Dear Surly Amy,
For years I’ve been using the cheap computer chair that I got for free in college, but recently it finally broke, and I am in the market for a new chair.
I have heard a lot about balance ball chairs, claiming that they can reduce back pain (which I have). But when I look at websites about them, I find a lot of red flags for pseudo-science, even going so far as to say “Western sitting” is universally bad. So is there any scientific evidence that these chairs can help my back pain? I don’t want to pay $100 based just on anecdotes.
****Full Disclosure: I am sitting on a balance/exercise ball now. It is green. I love it.
I really do love my exercise ball and I use for a chair at my desk. I have used it for about a year now. I have no idea if it is actually better than a regular chair but I do know that I prefer it because it’s fun. I originally purchased it because I knew that I could use it for core and strength building exercises as well as for sitting and because it reminded me of those fun bouncy toys we had as kids! Do you remember those? The balance ball as a chair does seem to stimulate my core muscles and my legs if I choose to sit on it with good posture. Like most things, there are many ways to cheat and be lazy about it but my personal, purely anecdotal experience is that it helps you if you consciously sit up properly. There is just as much opportunity to slouch on a ball and sit improperly as there is in a chair. As I type this, I am totally slouching. So like with most things, you get what you put in to it.
The chairs with the balls in them I am not too familiar with. It seems to me that you can get more benefit from the ball alone than the ball in a frame and for much less money invested.
I asked the other Skepchicks if they had any info and Elyse responded with this:
I haven’t heard of these balance ball chairs. But I used balance balls a lot in PT for my back issues. And I have heard of using balance balls as chairs (as opposed to balance balls IN chairs) and actually used one for a while. My (mostly anecdotal) thoughts:
Using a balance ball as a chair, if you use it correctly, will force you to sit up straight and properly in order to keep your balance.
Using a balance ball correctly is exhausting. You are forced to engage muscles you don’t normally engage while sitting. In PT it’s used to build strength in the muscles that support your back.
If you’re using the ball as a chair while sitting in the middle of a room, you’re likely to be using it correctly.
If you’re using the ball at a desk (which this reader would be), you can use the desk as a brace. You can lean forward, slouch, rest on your elbows on your desk, and do all the awful things you do that cause back problems. And I found that it’s difficult not to do these things because using the ball is really tiring.
I don’t know what “Western sitting” is, but if it means sitting with bad posture, yeah, that’s bad for your back. And if you do it all day it’s really bad for your back. And if you have a bad back, it’s terrible and will probably lead to continued injury. But you can easily “Western sit” at a desk no matter what kind of chair you have. And If you are using a chair that causes you to become tired from sitting in it correctly, you’re going to start compensating… which means sitting wrong.
If she wants to try this, I would suggest spending $15 on a ball and using that as a chair. If she hates it, she can still spend $100 on another chair, and she didn’t drop $100 on a $15 ball inside a chair frame.
And I’m not sure what the point of the ball is inside the frame anyway… the whole idea is that you have to keep the ball from rolling away underneath you. If the ball isn’t able to roll, you’re just sitting on a bouncy inflatable chair.
I apologize for not providing you with too many scientific facts about ergonomics or health and fitness and chairs. I couldn’t find many legitimate peer reviewed studies on ball-chairs. If anyone knows of any please leave them in the comments. I did find one study of only two people and it was done by a chiropractic association. You can look at it here if you so desire but I’m not convinced it is any more reliable than what we have shared already. There was also a pubmed study from 2006 of 14 people that concluded the balls “may not be advantageous” though use resulted in “increased muscle activation in thoracic erector spinae (p = .0352), decreased pelvic tilt (p = .0114).”
Take that as you will.
My advice would be to try out the less expensive alternative of just the ball and see if it works for you. I would also highly recommend consulting a physical therapist or back specialist if your back pain is serious to get their professional opinion on what is best for your particular needs. You don’t want to be bouncing around or off balance if there is a chance it can make your particular ailment worse.
There is one other legitimate danger regarding balance or exercise balls as chairs that I would feel terrible if I did not warn you about:
May we all bounce on and on. Stay inflated my friends. Stay inflated.