some sample fitness ball exercises you could do at the desk.
- One person found a rather unique advantage of the bouncy ball chair, for women at least (warning, NSFW), though Tim Ferriss points out a potential problem for men.
Some less pleasant things:
- Although you can buy height adjusters for this particular chair, depending on your setup, the ball may be too low or too high in relation to your monitor and keyboard. You may need to adjust your whole workstation.
- You can’t really just lean back on this chair and relax.
- If you bounce too much you may get a headache.
- The ball can get sticky in warm weather.
After a little over a week of using the chair, it’s impossible to tell if it’s helping to increase my core strength, as I hope it will, but I do feel like I walk and sit much taller than I used to and can sit for longer periods of time. If it’s only that I’m more aware of my posture, that’s fine — in my book, the ball is doing its job. Plus, I now have another outlet for some creative nervous energy, am sneaking in some extra (albeit minuscule, in terms of calorie-burning) exercise, and my butt doesn’t hurt anymore — what more could I ask for?
If you’ve tried using an exercise ball instead of an office chair or have any opinions on these alternative chairs, share your thoughts with us in the comments.
The article has been edited since its initial publication.