People + Process = Performance

Be Careful of This Type of Active Sitting

Stability Chair?

There was an article recently in the New York Times that also ran in my local paper, Star Tribune, on “active sitting” and working out sitting down.   What drew me to the article was the picture that was above the article (see above).  It made me do a double-take…I knew what was that lady doing but had never seen anyone workout on a stability in work clothes in their office.  The description under the picture stated the person was demonstrating how she uses her “stability chair” (quotes added) in her office at HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide.  Now I know all about sitting disease and agree that it is very important to incorporate movement into the work day for those who have office (sedentary) jobs but what the picture shows as well as some of the information in the article may go beyond what is best for most employers and employees alike.

The article sites the research of Dr. James Levine from Mayo Clinic for the negative effects of excessive sitting and then adds in this statement by an exercise physiologist, “If that doesn’t scare you enough…excessive sitting can flatten the buttocks, soften the stomach and round the spine”.   It makes perfect sense that people who are sedentary will lack muscle strength and tone which is the true cause of soft or flattened or flabby body areas.  But to use that as a scare tactic as the basis for the recommendation that everyone should use stability balls as chairs is a stretch at best.

The article also tells about how stability balls (“chairs”) are becoming more fashionable and hip to have in the office.  The picture shows a ball with a textured gray terry cover which the person states that it reminds her of a “piece of art”.  It gives the brand names of different stability ball (or is it a chair) and other “sitting gear” that people can buy.

I have no problem of recommending to employers and employees alike that movement needs to be a part of the work day.  I have no problem with employees using stability balls as part of the workout routine.  As an ergonomist and physical therapist, I do have a problem with recommending a stability ball as a task chair.  Here a just a few reasons why balls should not be used as chairs:

  • Stability balls are not stable—they are used to increase the strength and endurance of the body’s “stability” muscles, i.e. abdominals and back muscles.  Working ones abs while working sounds like a great idea but in reality is not.  It is nearly impossible for a person to maintain stability and properly spinal alignment/posture sitting on a ball for any length of time and perform work tasks.  There have been studies that have shown more data entry errors from those who use stability balls compared to those sitting on a task chair.
  • Stability balls have various and variable height—the balls are inflated with air and typically come in 45cm, 55cm and 65cm sizes.  Does the person inflate the ball to the correct height?  Do all the heights fit and by that I mean do the height of the ball compared to the height of the person compared to the height of the desk match up?  The most common problem is that stability ball height is too low which in turn will cause poor posture/angles for the person performing work on the desk.
  • Stability balls can be used incorrectly—there are reasons why stability balls were initially used for physical therapy and then eventually moved into workout classes—people need to be instructed how to use them in order to use them correctly.  Purchasing a stability ball and thinking that by sitting on it you automatically will build abdominal muscles and have better posture is a fallacy.
  • Stability balls can fail—this isn’t common but balls have been known to fail, i.e. burst.  This could cause an injury.  What employer would want a workers’ compensation case from an employee sitting on a ball?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-stability balls.  Actually, I own one and use it quite often for exercise—to work my abdominal and back muscles along with improving my balance.  I do recommend them to people as a good, cost-effective exercise device.  However, I do not recommend as a replacement for a good task chair.  Instead of using a ball, there are many other ways to add movement into the workday such as altering the sitting posture frequently, stand up while talking on the phone, take a walk during breaks or visit your co-worker to discuss an issue instead of sending an email or IM. Stylish or not, stability balls best belong in the gym and not in the office.