April 11th, 2005

Opinion: Balls as Office Chairs a Bad Idea

Share this:TwitterLinkedInEmailFacebookPinterestGoogle+tumblrReddit

As your mother used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And when someone tells you that a $19 ball will solve all of your back pain issues, you ought to be suspicious. And when they have the audacity to label that ball "ergonomic," you should know better.

The use of ball chairs (or FitBalls, Swiss Balls, Physio Balls, Exercise Balls, and any other name they may go by) are recognizable in your local gym or physical therapy shop, but lately, they are appearing in the workplace as a replacement for an office chair. Below are a variety of opinions that have been shared among members of the Ergoweb community

According to Jeanie Croasmun, writing in The Ergonomics Report™:

The intent of the ball chair developers was laudable: to take an item that seems to be beneficial in an area of health care (rehabilitation and strengthening/wellness) and apply the same principle to the office. But just like a hammer might be a valuable tool for some tasks (hanging a picture), in others (washing dishes) it’s useless or may do more harm than good.

The exercise ball might be great for strengthening and toning in the gym or at home, but it can’t compete with a truly ergonomic chair for long-term sitting in an office environment.

And Jeff Pajot, writing from Canada, in the Ergoweb Forum:

Exercise balls are not recommended for prolonged office sitting.

  • Sitting on the exercise balls with no trunk support and the constant trunk movement certainly does activate trunk musculature and therefore aids in maintaining muscle tone. However, since the muscles shorten during contraction, there is a huge compression placed on the intervertebral discs. Prolonged compression is contraindicated, especially during sitting since the pelvis is rotated forward which flattens the lumbar lordosis adding a further compressive penalty to the discs.
  • I don't know if it is published, but Dr. Stuart McGill (University of Waterloo) told me that the EMG in all trunk musculature goes through the roof while sitting on the exercise balls. In particular, the Quadratus Lumborum muscle is highly active and it places a high compressive force on the discs.
  • A modified version of the exercise ball is the"Swopper Chair". It is a stool with a weighted concave base. So, while sitting on it, you are a little off balance like the exercise balls. Like the exercise balls, the trunk musculature is highly activated. I was asked by a local distributor to perform a quick evaluation of the Swopper chair and I sent a response indicating a risk to back injury with prolonged use.
  • Furthermore, in the morning since the spine is elongated due to lying down for eight hours after sleeping and the intervertebral disc space is larger, the spine is much more unstable. Lifting and excessive spinal movement in the first couple of hours in the morning is not recommended. Therefore, an exercise ball or similar device should probably not be used first thing in the morning.

 

John Ridd (UK), in the Ergoweb Forum:

In a consultant capacity I have and would recommend against allowing these into the workplace – other than when there has been a specific (and probably written) request from a medic/physio or the like. Apart from the spinal risks already mentioned there are general health and safety risks to consider; the potential for injury, if the user were to become so unbalanced as to fall off the ball is enormous, and I can only imagine the awkward questions that might be asked after such an event. In the UK, one of the criteria that office seating has to satisfy, is that it should be 'stable'!

In another post Ridd continues:

I'm sure the rehabilitation benefits of these balls are significant and one always has to be careful of questioning the advice of an individual's treating professional; however, my non-clinical experience has been that the described benefits do not outweigh the potential causes of concern for the use of these products in the office environment, and that in general I agree with your view that a good office chair is likely be more appropriate. There are too many possible dangers for the user and for colleagues in normal office situations; it does not need an ergonomist to describe the effects of any loss of balance.

Shona Anderson (Canada), in the Ergoweb Forum:

I have had many questions about Ball Seats or "FitBalls" over the years … In my opinion, they are good for short periods of time, while the person can maintain a neutral spine and strengthen his muscles while maintaining balance. However, many people fatigue quickly and then they slump or change their posture to one which is not as good for the spine. At this time, I believe they need to switch to a chair that offers them good back support until their muscles are no longer fatigued and then they can switch back to the ball.

David MacFarlane (Australia), in the Ergoweb Forum:

There was an interesting discussion about this topic in the Aus Ergo discussion forum last year that was very illuminating for people like myself who have had little experience of the “gymnastic-ball” chair phenomenon. We were basically told that they can be used for therapeutic purposes with adequate supervision but rehab advisors said that when they are often asked to support the use of a fit ball as a chair replacement, they have usually declined for the following reasons:

  • You can slump as easily on a fit ball as a chair
  • The balls have a tendency to roll out form under the person as they sit or stand
  • Fit balls are not height adjustable potentially and this can result in poor upper body postures
  • For dynamic work tasks an additional consideration is the instability of the balls as inappropriate postures can result (and there is a risk of losing balance and falling off).

 

Andrew L. Concors (USA), in the Ergoweb Forum:

As both a PT (as physio are referred to here) and ergonomist I'd have to recommend against the use of the ball exclusively, primarily for safety reasons. First, the fitball is not primarily designed to be a sitting surface while chairs are. I've had one patient's ball burst on her while performing exercises at home. Secondly, the balls have a tendency to roll even when placed in a ring, causing a potential for the employee or co-workers to trip and fall. Without a specific reason beside the one given and research to back it up I would consider the recommendation as "armchair ergonomics" (no pun intended) given by a well intentioned healthcare practitioner. That being said, the ball may be an option for short-term use and a very inexpensive one at that (they can be purchased for as little as 10 euros). I hope this helps,

And I wrote, in the Ergoweb Forum:

  • They are not ergonomic seating devices (e.g., they have no user operated adjustments).
  • A ball is inherently unstable, and therefore introduces a safety hazard in the workplace.
  • Using a ball to strengthen abdominal and other trunk muscles, often the reason for which they are touted, is best done under the guidance and direct supervision of a medical professional.
  • As an employer and in my consulting activities, I would only allow one for workplace use with written directions or prescription from a qualified medical professional (even then I would remain concerned with liability).
  • The people who seem most enthusiastic about their use and efficacy are often those that are selling or promoting them, not the users who end up sitting on one for 8 or more hours a day.
  • There are other chair designs that may accomplish the same posture and trunk toning goals as the ball, but also provide adjustability and stability (two important features for something to be deemed "ergonomic").

 

So, for all the good they may do in the local health club or physical therapy shop, you might want to think twice before outfitting your office with these inexpensive “miracle cure” devices. They can offer certain advantages when used for a prescribed period of time in a controlled use environment, but they likely present more risks than they’re worth when used as an office chair.



Comments

  1. […] ball as a chair, be aware that ergonomic experts discourage this: They’ve found that an exercise ball chair offers no trunk support, which results in compression on the spine. Finally, make sure you are set […]

  2. John Monahan says:

    Interesting discussion. I guess the bottom line is different solutions for different people. From what I gather, standing is good for some neck/back issues and stand-up desks work great.

    That's the case for me – I started standing at work (and while working at home) and it's been a remarkable difference! You don't need to start with an expensive desk, just a simple box or two. In my case I used 4 cases of empty Yuengling bottles stacked 2 x 2! Laugh if you want but they're the PERFECT height and even gives room for my mouse and a notepad.

  3. Ronald Wagner says:

    I am an RN and a kayaker and 66 years old. I have had lumbar lordosis all my life. I am have had pain in my ischial protuberences from chairs. Strengthening the “core” is helpful for relieving problems with lumbar lordosis related back pain. The exercise ball greatly reduces pressure on the ischial protuberences and allows many different positions of sitting. It also can be used for various exercise moves while seated. Many sitting positions can be used. The feet and calves can be used to stabilize the ball. The ball is also a great kayak training exercise for balance and core strengthening. The core is the main area that is used in kayak paddling.

  4. Bob Bridger says:

    I once did a trial of these balls. In fact, they were no worse than the average office chair: see:
    Bridger RS, Kloote C, Rowlands B, Fourie, G. 2000. Palliative interventions for sedentary low back pain: the kneeling chair, the physiotherapy ball and conventional ergonomics compared. Proceedings of HFES/IEA 2000 organised by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the International Ergonomics Association, San Diego,California: 5-87

  5. Bruce Arkwright, Jr. says:

    The idea of the ball rolling from out of under the user is easily solved. Bring in your kettlebells, you only need two, place one in front and one in the back. Kettlebells are tall and round, no edges to puncher with, the ball actually grips the KBs when up against it, there is no moving it or the ball, you can keep them up tight or spread apart a little so there is room to roll back and forth. I use my 8 kg and 12 kg KBs. Now I can also do a quick KB workout at the desk on the ball. Love my new workout ‘seat’.

  6. Peter Budnick says:

    I recently came across this well written blog post from someone who has figured out how to effectively integrate a ball into a sit-to-stand workstation. The key is that she has introduced adjustability / flexibility into her workstation. With this set-up, she can independently adjust keyboard/mouse height and monitor height (making up for the lack of ergonomics/adjustments available from a ball alone). This way, she can improve ergonomics for either sitting or a standing work. Take a look:
    http://blog.melchua.com/2011/07/09/fitting-yourself-a-sit-to-stand-desk/

    Disclaimer: She includes a link to the ergobuyer.com store, where she purchased some of the adjustable equipment, which is what alerted me to her blog.

  7. Peter Budnick says:

    NeilWhyte,

    Attacking the messenger is highly unproductive, in this case and most others. Please review the facts surrounding this question, which is: "are balls ‘ergonomic’ seating devices", not "might a ball reduce my back pain or be a good fitness tool." And feel free to share the "mountain(s) of scientific evidence" you refer to … also, you forgot to mention that you have a significant financial interest in the sale and use of balls for fitness purposes, a concern I referred to in my original article.

    DaveFullerton,

    Congratulations on finding relief for your particular type of back pain. I too experience sciatica, but after testing a ball as a chair, I did not find relief, and ended up experiencing other postural concerns because I couldn’t get the rest of my workstation adjusted to properly accommodate my sitting height while on a ball.

    MikeNettles,

    Thanks much for sharing the link to the Canadian Chiropractor’s case studies. Rather than a view "from the other side," they actually support my point that balls can be effective fitness or treatment tools under the guidance of healthcare providers, but they are not necessarily an ergonomic device, as one of the two patients, and the chiropractor, learned.

     

  8. Neil Whyte says:

    This article reminds me of two things. It’s like trying to suggest that taking pharmaceutical drugs is a healthier option in the long term than natural organic food and or natural healing. Secondly, as Einstein said " If you keep doing the same thing over and over, how do you expect the results to be any different."

    The respondents to this article are the more genuine humans and know more about the science of healthy sitting than the perpetrator of the article and many ergonomic specialists. So who is the real scientist?

    On the contrary, there is a mountain of evidence supporting the health benefits of sitting on a ball as opposed to the mountain of evidence to support why sitting on conventional chairs is unhealthy. I am a multiple Swiss ball world record holder on Swiss balls, researcher and fitness specialist. I have found people in the fields of ‘ergonomic’ to be out of date and fail to even comprehend basic body science or basic body mechanics.

    IT IS FAR MORE NATURAL FOR A HUMAN TO SIT ON A BALL THAN IT IS TO SIT ON A CONVENTIONAL STATIC CHAIR, PERIOD.The difference is we are blocked from conventional wisdom and resistance to change.

  9. Dave Fullerton says:

    Testimony: 8 Years of relief from sitting on the ball 8 hours a day, 5 days a week! I have sciatica – caused by sitting in an office chair. After much suffering and distress someone suggested the ball. I can sit as much as I want without aggravating the sciatic nerve! Yes, there may be some compression of the discs, but in my case, sitting on the ball must produce some counter compression that actually corrects a bulge in one of my discs. No, it is not a cure, but at least I am able to function again.

  10. Joachim Vedder says:

    As a frequent user of a ball to sit on and having the luxury of a height-adjustable desk allowing me to stand while working (and as an ergonomist), I would like make the comment that too often we are too focussed on just one issue, trying to look for a quick and easy fix.
    My experience shows me that we have to address this issue in a “holistic” way:
    1) After years of discussions and research which posture is the best, I now tell others: The best posture is the next posture. I.e. standing for 8 hours is bad, sitting for 8 hours is bad, bouncing on a ball for 8 hours is bad. But changing between them frequently is good – at least for me.
    2) If “sitting” is identified as the cause for lower back problems this diagnosis may fall short. I had LBP frequently, although I tried to sit correctly. Exercising helped but did not solve the issue. When it got real bad two years ago I consulted a physiotherapist. The first thing he did was taking photos from me. Then he connected my eyes, my shoulders, my chest, my hips, my knees, with lines. For the first time I saw that only the lines between my knees and eyes were parallel to the ground. My right hip was up, my right chest and shoulders were down, compensating for that. No wonder I had back pain. The next step was trying to find the reason why my right hip was “up”. It took us less than 10 minutes to find the reason. I always carried my wallet in my right back pocket. So I was sitting on an extra two centimeters of money and credit cards, in the office, in my car, everywhere. Over the years my hips and my back had adjusted to that. I now carry my wallet in my front pocket – and after some PT exercise and a couple of weeks my back pain was completely gone. It never came back.
    Conclusion: make sure to identify the real reason behind LBP. It is not always the chairs….
    3) Back pain while standing? Take a footstool and put one foot on it. That helps a lot – most counters in bars have a metal rail for that. It helps their business if customers can stand there longer…
    4) Exercise helpful or not? Looking at my athletic 17 yr-old son, I know without any research that our bodies were made for movement, for “exercising”. The more we move, the better. The less static we are, the better. I have yet to find a physician who does not agree with that. The problem is that most of us (including ergonomists) are looking for the easy fix. It reminds me of a cartoon about a miracle lotion against cellulite. The instructions said: First apply thoroughly every day, then run 10 miles. The point is: If I work 12 hours per day in front of my PC, go home (sitting in my car), and then spend the evening (sitting) in front of my TV, then the best chair, the best desk and the best ergonomics program in my office will not help.

    If one has a problem with back pain, first find the real reason, then eliminate that reason. And then change the way that person is using his or her back. Changing the chair to a ball will not be enough.

  11. Peter Budnick says:

    HaberB,

    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to this discussion. We’ve published a great deal about the concerns with sitting you mention (e.g., search for ‘sitting’ in our keyword search). Some of the articles are reserved for our paid subscribers, but many are freely accessible. You’ll also find discussions about these types of topics in our Forums discussion area.

    We’ve also written about and discussed standing workstations, treadmill workstations, and more about using balls as chairs.

    The fact that ergonomists may argue that a particular product is not "ergonomically designed" doesn’t necessarily imply that it has no potential health benefits. Instead, it’s a reflection of the complexity of the problem, which is back pain in this case. Not all back pain is the same, and something that helps one person may hurt another. And back pain is only one of the potential health concerns we consider. Further, health and safety is only part of the picture — we also consider productivity, error making and other performance metrics. In ergonomics, we view things from a system perspective (e.g., chair, desk, computer and input accessories, etc.), and the reality is that using a ball as a chair reduces the likelihood that someone will be able to achieve an effective workstation set-up.

  12. Peter Budnick says:

    Yes, I am the founder of ergobuyer.com. But, you’ll note that Ergobuyer does not sell chairs … so I fail to see the point Vincent Andrews is trying to make. Further, ergobuyer.com was not even a store at the time this article was written in 2005. Furthermore, this article is a compilation of opinions that have been expressed by international ergonomics experts and researchers — I merely compiled it and added my own thoughts.

    Ergonomists are careful to review the scientific evidence for "ergonomically designed" claims, and no matter how many anecdotal experiences there might be, the evidence to support balls as a replacement for ergonomic office chairs just doesn’t exist.

    Does that mean you won’t find relief for your particular back pain by trying one? Absolutely not — you very well might — under certain conditions. I found some relief when I experimented with one. However, as with many things, you will also encounter unintended consequences, and may find entirely new problems that appear after you try using a ball as a chair for extended periods of time. Even a highly adjustable chair does not create an ergonomic workstation by itself, and that’s the underlying point ergonomists know to be true. Using a ball instead of a chair makes it even harder to create an ergonomic workstation.

    Rather than slinging mud and spewing venom, how about discussing the evidence? That’s what we foster here at ergoweb.com. If you search around this site you’ll find more discussions and articles on this topic. If you visit the link to Cornell Universtiy, provided by Mike Beekman, below, you’ll find more. And if you research Michelle Pirritano’s suggestion that the Mayo Clinic "reccommends swapping your chair for a ball at the office," you’ll find that that’s not really their recommendation; that the suggestion is not based on scientific evidence; that the suggestion comes with caveats; and that the suggestion is offered by a medical doctor, not an ergonomist. (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/back-pain-relief/AN01834).

  13. vincent andrews says:

    Considering that Peter Budnick is the “Founder” of an ergonomic office supply online retailer, this “article” is a PR hit piece and nothing more. And I thought the same thing as the other readers here when I read the statement “the potential for injury if the user falls off the ball is enormous” is completely ridiculous! If you are here for information about exercise balls as office chairs, do not listen to a word this guy says and get your information elsewhere.

  14. Andrew Cichosz says:

    Well Carolyn, it seems you’ve solved the entire reason everybody has back pain. You may want to publish your findings. Couldn’t possibly be the weight loss had an effect on your back pain. No science on either side but you can’t rely on anecdotal evidence only.

  15. Michelle Pirritano says:

    The Mayo Clinic reccommends swapping your chair for a ball at the office. What’s that about no research???

  16. Mike Beekman says:

    Well the title of the article does indicate “OPINION”. Here is a citation to a couple of actual research projects.

    http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/cuBallChairs.html

  17. Carolyn Ridge says:

    ok, I had to register just to post this…
    First off if your back hurts the reason in your abdominals are to weak to carry your weight and is putting strain on your back thus making is ache. By sitting on the ball, your abs are constantly working. I sit 8 hours a day on my ball and my back pian has been completely relieved. not to mention the weight I have lost by not changing anything but how I spend my time sitting all day. The whole statement about falling off of the ball.. HAHAHA! I work on the eigth floor of my building but they don’t tell me I can’t take the stairs because there is a chance I will fall down them… Trust me the two foot fall to the floor is not going to kill you even if you do goof and fall off the ball. I have no idea why these people a trying to slander the stability ball as an office chair, but try it and see for yourself. It’s $10 at Target, and TOTALLY worth it!

  18. Esteban Paredes says:

    I love how there isn’t a single comment against the use of the yoga ball as an office chair.
    So if no one has done research to back up the benefits, you are going to dismiss all the personal positive experiences people had with the ball.. The arguments made in the article seem very silly and unscientific.. basically they’re saying that there hasn’t been enough research to conclude the benefits and yet they allow themselves to go ahead and claim that the swiss ball is dangerous without any scientific research!

  19. Ben Miller says:

    This article proudly brought to you by the Guild of Extremely Expensive Orthopedic Chair Manufacturers and Salesmen.

  20. Katrina Mayes says:

    As a future chiropractor (I graduate in six months) I would definitely recommend the ball chairs for many patients. However, you have to go through a “break-in period” to allow your body to get used to the extra work…using muscles that most people don’t realize are there! It is also important to be at the proper height, so having a base with adjustable height (wheels) is a good idea. It is always best to discuss a change like this with a professional to make sure there is no reason you shouldn’t use it or how to modify its use if necessary, but if you go it alone make sure to listen to your body…change chairs when you start to get achy or sore. No matter what chair you are sitting in, the best thing you can do is GET UP AND MOVE every 1-2 hours — we aren’t meant to be so still!

  21. J Lyons says:

    After being diagnosed with 4 (very painful) bulging discs, I opted to try non-surgical options before moving to more extreme remedies. It took a week or so before I could comfortably sit on the ball for 8-10 hours. You do fire muscle sets that are not accustomed to being active for long periods of time. My core muscles are stronger, posture is better and most of all back pain is significantly reduced. It may not be for everyone, but it certainly has worked for me. Falling off & instability?, these are probably the same people that have problems sitting on a conventional chair :-). As a senior executive for a progressive software company, my sitting on the ball has opened up alternative options for my employees (back pain or not). Remember: Life at work is as important as life outside of work.

  22. Blair Rushton says:

    I sat on one for 3 years after using it for physical therapy to help with severe back pain… at first i would switch back and forth but soon could sit all day. my office made me get rid of it and got me an ergonomic chair… i started having pain again a few months ago. At times it would be difficult to walk and i was excruciating pain all day… I brought the ball back in… I sit on it all day my pain is gone. My Dr. has given me a note. I am hoping my office will let me keep it… The instability concerns are ridiculous. I wonder if the people raising them have even sat on a ball. If someone feels unstable– then they shouldn’t use the ball. an aside… I will be 48 next month… my butt looks better than it did in my 20′s!

  23. Timothy Lee says:

    My experience has been that my balance ball, perched on a non-slip stool so as to serve as a chair, suffices for awhile; say, 1-2 hours. Then I get tired, start slumping, and have to switch to a regular office chair. When I get fatigued in the regular chair after another hour or two, then I switch back to the ball. The exercise ball as chair has helped my back greatly, but I can’t sit on it for more than a few hours straight, at a time.

  24. A Bertnoi says:

    I agree with John. And I encourage people to read real research and results. I found some here on the swopper chair. How can you argue with all the people that say they no longer throw out their back? The mumbo jumbo about sitting on a ball or stool increasing pressure on your back dramatically sounds plain silly….sorry. Our bodies suffer from lounging on soft couches, sitting in comfy desk chairs. we are getting soft and as a result back pain and problems are rampant.

  25. molly preato says:

    I have always been athletic, but a month ago I got out of the hosptial due to 3 bulging discs. I am an Interpreter for the Deaf and one job is sitting making phone calls. I love the yoga ball. It is awesome, core building and increases circulation. After working for 7-8 hours in an expensive ergonomic chair, when I start to fade, I will swith to the ball and I get my second wind. I disagree with the fearful hype above. People have fallen off, but people have stubbed their toes before. So THEY should not use it, however, most, non-obese people would benifit. Plus it’s VERY handy to do a couple of stretches with during breaks. Wonderful. My husband just bought me a >$200 “ball-chair” with a frame for Christmas. Honestly, shhhhhhh, I’m not sure if I like it compared to the $18 yoga ball.

  26. John Wilkins says:

    Don’t believe the hype (or the non-hype). I experienced excruciating back pain for years. I’ve been sitting on a ball ($18) now for over 5 years, and the pain and instances of “throwing my back out” have disappeared. Completely. If you have back pain, definitely try it for awhile. It took me a couple of days to get used to, but it became second nature. The above concern for “the potential for injury, if the user were to become so unbalanced as to fall off the ball is enormous” is ridiculous. I’ve never been close to falling off the ball. During that time, I’ve seen several people fall sideways or backwards in their chairs. And see the above example of the alternative chair design, which “provides adjustability” (so does the ball, by inflating and deflating) “and stability” (there’s definite high stability and balance with the ball). The price of this alternative is $1,000!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.