If you’ve ever shopped for an office chair you’ve likely noticed that all the designs are startlingly similar. All have backrests and a lumbar support arrangement, and most have armrests. Additionally, all these chairs claim to be “ergonomic” an undefined designator that seems to have about as much meaning as “all-natural”.
From this we might suppose that an “ergonomic” office chair must have a backrest, armrests, and lumbar support, and further that these features are beneficial. But if these design features are so important and successful, why do 80% of us still have back pain? Perhaps the concept of an “ergonomic” chair needs closer examination.
Do ergonomic chairs work?
The idea behind the various components of an office chair is that they “support” us when we are sitting. But paradoxically all this “support” just encourages us to slump against the chair’s components, distorting our naturally perfect posture and turning off our natural baseline muscular activity. A recent study[i] found that sitting on a dynamic (tippy) surface resulted in the spine assuming a conformation much closer to that of natural standing as opposed to sitting on a solid surface; as a result, the active chair allowed the spine to express its natural lumbar lordosis.
Because standard office chairs encourage us to sit with poor posture for many hours a day it comes as no surprise that these chairs contribute to the tsunami of back pain that Western countries have come to accept as normal. Yes, many people sit on conventional office chairs seemingly unscathed, but far more people, most of us, in fact, develop back pain and wonder where it came from. Because the standard office chair is ubiquitous, it has so far escaped scrutiny that it might be the author of our misery.
How can sitting in an ergonomic chair be bad for your health?
The case of passive sitting is actually similar to that of smoking: in the 1950’s most people smoked, and it seemed inconceivable that smoking caused lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and generalized vascular disease. It took decades to persuade people to abandon their addiction to smoking. It’s likely that getting folks to abandon their infatuation with passive sitting requires a similarly prolonged effort.
Another recent paper[ii] found that sitting in an “ergonomic” office chair effectively extinguished movement. This is terrible news, because our species was evolved to be active, and so the profound immobility enforced by office chairs causes a good deal of mischief. By providing supports to every body part, office chairs reduce body movement to a minimum. Unfortunately, our biochemistry expects our muscles to be working at least a little to function normally. Without muscular activity our good cholesterol goes down, our bad cholesterol goes up, our insulin levels rise, and our lifespans shorten by as much as two years[iii], likely mediated through obesity, diabetes, and consequent heart disease. This is even referred to as “sitting disease.”
Is there something better than my ergonomic chair?
The problems posed by sitting are so manifold that a real solution will require that the very idea of what a chair is will need to be reimagined. What might such a chair look like? Well, suppose a chair had no backrest, no armrest, no lumbar support, and perhaps not even a stable seat. What would such a chair look like? Is such a design even possible? It’s a little hard to envision such a thing, but companies are now creating alternatives to passive sitting. Chairs that encourage active sitting (AKA dynamic sitting) are now available from a handful of progressive designers, and are poised to upend the very idea of what a chair is.
Which companies? Well, QOR360, is one, but since you’re reading this you probably already knew that. And there are others: Here in the United States Fully makes chairs that encourage movement, and Swopper and MiShu do the same in Europe.
If these ideas are of interest, check out a short eBook that I wrote: Sit Better.