Sitting, Redefined

Will ditching the chair's back help yours?

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You probably don't remember much about elementary school. Sure, it was years ago (many, many years ago for some of us), but the fact that you were likely slouched in a horribly uncomfortable wood and metal contraption for the better part of the day doesn't help either.
Man sitting on a stability ball while working on a laptop computerA growing number of teachers have taken to exercise stability balls as a desk chair substitute.The typical old-fashioned classroom chair doesn't exactly encourage concentration and learning. Quite the opposite, really. For many of you, that's where you picked up your poor posture habits and where some of your back issues originated.

But media reports suggest that more classrooms—from kindergarten to college—are experimenting with students on exercise stability balls hoping to address such issues.

Well-rounded Benefits
Before you imagine a bunch of 10 year olds wildly bouncing around a classroom on oversized neon balls, know that teachers report that the balls actually improve student posture and focus—no chaotic bouncing required, although research evidence to support this view is lacking.

Fitness buffs have used the balls for two decades to help strengthen their cores and improve overall muscle tone. Over the past five years, a growing number of teachers have taken to them as well—as a desk chair substitute.

The move away from traditional classroom chairs has reportedly improved students' abilities to concentrate, take notes, participate in group discussions, and has even boosted exam performance.

Core Matters
Stability balls are thought to activate the abdominal muscles. You may not realize how much impact your core muscles have on the rest of your body—and they certainly help your back muscles support the spine. If your core muscles are weak, your back muscles must essentially work overtime to support the spine.

The importance of core strengthening plays a key, but often neglected, role in spine care. Using a ball in conjunction with core strengthening exercises will work the abs. However, research shows that simply sitting on a stability ball isn't enough to condition your core muscles.

Potential Drawbacks
While the stability balls are gaining popularity for their apparent brain and body benefits, the notion isn't flawless. As with any "chair"—even the best ergonomic ones—sitting on the balls for extended periods of time may trigger poor posture, so teachers must understand that frequent breaks are necessary to maintain the benefits.

Indeed, some office workers have taken to the "active sitting" concept. But many have also found that without periodic standing and stretching, backless chairs can be a lot of hard work. Twenty minutes sitting on a stability ball may help posture, but don't park in it all day long. If you do, your investment may just slip you back into your old habits.

In contrast to the many praises stability balls garner from teachers, some research studies tell a different story. When used in a classroom or office setting, the back and ab benefits of stability balls may be a bit inflated.

Some evidence finds that sitting on a ball fails to work your abdominal muscles any differently than sitting in a regular office chair.1 Respondents from another study reported that prolonged sitting on the stability ball was uncomfortable.2 Separate findings suggest that such discomfort is caused by soft tissue compression.3 Another paper concluded that sitting on a stability ball increases spinal shrinkage (which relates to compressive forces that shrink the spine a few centimeters throughout the day), and that the advantages of sitting on a stability ball instead of an office chair don’t outweigh the disadvantages.4

Research that compares the effects of sitting on a stability ball to that of sitting in a newer, more ergonomic classroom chair hasn't yet been conducted. There is evidence, however, that a quality ergonomic chair provides the best postural support for long-term sitting.

Stability balls may be a great option to improve concentration and posture for you or your child, but the key is to understand the limitations. Using a stability ball is considered active sitting because you have to be engaged with it in a way you don't with a regular chair. There's no magic pill that will instantly sit you in a proper position. Whether you're sitting on a chair or ball, having good posture is up to you.

Updated on: 04/03/18
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Are You Sitting Comfortably? How Your Chair Can Cause Back Pain
Alan Hedge, PhD, CPE
Professor, Ergonomics
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY
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