The Standing Desk Myth: A Study into 4 Alternative Office Chairs
In the last five decades, the number of U.S. occupations requiring at least a moderate level of physical activity has declined from an estimated 50% to less than 20% (5). Paradoxically, our lives are busier with more responsibility, but we are more sedentary: sitting in cars, sitting at work, and sitting during leisure. Research shows that there is higher risk for health problems associated with sedentary office work, including musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes just to name a few. The corporate world is adjusting to these discoveries and improving workstations and chairs continually. But with so many options out there, how do you choose the right one? Is a standing desk better? What about those fun exercise balls? Where is the balance between active, comfortable, and functional?
There are a lot of options out there, and it can be overwhelming. Listed below are four popular workplace chairs that also have their drawbacks.
1. Standing Desk/Sit-Stand Desk: Standing can be just as detrimental to your musculoskeletal system as sitting all day. Standing desks can increase strain on lower vertebrae and joints as well as wear on your back and leg muscles over time. Standing for extended periods can lead to poor blood circulation and atherosclerosis. Due to their adjustable nature, sit-stand desks often do not provide enough storage space, decreasing their ergonomic value (4).
2. Exercise Ball: These have made their way into many offices, but unfortunately, research has shown exercise balls are not an ergonomic alternative to an office chair. The assumption is that they will increase trunk muscle activation and thus increasing core strength, and therefore improve posture and decrease discomfort (1). They fail to provide any back support, increasing strain on the lower back and vertebrae, causing spinal shrinkage (3). They are also unstable and difficult to sit on, making them more uncomfortable than the classic office chair.
3. Treadmill Desk: Treadmill and cycle desks can be found more frequently in office settings. Treadmills do increase physical activity, decrease sedentary time, and can contribute to a healthier lifestyle. Using the treadmill at a slow walk, especially if this is the employee's only form of exercise, for just 90 minutes a day can help with the problems caused by poorly designed office chairs. However, treadmills for an office is a considerable expense, and according to research, they are not very popular among employees (2).
4. Balance Stools: There are a lot of stools on the market that requires muscle engagement to stabilize the seat. Unfortunately, studies have shown that—similar to the exercise ball—that additional energy expenditure (EE) associated with dynamic sitting is minimal (5). Also, due to their unstable nature, some people are more prone to falls. They can also be uncomfortable as they do not have an arm, back, or head support, making them only usable for short periods of time.
With all of these workplace fads not pulling their weight, what is the solution?
Simply, move. Take breaks, take walks, and listen to your body. The best thing you can do is work in 30-minute cycles, sitting for 20-minutes, standing for 8-minutes, 2-minute movement (6). Doing any one thing for 8 hours is detrimental to any employee’s health.
Although sitting seems intuitive and straightforward, approximately 1 million people take time away from work because of repetitive motion or overexertion to treat or recover from musculoskeletal pain or functional loss annually, and many of these cases are simply due to poor posture and poor workplace efficiency (2). It is important to remember that there are ergonomic chairs that will decrease your risk of musculoskeletal disorders, but none will completely fix this problem. Sedentary lifestyles compound risk factors, and it is essential to move outside of work.
By Rachel Beebe
1. Merritt, L. G., & Merritt, C. M. (2007). The gym ball as a chair for the back pain patient: A two case report. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 51(1), 50–55.
2. Koepp, G., Manohar, C., McCrady‐Spitzer, S., Ben‐Ner, A., Hamann, D., Runge, C., & Levine, J. (2013). Treadmill desks: A 1‐year prospective trial. Obesity, 21(4), 705-711.
3. Cornell University Ergonomics. (2013). How Ergonomic are Ball Chairs? Retrieved October 10, 2017, from http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/cuBallChairs.html
4. Grunseit, A., Chau, J., van der Ploeg, H., & Bauman, A. (2013). “Thinking on your feet”: A qualitative evaluation of sit-stand desks in an Australian workplace. BMC Public Health, 13, 365-365.
5. Lowe BD, Swanson NG, Hudock SD, Lotz WG. Unstable Sitting in the Workplace – Are there Physical Activity Benefits? American journal of health promotion : AJHP. 2015;29(4):207-209. doi:10.4278/ajhp.140331-CIT-127.
6. Heller, S. (2017, May 22). Choosing an Office Chair That Won't Kill You. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.outsideonline.com/2182136/choosing-office-chair-wont-kill-you