Ask Surly Amy: Ball Chairs

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.


Dear Catgirl,

****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?

Aw, the good ol' days.
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.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Don’t know a thing about ball chairs except to say that I agree trying out a cheap exercise ball first makes sense before pouring big bucks into some fancy version . . . oh, and that video is hilarious (glad he didn’t get hurt).

  2. The ball chair sounds silly, expensive and like it totally takes away from any benefits of sitting on an exercise ball. Personal anecdote warning….I found the exercise ball was useful for preventing back pain in my case simply because it prevents me from sitting with my legs crossed (which contributed to back pain/sciatica for me). It doesn’t prevent me from slouching or really prevent bad posture but it does require more body awareness than sitting in a normal chair (because you run the risk of falling off!) and prevents me from crossing my legs (something I do automatically when sitting in a chair).

  3. And, yes, they can explode/deflate! I suspect that if I had video of my cat popping my exercise ball we’d be Youtube stars by now (though it was more of a slow leak than a funny explosion so maybe not). If you have a cat who likes to do the stretch and claw “pay attention to me” move, regular clipping of claws is highly advised!

  4. The kind with the handle you can hold onto and bounce around the house/office is great unless you have stairs. DON’T BOUNCE DOWN THE STAIRS! DAMHIKT.

  5. All I can offer is anecdote. I gave myself a pretty bad case of sciatica by consistently keeping my foot under the opposite thigh. I changed to an exercise ball and the sciatica slowly went away. I think it was probably because it forced me to keep both feet on the ground more than anything else, except for the massive amounts of anti-inflammatories (squiggly red line and no options popping up) I was taking.

    Probably not worth much, bu there it is.

  6. I think I’d check with a/my doctor. ^_^

    I find this really interesting, since we have a few people at my workplace that use these. I just asked one of my colleagues about where the advice came from, and it was a chiropractor, so I thought I’d try to look into it a tiny bit more. ^^; I apologize for not being able to look further at the moment, but here’s a quick look:

    Measured loads on a vertebral body replacement during sitting.
    The Spine Journal
    Volume 11, Issue 9, September 2011, Pages 870-875

    The study compared “load” on the spine with different types of chairs- small sample size. The physiotherapy ball was the only one looked at that had an increased load on the spine when compared to sitting on a stool. Leaning against a backrest generally decreased load.

    There’s also this one:
    Computational analysis of the influence of seat pan inclination and friction on muscle activity and spinal joint forces.
    International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics Jan2009, Vol. 39 Issue 1, p52-57

    It didn’t evaluate ball chairs specifically, but the authors seemed to have created a computer model to examine sitting, load and friction in the spine, primarily discussing leaning forward. They also referenced this one:

    Wilke et al., 2001 H. Wilke, P. Neef, B. Hinz, H. Seidel and L. Claes, Intradiscal pressure together with anthropometric data – a data set for the validation of models. Clin. Biomech., 16 Suppl. 1 (2001), pp. S111–S126

    Which did something similar for sitting on different kinds of chairs. The conclusions seemed to be that it’s fairly complicated, and experiments are difficult to perform in this area because they can be so invasive. (The first study partly had a small sample size, I believe, because they actually had a device in the spine.) “Relaxed” ways of sitting could increase load in the lower back- but not always.

    That’s probably why I’d check with a doctor. ^_^;

  7. One more:
    A comparative study of the stability ball vs. the desk chair in healthy young adults: sagittal curvature, sitting duration and usability.
    Scoliosis (17487161) 2009 Supplement 2, Vol. 4, Special section p1-1

    “Conclusion: No benefits were found through sitting on a stability ball over that of a desk chair in prolonged sitting as both seating types were found to replicate a poor sitting position through a kyphosed and slumped posture. The clinical implications of this study serve to benefit any healthcare professional considering use of the stability ball as a replacement desk chair.”

  8. I got the ball chair after I had knee surgery. I was sick of my regular office chair making my back feel terrible and wanted to switch to the plain ball, but I was concerned it would be too much work for my healing knee. I thought the chair was a great compromise.

  9. I went another way, I swapped the computer chair for a regular dinner table chair(high non-adjustable back without padding that hurts if I slouch and no castor wheels so I am forced to get off the chair and walk if I can’t reach something). This was on GP’s advice. I would still recommend seeing a Doctor first, my one was a GP who doubles as a Sports Doctor(I figure that meant he had more practice at treating back pain as sports can be very hard on the back, also Sports Doctors have to be very very results oriented).

  10. Skip the fads and silliness, pop the bucks and get the last desk chair you’ll ever buy, an Aeron. These chairs adjust so many ways that you can adjust it to suit your needs and eliminate back pain and other sitting related discomfort. Expensive, yeah. The up side is it’ll outlast you and make sitting at the keyboard the most comfortable thing you do all day.

  11. I can only offer personal anecdote. I used to sit in a horrid plastic chair, an started to get lower-back pain. I’ve now had a balans chair for twenty years or so, and since I got it I haven’t been troubled by back pain.

    Of course, it’s still possible to sit badly (slouched) on it, but it’s much easier to sit properly on it than on an ordinary chair. And the rockers mean you don’t sit in a fixed position for any length of time. By far the best kneeling type chair I’ve ever tried.

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