You know that sitting for long periods of time is no good for your health. The makers of desk chairs know this too, which is why, perhaps, there are quite a few intriguing seating options available. Some of these chairs are designed to improve your posture…some put exercise equipment at your fingertips…and others are designed to encourage subtle, ongoing movement. The real questions: Can these chairs make you stronger and healthier? Are they worth it?
For expert input on these seating alternatives, our editors turned to Steven Weiniger, DC, author of Stand Taller—Live Longer (BodyZone.com), a continuing education instructor at the Logan College of Chiropractic in St. Louis who has served on the White House Conference on Aging. Here is his take…
FOLDING CHAIR PLUS EXERCISE CABLES
The VQ ActionCare Chair has a molded vinyl seat and back and is built on a simple metal frame. It looks something like a classic folding chair—and it actually does fold up for storage. It incorporates exercise cables attached at both the bottom of the frame and shoulder height. It is marketed as a fitness tool, since you can use the resistance cables periodically throughout the day…and as something that is useful for senior citizens who want to add more movement to their day. Though he acknowledges it to be convenient, Dr. Weiniger was unimpressed, especially given its price of about $280. Most people can get better results by buying a set of resistance bands and an exercise ball for less money and more functionality. Dr. Weiniger pointed out that sitting all day and just adding some upper-body exercise is not the solution. The lack of motion in sitting is the problem…training some muscles to be stronger is not stretching the muscles and joints, which get tight during long durations of sitting.
SITTING ON AN EXERCISE BALL
The Gaiam Balance Ball Chair combines an exercise ball and the same type of resistance cables mentioned above, and it can be really fun to sit on. Picture a black plastic frame that looks like a modern sculptor’s vision of a chair but with an exercise ball firmly planted in the seat area…exercise cables with handles attached to the bottom (to be used for bicep curls, shoulder presses and other strength-training moves)…and locking casters on its feet. Even though the casters do lock, Dr. Weiniger warned that these chairs can be unstable. The balance ball itself is removable for separate exercise, and the unit comes with a resistance cord, toning band and 105-minute workout DVD. The ball, which costs about $120, is available in a variety of colors, including sage and plum. Dr. Weiniger had some concerns about whether a person could sit comfortably for long periods in this chair. He also noted that since the ball is fixed in place in the chair, it’s not able to roll, which is the goal of sitting on an exercise ball in the first place. He explained that a rolling ball forces a reflex stabilization of deep muscles, while a stationary ball does not. You would do better simply sitting on an exercise ball, since it requires small muscle adjustments.
Kneeling chairs first became popular in the 1970s. They have no backs, and the seats are angled somewhat down, putting the sitter in a modified kneeling position. The idea is that this chair encourages better posture by distributing the weight evenly between the knees and pelvis, sliding the hips slightly forward and aligning the neck, shoulders and back. Proponents observe that a forward-angled seat promotes a more natural curve to the spine. It is also believed that the kneeling position reduces spinal compression and increases blood flow throughout the body. Dr. Weiniger’s opinion? He explained that the biomechanical idea behind this chair is very intelligent, but that this type of chair can strain the knees, especially in those who are overweight. And because the chair doesn’t allow you to shift positions, Dr. Weiniger said that it may not be a good choice for people who sit at their desks for long hours. Available from various manufacturers and online for $89 to $379, depending on materials used.
Picture a small horse saddle on a post—like a bar stool—and you’ve got an idea of what a saddle chair looks like. Many manufacturers make these chairs. Their selling point is that you’ll sit in a position that’s halfway between standing and sitting, something akin to horseback riding. This position allows the legs to drop and spread in a very natural way. You wouldn’t want to try to sit in one if you were wearing a pencil skirt! Dr. Weiniger said that putting the sitter in a comfortable position that lets the pelvis roll forward reduces stress and facilitates motion in the low back. Made by many companies and available in office-supply stores and online, including Amazon.com and Staples, $149 to $199.
Dr. Weiniger had a few shopping tips for anyone and everyone in the desk chair marketplace, even those looking for more traditional chairs…
- Any desk chair you buy should allow you to easily change your sitting position, because locking into one position is often a problem. After our review, however, it is clear that few do. That is why after sitting for a while you need to stand up and stretch. Your work habits should include changing your position in the chair during the day. This helps to distribute stress over more muscle fibers and joints and leaves you much less tense.
- Choose a chair that allows you to sit with your back straight and shoulders wide—meaning not pressed together across the front of the body, but open. Dr. Weiniger explained that most people tend to sit in a “folded-in position” which, done for long periods, actually causes your chest muscles to shorten.
- Look for a chair that has an adjustment allowing you to tilt the seat forward. Dr. Weiniger explained that, with this type of chair, you are able to roll your pelvis forward, forcing you to lean back and engage the spinal extensor muscles as well as strengthen the lumbar curvature. Your head will be on top of your shoulders and your torso will be on top of your pelvis, all of which makes for better body alignment.
- Dr. Weiniger pointed out that most people know that it’s smart to invest in a good mattress, but that most people spend more time sitting at a desk than sleeping. So, it makes sense to put some thought—and even invest some money—in the chair where you spend so many of your waking hours.