Although certainly not a new trend, interest in the balance ball chair or Swiss ball as an alternative active sitting option for office workers hasn’t waned much over the years. Time and time again, as we are reminded that spending most of the working day glued to a screen is doing our backs little favor, we turn towards several potential quick-fix solutions.
Other examples include a standing desk, the “treadputer”, and any number of expensive ergonomic office furniture. Yet does any of it make a difference? Does the balance ball chair do anything useful for the body, or keep us sitting upright? Or is the real solution both simpler and much less convenient?
The Supposed Balance Ball Chair Pros
The basic premise behind sitting on an balance ball chair during work is that the lack of lumbar support and the unstable, round base forces us to work with our legs and core to keep stable and upright. In doing so, we are naturally more inclined to preserve good posture while forcing stabilizing muscles in the trunk to keep us on top of the ball over the course of a typical 8-hour workday.
The theory is that by doing so, we not only spend less time slouching and sitting in unfavorable positions for hips and spine, but we also make use of our core – thereby taking all the time spent at work and effectively “multitasking” between getting things done and getting a workout. It’s meant to be a win-win – minimizing the trunk position that puts us at a greater risk of pain, while strengthening the muscles.
The only problem is that the evidence to suggest that any of these theories hold water is rather poor. There is no evidence to suggest that sitting on an balance ball chair for a long period of time necessarily improves posture or reduces back pain – provided you can manage to sit on a balance ball chair for a long period of time, which is not a given, as it is especially uncomfortable early on.
What the Science Says
The first serious risk is the risk of injury. Stability balls are inherently unstable, and regardless of what benefit they may confer to strength or balance, their use in an office environment is more a hazard than a potential benefit to worker health and safety.
Aside from the potential of a material failure – such as a stability ball spontaneously giving out – the ball could slip away from a worker as they’re on it, and lead to a fall that may cause or aggravate an existing injury. The relatively low risk of a fall may be offset by the general benefits the ball has for fitness and back strength, but evidence suggests that simply sitting on the ball for long periods of time does not help build any meaningful level of strength, preventative or otherwise.
The risk of injury may be offset by a “ball base” to keep it from rolling around – but this defeats the point of the instability, although it would make it a safer and more comfortable seating option. Furthermore, there are studies that conclude that stability or balance ball chair arrangements do not dramatically alter the way a person sits, but do lead to increased discomfort as a result of minor instability (with no perceived benefits regarding back pain or strength).
Why is that? Why is it that a stability ball does not challenge our muscles enough to effectively combat lower back pain, and why does our posture continually worsen when we’re sitting?
The Big Problem
We always slouch. Regardless of what seating arrangement we ultimately opt for, we always slouch. This is basic human behavior – when we aren’t consciously aware of our body mechanics, we do what is easiest and most comfortable, even if that eventually leads to pain.
Yes, the same goes for stability balls. While we can learn to balance on a balance ball chair, we ultimately curl our tailbone under our spine and hunch forward with our shoulders. Our spine “collapses” (flexing or extending where it should remain neutral).
Normally, this is not a problem. After all, our spine is composed of bony segments with flexible discs in between to allow flexion and extension. However, when we spend hours upon hours in a compromised position, the accumulative stress can lead to pain and breakdown. This is exacerbated by a weakening musculature that cannot comfortably maintain a healthier posture.
Currently, all solutions meant to address posture ultimately stall the inevitable. Back pain because of inactivity cannot be solved with more inactivity and balancing on an unstable ball does not constitute enough stimulus to improve core strength. A simpler, albeit inconvenient fix, would be to institute frequent short breaks from sitting – not from work. Just from sitting.
Less Sitting and More Breaks
People do not work for 8 hours straight – but we do tend to sit for that amount of time, or even longer. We move from thought to thought, get distracted, and have our moments of focus – but plenty of moments where we’re in mental transition between tasks.
Taking the opportunity to find those gaps in time where we aren’t currently focused on the task at hand to simply get up and walk around for a minute or two doesn’t just help reduce back pain without an extra office purchase, but it can help stimulate the mind in those that are more inclined to think and plan on their feet.
A few minutes a day spent walking to and from the bathroom or the watercooler doesn’t undo a sedentary lifestyle, however – and there’s still a place in your life for a balance ball chair. And that place is the gym. Balance ball chair activities can have a marked improvement on core strength and greatly reduce instances of back pain, even in patients with a history of pain.
Resistance exercise can do wonders to help strengthen the muscles responsible for keeping your spine stiff and healthy, but it does not eliminate poor posture, or the effects of posture on the spine and back. If your goal is reduce or eliminate back pain resulting from poor posture, you will want to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting, strengthen your core, and try to pay attention to your posture whenever you remember to.
However, lower back pain can’t always be cured with a more active lifestyle. If your pain is severe, recurring, or has spread to other parts of the body (like the limbs), consult a professional before engaging in any exercise or activity.