I must confess that I am a little confused by the cyclical nature of some fitness trends. I will also add that at times I am actually amused by this phenomenon. What I am getting at is what seems to be a curious rise of interest in swapping out traditional desk chairs for stability balls.
The thing that I find entertaining about this trend is how it is nothing new, yet is sometimes presented as something groundbreaking. I can remember taking an eight-hour stability ball certification course back in the late 1990’s and listening to the instructor talk about the benefits of sitting on one and how he doesn’t have a single chair in his entire house. I can still remember him ripping down the laundry list of benefits to using a stability ball, like Billy Mays trying to convince me that my life would not be complete unless I had Oxi-Clean in it.
Just in case there may be a few out there who don’t actually know what a stability ball is, let me quickly sum up. You may also know them as a yoga ball, a physio ball, a Swiss ball, a Pezzi ball or an exercise ball. You know those large colorful PVC orbs of core-torturing pain that you usually see tucked in the corner of the gym? Yeah, those things.
I can honestly tell you that they are a very useful tool in the gym and I would encourage you to begin to work one into your workout routine if you haven’t already. However, does this mean they are a viable substitute for your desk chair at work? Admittedly I just took the instructor’s word from years ago as gospel truth and figured since he was teaching the class it must be true, right?
Looking back on that experience I must admit I was a bit naive. I was still fairly new to the fitness industry. You see, the instructor was a rep for a stability ball manufacturer, so of course he is going to try and get the pupils in his class to drink the Kool-Aid. Think about it: if there are 30 people in the class and he can convince all 30 of them of the ‘evils’ of sitting in the common desk chair, then how many potential sales could he score? Exactly.
So let’s take a step back and look at this from a more unbiased point of view. Let’s look at some data from an independent source or sources and compare them to some of the more common claims we see about substituting your office chair with a stability ball.
Common Claim #1: “Stability balls are more comfortable to sit on for extended periods of time than a desk chair.”
Heard or read that a time or two? When I hear this I have two thoughts in my mind that can justify that statement: 1. A stability ball is basically a giant air-filled cushion, and 2. There is a larger contact area compared to a chair allowing you to dissipate your weight over a greater surface area.
However, when Dr. Diane Gregory from Waterloo University in Alberta, Canada looked into it, she found otherwise in her study comparing stability balls and desk chairs during prolonged periods of sitting.
Prolonged sitting on a stability ball does not greatly alter the manner in which an individual sits, yet it appears to increase the level of discomfort. The small changes in biological responses when sitting on a stability ball as compared with an office chair, combined with the increased reported discomfort while on the ball, suggests its use for prolonged sitting may not be advantageous.
The reason for this discomfort is due to the way desk chair seats are shaped. They are designed to distribute your body mass to your ischial tuberosity’s (aka sit bones), where we have greater pressure thresholds. Well, I had that wrong this whole time. Thank you to Dr. Gregory for clearing that up for me.
Common Claim #2: “Your core muscles must activate to help you balance while sitting on a stability ball because they are so unstable.”
The facts are not so clear on this one. I know for me personally I feel like my core is really engaged anytime I sit on a stability ball yet when you look into the scientific research it is not as clear. Idsart Kingma from the University of Amsterdam observed 33% more trunk motion in test subjects during his 2008 study on the subject.
Constant low level muscle activation of the lower back muscles have been noted.
However, Dr. Gregory’s study mentioned above concluded:
I want to key in for a moment on Idsart Kingma’s results and more specifically on the word ‘constant’. Let’s think about this for a second. If those ‘low level muscles’ are under constant activation one could deduce that sooner or later muscle fatigue will set in. Once this occurs poor posture will result, thus putting stress on your back. Suddenly this isn’t sounding any better than a chair. But, hey that is an easy remedy. Just get up and walk around once an hour or so. Give those ‘low level’ muscles a frequent break. That’s what we are supposed to do when sitting in a chair anyway, right?
Common Claim #3: “The instability of an exercise ball helps reduce lower back pain by allowing for greater lumbar spinal motion.”
Several of the studies I read could not confirm this statement at all and found no noteworthy statistical difference in the amount of movement in test subjects with lower back pain whether they were sitting in a chair or on a stability ball. In fact the Kingma study stated:
There have been no significant differences observed in lumbar motion when sitting on a stability ball compared to an office chair, but enhanced spinal shrinkage has been observed.
Whoa! Shrinkage is never a good thing much less when it’s your spine that is doing the shrinking! What is the reason for spinal shrinkage, you may be asking yourself. Elevated muscle and spine loading increases compression when you sit on a stability ball, according to the Kingma study.
Common Claim #4: “Due to core muscles constantly working to maintain balance, you are burning more calories while you sit on an exercise ball.”
I can’t say I saw anything to argue against this point. During my research I, in fact, found two sources that back this claim. Now before you get too excited about this fact, be aware that your increased calorie burn will be a whole 4 calories an hour more for sitting on a stability ball. So if we do the math on that, during your typical work day you are looking at 32 calories for the day. To put that into perspective and give you a visual on that, we are talking about ½ of a small grapefruit. Not really anything to get too stoked about in my opinion.
So, should I use one or not?
If you are going to go through with this let’s be smart about it. First and foremost think about the ergonomics of your work station. In fact, that is probably where I would start and get that dialed before I committed to giving up my loyal desk chair. Your chair height should be set so that when your feet are flat on the floor you have a 90 degree bend at the knee and your thighs are parallel to the ground. Your computer monitor should be set so that when you are looking straight ahead you are looking at the center of the screen. Your upper arms should be parallel to your spine with a 90 degree angle at the elbow.
Now when you purchase a ball it is imperative that it is the right size and that you can mimic the correct ergonomics you have set up in your regular chair. Yes there are several standard sizes to choose from:
Be aware, size recommendations may vary! Google it and you will find several different sizing charts, or use our carefully designed sizing guide. Ultimately, the gold standard and most accurate way to size yourself up on a stability ball is to sit on one yourself. With your feet flat on the floor, your legs should be bent at 90 degrees and your thighs should be parallel to the ground. That is the one that will fit you just right!
So, in conclusion, the scientific evidence sure points to don’t do it. From the research I have done the proof is pretty overwhelming. When you think about it, a wholesale swapping out of your regular desk chair for a stability ball is a pretty drastic change. Any promised postural change isn’t going to happen overnight. It just doesn’t seem like the risk is worth the reward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim is a full time gym manager/personal trainer, part time gym designer, part time blogger and part time pseudo-entertaining public speaker as well as a former college athlete and former firefighter with a BS degree from Fresno State in Kinesiology and an AS degree in Respiratory Therapy. His passion is seeing everyday people get healthy and live life to the fullest.