Swiss Ball vs. Office Chair — The Greatist Debate

Today's Greatist debate: where to put our weight. Is opting for the trusty office chair or playing the part of a fitness enthusiast and resting upon a swiss ball better for our bodies?
Swiss Ball vs. Office Chair — The Greatist Debate

Working in an office often means lots of sitting, and staying sedentary for most of the day can take its toll on the body. For those working desk jobs, it's not uncommon to spend about an hour and a half more sitting than sleeping every day. But is there a healthier way to sit? It’s time to enter the ring with the Greatist debate: Swiss (aka exercise) ball vs. Office Chair.

Meet The Competitors: Swiss Ball vs. Office Chair

In one corner, the incumbent— a tried and true office chair. With adjustable tilts, height, and arm rests, the classic office chair can be tweaked to get the right amount of spring and the ideal height. With it's square shape and design, the office chair might appear to support upright posture with right angles in at the hips, knees, and arms. But sitting in this static position for hours on end can actually cause the spine to hunch, putting pressure on the spinal disks and leading to over-stretching of ligaments and potentially permanent muscle deformities Standing tall. Exercises can help with bad posture and osteoporosis that cause us to stoop and lose height as we get older. Harvard Health Letter. 2005 Dec;31(2):1-3. Move to improve your health: the research behind static postures. Valachi, B. Dentistry Today. 2011 May;30(5):144-147..

Fresh from the gym, in the other corner sits the Swiss Ball. Supporters of this office newbie claim it encourages occupants to use better posture, burn more calories, and increase dynamic movement throughout the long sitting day Static and dynamic postural loadings during computer work in females: Sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball. Kingma, I., Van Dieën, J.H.. Research Institute Move, Faculty of Human Movement Sciences, VU University, Van der Boechorststraat, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2009 Mar;40(2):199-205 Increasing passive energy expenditure during clerical work Beers, E.A., Roemmich, J.N., Epstein, L.H., et all. Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo. 2008 Jun;103(3):353-60. Epub 2008 Mar 20.Because the ball itself wobbles (like all spheres), it causes the body to adjust along with the slight movements of the ball. This engages the stabilizing muscles of the core that fall to the wayside when sitting in a traditional static position, as with an office chair Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting.Gregory, D.E., Dunk, N.M., Callaghan, J.P. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 2006 Spring;48(1):142-53 .

The Decision

While having an exercise ball in the office might provide an excellent opportunity for mid-day workouts— or some other funthe actual benefits of swapping the chair for the ball (sadly) don’t live up to the hype. In terms of posture, it’s hard to pick a winner. One study found no change between sitting on an exercise ball or office chair, as both tended to result in slouched posture. And in fact, the ball might even cause some additional problems, like contributing to spinal shrinkage (and possibly even decreasing height in the process!) Static and dynamic postural loadings during computer work in females: Sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball. Kingma, I., Van Dieën, J.H.. Research Institute Move, Faculty of Human Movement Sciences, VU University, Van der Boechorststraat, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2009 Mar;40(2):199-205..

The best thing for posture? Avoid sitting as much as possible.  That could mean more breaks in the workday to get up and out of the chair— or off the Swiss ball Standing tall. Exercises can help with bad posture and osteoporosis that cause us to stoop and lose height as we get older. Harvard Health Letter. 2005 Dec;31(2):1-3.. And while sitting on a Swiss ball seems to offer more workout potential, the difference just isn’t likely to be substantial. One study found that while sitting on a ball does burn more calories than the traditional desk chair, the difference is only about 4 calories per hour— hardly worth trying to count Increasing passive energy expenditure during clerical work. Beers, E.A., Roemmich, J.N., Epstein, L.H., et all. Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo. 2008 Jun;103(3):353-60. Epub 2008 Mar 20..

And as for the supposed muscle-engaging benefits of dynamic positioning, research suggests only slight changes in muscle engagement between those sitting on a Swiss ball versus a desk chair Increasing passive energy expenditure during clerical work. Beers, E.A., Roemmich, J.N., Epstein, L.H., et all. Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo. 2008 Jun;103(3):353-60. Epub 2008 Mar 20.. Plus, people sitting on a ball might be more likely to experience back pain due to an unnatural spinal position Stability ball versus office chair:comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting. Gregory, D.E., Dunk, N.M., Callaghan, J.P. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 2006 Spring;48(1):142-53 .

So who is the winner of this epic sitting battle? For now, it is a toss-up. Bring in the ball to earn some fitness points, but there likely isn’t a great advantage. Plus, when the workday stress gets too extreme the Swiss ball can provide opportunities to go goof off— or go for the gold medal in an office chair race.

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