Exercise Ball or Desk Chair: Which is Better for Back Pain?

Could using an exercise ball or yoga ball instead of a chair help back pain from too much sitting? Research says probably not. Here’s why.

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We’re a culture of sitters, whether required by profession at a desk job, because we’re binge watching our favorite show, watching our kids play sports, or just because it feels good (in theory) to just sit and take a break.

Does an exercise ball help for back pain?Exercise ball: Help or hype? Find out below.

Our bodies weren’t made for all this sitting, and the result is a host of health problems. With some exceptions, we like to sit and it’s become such a bad habit that it’s more accurate to say there’s an epidemic of sitting. One of the most common results of sitting too much is increased back pain and neck pain.

Slouching, poor posture, and unengaged abs are the norm for any person sitting in a chair all day. One of the worst results of this postural behavior is decreased core strength. Core strength is central to supporting and keeping your spine in good health. So… can using an exercise ball help with your back pain?

Can Sitting on an Exercise Ball Help My Back Pain?

Exercise ball, stability ball, yoga ball: Whatever you call it, using it as a desk chair is debated among some ergonomics experts, and unfortunately, research is sparse on the topic. Some articles, blogs and even ergonomics experts propose that alternating between an exercise ball and traditional desk chair throughout the day can result in subtle muscle contractions in your core. These contractions are required to stay balanced and stable. Also, you must engage your hip and leg muscles, which contributes to better muscle tone.

That’s the idea, anyway. However, there is not definitive research to support these “beneficial” claims of using a stability ball in place of or in conjunction with a chair. In fact, that fun-looking big ball may cause more harm than help.

Why You Should Avoid an Exercise Ball as a Chair

Theresa Marko, DPT, a clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, says, “In general, I do NOT recommend sitting on an exercise ball at your desk if you have back pain.  The reason being, is when you have back pain, you generally have muscle spasms.  Then when sitting on a ball, you are making these already tight spasmed muscles work harder, and it results in increased pain.” 

For those with a poor posture habit, such as slouching over and leaning on the desk while working (guilty), you may experience even more discomfort and disadvantages if using a stability ball. Because an exercise ball requires you to keep your muscles engaged, you are likely to strain them more.

“Another thing about stability balls is that most people would probably sit on one that is too low, which would hurt the back more,” says Dr. Marko. The same ergonomic factors for a chair apply to stability balls, such as proper height. Finding the proper ball height for you and your desk can be difficult and more of an estimation. And unlike a chair, the ball constantly loses height as air pressure decreases every time you sit on it, requiring a separate pump and frequent adjustments.

Exercise Ball Research Says…

Research suggests using a yoga ball in place of a desk chair doesn’t result in any advantage or pain relief.3 Some results show sitting on an exercise ball may even have severe disadvantages, such as spinal shrinkage and increased pain. Sitting on a stability ball places increased load bearing on the lumbar spine (your lower back), which can result in discomfort and pain in the lower back.

One study’s participants reported increased discomfort that outweighed their perceived benefit to relieving a small amount of back pain.4 Other studies show no benefit to using a stability ball as a chair substitute – either for building core strength or reducing back pain.5

How Can I Reduce Back Pain While Sitting?

“I advise people to sit in a proper desk office chair with good support and good ergonomics (heights),” says Dr. Marko.  If you can use a standing or walking desk, even better.

Dr. Marko emphasizes the importance of is doing hip flexor stretches. “When you're sitting in a chair for so long, your hip flexors are in the short end position and they become tight [from] this. Thus, stretching will help open up your hips, [which] helps your back feel better. The hip flexors actually attach to your spine, so when they are tight, they pull on your spine and cause your pelvis to rotate forward.” Ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist for some good hip flexor stretching exercises with instructions on how to properly perform them so you don’t hurt your back or neck.

Man stretching hip flexors after sitting all dayLow lunge, high lunge, or yoga's warrior I pose all stretch the hip flexors.

No matter where you choose to place your bum, prolonged periods of sitting may lead to poor posture and body mechanics, reduced lung capacity, and even blot clots in extreme cases. Take small walks as often as possible and stretch. Use the stairs. Just keep moving, and when you have to sit, pay attention to posture and correct it when you find yourself slouching (and you will).

If you have back pain, be sure to contact your physician first before starting any new exercises or stretches, as you could be at risk for further back injury depending on the source of your pain.

Updated on: 05/17/21
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