Can You Have A Ball At Work?

October 9, 2017

By Amanda Vito, PT, DPT

Are there benefits to replacing a standard desk chair with an exercise ball chair in order to reduce low back pain?

One of the most common concerns seen in physical therapy practice on almost a daily basis is poor posture. Poor posture, especially when sitting for a prolonged period of time, can lead to neck pain, limited muscle flexibility, increased tension in nerves, increased pressure and compromise to joints, and low back pain. Sitting prolonged in today’s society is now considered to be as detrimental to your health as smoking was years ago. One proposed alternative to suffering from the negatives of prolonged sitting in a standard desk chair is to utilize an exercise ball instead. Many offices and schools are now using an exercise chair as a replacement, but are there really benefits to this new trend of sitting?

What Happens When You Sit At Your Desk

When sitting unsupported, your pelvis can move into a position called a posterior pelvic tilt. When this happens, it causes the muscles in your lower back to lengthen and become inactive/weak and it causes your abdominal muscles to shorten and become less effective. The belief is that by sitting on an exercise ball it will cause you to maintain a more neutral pelvic position – but this is not always the case. Fatigue when sitting on the exercise ball can become a factor, especially if you have weakness in your core and low back muscles. A neutral pelvic position can just as easily be maintained in a standard desk chair by using a lumbar support roll, a forward tilt option on your chair, or a cushion that tilts your chair slightly forward. Therefore, using an exercise ball does not have a profound impact on your pelvic position compared to a standard desk chair.

How Does an Exercise Ball Help?

Another common thought is that by using an unstable exercise ball chair it can provide increased activation of muscles in your trunk (abdominal and low back muscles), but there is very little evidence to support this thought. Several studies that assessed muscle activation when sitting on a standard chair compared to an exercise ball demonstrated no real change in energy expenditure between the two ways of sitting. One particular study looked at abdominal and lower back muscle activation while performing core exercises on the exercise ball at work. This study revealed that other than a mild increase in activation of your oblique muscles of your core when sitting on the exercise ball, there is no significant change in muscle activation. Overall, it appears that there is no real benefit of sitting on an exercise ball compared to a standard chair in regards to increasing energy expenditure or muscle activity.

So What Can We Do To Be Healthier at Work?

There are pros and cons to using an exercise ball chair when sitting prolonged at work, but the benefits are minimal at this time. One of the best alternatives to avoid this debate is to sit less in general at work. In today’s working environment, there is an excellent alternative to avoid prolonged sitting and that is a standing desk. Standing desks allow workers to change between sitting and standing throughout the day and ultimately prevents workers from being exposed to potential injury from poor postures after being in the same position for hours at a time.

In conclusion, it might be best to leave the exercise ball in the gym and find other ways to modify your posture at work.