Exercise Ball Chairs - A Great Idea Or A Gimmick

​Exercise ball chairs are the new fad when it comes to keeping your back healthy while sitting behind your desk. But are they any good? 

​Now as someone with a bad back you've probably used an exercise or balance ball before. 

Whether that was on a visit to the physio or at the local gym they can be really helpful for keeping your back pain at bay. 

This is because they are great at working and strengthening your core muscles as well as improving your balance​. 

Which provides your back with extra support and reduces muscle strain and tension by keeping your body balanced so that the load is spread evenly. 

So if you could also get these benefits while sitting behind your desk that'd be a great thing right?​

Because sitting down for a couple of hours or more each day can spell big trouble for your back. 

​And this is a big problem as unfortunately in the modern world many people are forced to do this as part of their jobs. 

So this is where the concept of the exercise ball chair was conceived.​

​They work on the concept of active sitting rather than sitting dormant in a regular office chair.

By keeping your core muscles activated​ while sitting on the exercise ball you can prevent them from weakening so your back will remain supported.

And by constantly having to work to keep yourself balanced and upright you can develop a healthy sitting posture too.​

Sounds good right? But do they actually work?

Read on to find out.​

Why Does Sitting Cause Back Pain?

If you have to sit down for a few hours each day then unfortunately you are at risk of developing lower back pain.

​And there are 3 reasons for this:

1. Compressed Vertebrae​

In between each of the vertebrae in your spine is a spinal disc that is vital for keeping your back healthy and able to function well.

Keep your spinal discs healthy to ward off back pain.

They provide your spine with support, help with it's little movements, and absorb the shocks that come as you move around.​

So it's crucial that you keep your spinal discs healthy if you want a pain-free back.

The problem is that to stay healthy these discs need you to be moving around.

Beca​use this is when they expand and contract and are able to take in the blood, oxygen and nutrients they need.

However when you are sitting down ​your discs become squeezed and compressed.

Which means they can't take in what they need to stay healthy and they weaken over time.

​And this deterioration is bad news.

As it leads to a loss of flexibility in the spine, less protection, and more pain and discomfort.

2. Weakened Core Muscles

The muscles in your core and trunk help to support and protect your lower back as you go about your daily business.

So one of the best ways to stay pain free is to keep these muscles flexible and strong with regular stretching and exercise.

​However when you are sat down these muscles remain inactive.

And if you sit for hours each day this can lead to them both weakening and tightening up.

Which means​ that your back receives less support and gets put under even more pressure and strain.

Leaving you in more pain and discomfort.

3. Sitting in an Unhealthy Posture

​Many people get into bad habits when it comes to sitting and one of the worst is sitting with a bad posture.

Whether that is by slouching, rounding the shoulders, leaning forward, or just perching at an awkward angle this can be a disaster.

That's gonna hurt eventually!

As it will add pressure and strain onto your lower back ​which is all you need when you're already struggling with compressed vertebrae and weakening core muscles!

​And it's not just your back that suffers as poor posture can also cause you pain in your neck and shoulders too.

Which gives you a great reason to learn how to improve your sitting posture.

And this is something sitting in an exercise ball chair can help you with.​

For more info on why prolonged sitting causes back pain click here.​

The Benefits Of Using An Exercise Ball Chair

So what do you get from using an exercise ball chair that you don't from using a regular office chair?

There are a few things but the biggest advantage is that you are engaging in active sitting.​

This means your body remains constantly active.

As it has to make minor adjustments to keep you balanced and upright unlike in regular chairs where your muscles remain inactive.

And the designers of exercise ball chairs claim this can have a really positive impact on the health of your back.​

Here are a few reasons why:​

Your Muscles Remain Active

The main advantage of using an exercise ball chair over a regular office chair is that your core muscles remain active as you use it.

​This is because you have to engage your core to stay upright rather than relying on the back of your chair.

And keeping these muscles engaged and active prevents them from weakening which keeps your back better supported.

​Your leg muscles will also be working more than they would in a regular chair.

And this can stop your hips and hamstrings from tightening up as they do while sitting in a regular chair which is another big plus for your back.​

So great news both in and out of the chair.

It's Easier to Sit Up Straight

Actually maybe that title is a bit misleading because the first time you try and sit on an exercise ball chair it will probably feel strange and awkward.

And your muscles will have to work harder to hold you upright which they definitely won't like to start with.

But at the same time it will encourage you to sit up straight.

You don't need to go to spirit level extremes here!

This is because you are constantly having to balance yourself as you sit.​

And this forces you to sit up straight which helps to keep your spine in proper alignment.​

However don't sit up too straight as this posture can also add pressure onto your lower back.

Instead aim to maintain a healthy 'S' shaped curve in your spine as you sit.​

It Can Improve your Posture and Balance

Another positive of your body having to constantly balance itself to stay upright on your exercise ball chair is that it will improve your balance in general.

All that practice you get every day will retrain your muscles to keep you better balanced when standing and walking too.

And a balanced body is a healthy one.

Your posture will also naturally improve as you get used to sitting up straight and your core muscles strengthen.​

And having a good posture is brilliant for taking the pressure off your lower back and reducing the load on it.​

Your Circulation Increases

Keeping your blood flowing around your body is vital for keeping muscles, tissues and organs healthy and functioning.

However when you are sat down in a traditional chair this is a problem.

Because circulation to your lower limbs gets restricted.

And this can cause a tightening of the muscles as well as aches and pains.

Keep your blood circulating to keep your muscles healthy.

The good news is that sitting on an exercise ball chair won't restrict your circulation in this way and will help to keep the blood flowing as it should.​

This is because you are constantly changing positions in it as you sit and your muscles are staying active.​

And this will help you to keep back pain at a minimum.​

You Burn More Calories

Burning a few extra calories as you sit is always going to be a bonus right?

​Well one study found that sitting on an exercise ball will do just that.

When they compared office workers sitting on normal chairs to those sitting on an exercise ball they found that those on the latter were burning an extra 4 calories per hour.

​Which granted doesn't sound like a lot but it adds up over the weeks and months.

And this was just for static sitting.

You'll have the tendency to bounce and move about more on an exercise ball chair so the actual calories burnt will probably be higher than this in reality.​

So it's one good reason to feel less guilty about eating that donut for elevenses.​

Get stuck in!

You Can Bounce on Your Chair!

​Ok, time for some serious talk now.

Sitting on an exercise ball chair is fun!

It brings out the child you in as you're reminded of memories of bouncy castles, space hoppers and freedom from mortgage payments and nightmare bosses.

These things were fun right?

And you'll find that the temptation to bounce on your chair regularly during the day will be too strong to resist.

Which is a great thing.

​As not only is it a good way to keep your muscles active and engaged.

It's also a great way to relieve stress and tension.

And it can also help you to get your blood circulating to your legs and burn a few more calories too.

So don't be frightened to release your inner child when you're sat on your exercise ball chair as it's good for both your body and soul.​

It's Way Cheaper Than Buying an Ergonomic Office Chair

​Now I'm a massive fan of using an ergonomic office chair if you spend a few hours every day sat behind a computer screen

​This is because they are fully adjustable, supportive, comfortable and make maintaining a healthy sitting posture so much easier.

A good ergonomic chair is a great way to keep your back healthy when sitting.

However they don't come cheap.

In fact they can put a serious dent in even the healthiest of budgets.

So ​if you want a cheaper alternative then an exercise ball chair could work out well for you.

They are obviously missing some of the benefits of the ergonomic chairs.

But at a fraction of the price you still get a chair that can help you to reduce back pain and improve posture.​

However if you do start to feel the benefits of your new exercise ball chair don't be overly smug about it.

As no-one wants to work next to this guy!​

The Cons Of Using An Exercise Ball Chair

​Ok exercise ball chairs may be sounding good right now after reading through that list of benefits.

However it's not all good news.​

Because while exercise ball chairs can bring you many benefits they are not going to work for everyone.

And they​ even have their critics that argue whether they are actually helpful for your back at all.

But more of that in the next section.

First let me run through some of the downsides of using an exercise ball chair.​

They Can Feel Uncomfortable At First

​When you try and fix your sitting posture it can be really difficult and uncomfortable.

This is because your body gets so used to sitting in a slouched and unhealthy posture that when you straighten yourself up it can feel really weird at first.

And this effect is magnified when using an exercise ball chair.

Because not only are you changing your posture, you are also going from sitting in a chair with relaxed muscles to an active form of sitting.

And trust me your muscles won't like this extra work at first!​

So your first few attempts at sitting in one will probably feel very awkward and uncomfortable.

And you probably won't be able to maintain it for very long either.

But over time your body and muscles will strengthen and adjust which will make it much easier.

And you'll get so used to sitting in a healthy, upright posture that it will start to feel natural for you.​

​So build up slowly and before you know it you could be sitting comfortably for hours in an exercise ball chair.

Just make sure you are sitting on it correctly and with the right posture to get the full benefits (the video ​below will show you how):

Muscle Fatigue

Active sitting is great for keeping your muscles activated and working as you sit.

But the downside to this is that they never get to rest and relax.

And over the course of a long day this can lead to muscle fatigue and discomfort.​

So you may find yourself needing to take a rest from your exercise ball chair​ to get up and give your muscles a break for a few minutes every hour.

Your Vertebrae Are Still Compressed

While sitting on an exercise ball chair can prevent your core muscles from weakening and help to improve your sitting posture it can't do anything about your compressed vertebrae.

As these will be compressed no matter what you are sitting on.

So you will still get the same problems from this and the increased load on the lower back that you would do on a regular office chair.​

They Are Hard to Relax in

Sometimes while sitting you just need to switch off for 5 minutes and relax.

Ergonomic office chairs are great for this as most have a tilt mechanism that allows you to recline backwards.

And changing the sitting angle to a reclined one like this helps to take the pressure off your lower back and relax your body.

Unfortunately you can't do this in an exercise ball chair.

However on an exercise ball chair your muscles are constantly having to work to keep you upright.

So forget relaxing on one of these!​

No Armrests

The lack of armrests on exercise ball chairs is a major area where they are lacking compared to regular office chairs.

Nowhere for your arms to go.

​Photo credit: Don Shall

And this is important because armrests take the pressure and strain off your shoulders as you sit.

Which also lessens the tension in your neck and upper spine allowing your upper body to stay more relaxed.​

So when you are sitting in one of these armless chairs your shoulders are working harder than they need to be and don't get a chance to relax.

Which can lead to fatigue and pain in your upper body and arms.​

You Can't Adjust the Height

This is a big problem when you are trying to sit with a good posture in an exercise ball chairs.

Because being able to adjust the height of the chair you are sitting in is vital for getting your sitting posture and desk ergonomics right.

Firstly you need to match your chair height with the height of the desk you are using.

And if that desk isn't adjustable you may find that you are sitting too low beneath it.

Is your exercise ball chair the right height for your workstation?

​Photo credit: Adam Walker Cleaveland

Secondly you need to get your angles right to sit correctly.

So to remain healthy and keep the pressure evenly distributed your hips and knees should be at a 90 degree angle.

And your feet should be firmly planted on the floor.

This is where ergonomic office chairs come into their own as you adjust them to fit your body and desk set-up like a glove.

Unfortunately you can't do this with exercise ball chairs.​

They're Not Suitable for Taller People

The lack of height adjustment also means that exercise ball chairs are not really suitable for taller people.

In general the maximum recommended height​ for users is 5' 9", although the one I recommend in this article is a taller one and allows for heights of up to 6' 1".

So if you're over 6' tall then it may be impossible to sit in a healthy posture on an exercise ball chair.​

Spinal Shrinkage

Now spinal shrinkage sounds nasty and that's because it is!

It basically means a decrease in the height of your spinal discs and a narrowing of the spinal cord.

And this can lead to nerve pain, sciatica, numbness and muscle weakness.

Regular prolonged sitting over a period of time has been found to cause spinal shrinkage in some people.

This occurs because the increased load on the lower back and compressed spinal discs when sitting lead to these discs weakening and shrinking.​

And one study found that people were at greater risk of developing spinal shrinkage by using an exercise ball chair than a regular office chair.​

So while your muscles remain active and strong, the extra load on your lower back could cause you problems over time.

It Might go Pop!

Now this is a very small risk as these balls are made to withstand the pressures of people up to 300lbs sitting on them every day.

But occasionally they do still pop unexpectedly as you can see in the video below.

And while it may be comical for your family or co-workers (or thousands of YouTube viewers!) it can be dangerous for you.

As hitting your head on the floor or desk as you fall could have serious consequences.

So while this a rare occurrence with exercise ball chairs it's something worth thinking about.​

They Can Squeeze Your Balls

Now this one will only affect 50% of the market but it can be a problem for us men.

Because just like that camel ride or cross-country mountain bike route, what seemed like a good idea at the time can rapidly turn into a very uncomfortable one. ​

As the plain truth is that some men may not like the sensation of sitting on an exercise ball chair because they can be hard going on your nuts!​

The worst pain in the world!

So I guess you just have to try one for yourself before buying to see if the way you hang is compatible with it.​

Because it's no good replacing the pain in your back with pain in your balls!​

The Best Exercise Ball Chair For Your Back

​Ok so now I've gone through the pros and cons of using an exercise ball chair you may be curious to know what's available.

There are a few popular ones on the market such as the Gaiam Classic Balance Ball Chair and the Luxfit Exercise Ball Chair.

But my choice would be the Isokinetics Exercise Ball Chair.

This one has a few features that puts it ahead of the rest.

Firstly it has a 'tall boy' ​base which means it can accommodate people a couple of inches taller than most other exercise ball chairs can.

However this still has a maximum height limit of 6' 1" so it's no good if you are taller than that.​

It also comes with a back rest that you can adjust the height of.​

This is quite unique among these types of chairs and is a great feature as you can position it at the perfect spot to give your back a bit more support.​

And it can help you to sit up straight and maintain a healthy posture too.​

The ball itself is very sturdy​ and durable with a maximum weight limit of 300lbs.

​And it comes with everything you need to get started such as a pump, assembly instructions and an exercise guide.

It also has a 30-day money back guarantee so you can road test it before fully committing yourself.​

So if exercise ball chairs have piqued your interest don't hesitate to give this one a go.​

So Are Exercise Ball Chairs A Great Idea Or Just Another Gimmick?

Is this your natural reaction when someone tells you about the latest back pain products?

​Now to the big question.

Are exercise ball chairs as good for your back as the manufacturers say they are or are they just another gimmicky back pain fad?​

​Exercise and stability balls can be great for you.

They have been used for a long time by physios to help their patients to rehabilitate after injury by re-establishing their core strength and balance.

And they are also commonly used for fitness and conditioning in gyms as well as yoga and pilates classes.

This is because they increase muscle activation and co-activation.​

So if you could do this by sitting on an exercise ball rather than a regular chair during the day it would be a great idea right?​

​Well according to the scientific research that has been done on this topic so far it's debatable.

Now there are many stories around from people who say that switching to an exercise ball chair worked wonders for their back pain.

For instance one such case study found that an office worker greatly reduced their back and neck pain by doing this.

And when they tried to go back to an office chair a few years later their pain returned.

However other research argues that the negatives of using an exercise ball chair outweigh any of the possible benefits.

For example it was found that although muscle activation was increased by using an exercise ball chair the participants also experienced more discomfort afterwards.

This may be from the muscles being fatigued or overworked from being constantly active.​

​And others complain about the lack of safety as there is more chance of falling off one than by using regular chairs.

​So the answer isn't clear cut.

However for me personally exercise ball chairs are no match for a high quality ergonomic office chair.​

This is because these chairs can be adjusted to fit any individual and workstation and offer great lumbar support and protection.

Whereas the exercise ball chair won't fit everyone and may make sitting in the ideal posture difficult.

Also your muscles never get a chance to relax when using one which can make you tired and fatigued.

So a mix of using an ergonomic chair along with taking regular microbreaks ​to stretch and mobilise your body is the best option for office workers to get rid of back pain as far as I'm concerned.

But that's not to say that exercise ball chairs aren't worthwhile.

And the big advantage to them over ergonomic chairs is that by keeping your muscles active and engaged they prevent them from weakening.

So maybe another answer is to use ​a mixture of the two.

As an exercise ball chair could be really beneficial as something you use for an hour​ or two each day alongside your regular office chair.

Because by alternating like this your muscles are getting the activity to prevent them from weakening but they also get a chance to rest and relax at times too.

So while I don't think exercise ball chairs are the answer they are still useful.

And they're definitely not a gimmick.

So if you are interested try one for yourself and see what you think as it could make a big difference to your workday experience.​

Resources used in researching this article:

https://lifehacker.com/5830748/why-i-switched-my-office-chair-with-an-exercise-ball-and-what-it-feels-like

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/health/21really.html​

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Daniel

A 30-something painter and decorator, psychology graduate, and veteran of 5 spinal surgeries. Looking to explore the physical, psychological and emotional effects of living with chronic low back pain.

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