Recently the trend for swapping out your office chair for a gym ball has swept through the UK with many asking the question ” is a gym ball better for my back than a conventional chair?”. This is based on the theory that the abdominal and back muscles are constantly engaged and active in order to maintain proper posture and balance on the ball. Our ergonomics expert Jo Blood sheds some light on the pros and cons of using a gym ball at work.
“Gym balls are fantastic exercise tools, frequently used in physical therapy and exercise classes, they are a good way in building core strength as the body has to respond to the instability of the ball and balance. However, using a gym ball in an office environment may not be as beneficial as you had hoped.
In recent research it was found that spinal shrinkage occurred more when sitting on an exercise ball compared to sitting on an office chair. The research concluded, sitting on an exercise ball has more disadvantages and it’s recommended that you stick with your office chair.
Most people do not have the core strength to sit on the ball properly, which automatically makes the user tuck their feet under the ball to stop instability, and therefore defeating the purpose of swapping out your office chair. With average office hours exceeding 8 hours, it is impossible to keep your core muscles engaged for that period throughout the entire day.
What are the pros and cons of replacing your chair with a gym ball?
- Improved core strength
- Promotes good balance and stability
- Burns calories
- Lack of support for back and arms
- Can affect concentration
- Difficult to maintain good posture
Another point to think about is the size of the ball. A good ergonomic chair will be fully adjustable to fit your body perfectly, keeping your forearms parallel to the desk and your elbows by your side. As you can see from the example, this person is stretching her arms forward to hold them up, if she relaxed her arms, her elbows would be below the height of the desk. The effort of keeping your arms up like this causes strain across the upper back, neck and shoulders.”
How to work out what size ball you need
- Measure the length of your arm from shoulder to wrist
- This measurement roughly corresponds to the required minimum diameter
- Always chose the ball slightly larger in diameter
Another thing to think of if you are planning to use a gym ball as a seat is, how inflated it is. If the ball hasn’t been pumped up enough it will result in sitting too low to the floor. It is advised that you buy a ball slightly higher than your current office chair. This is because when you sit down on the ball it will deflate.
How high should your desk be when sitting on a ball?
It’s important to adjust your desk height to suit you, whether you’re sitting on an office chair, or a gym ball. If the desk is too high, you’ll find yourself stretching to reach your keyboard. If the desk is too low, the computer screen won’t be at your eye level, causing strain on the neck. And you’re more likely to hunch over to reach the keyboard and mouse.
If you’re not sure what height your desk should be set at, this video goes through it step by step
For all you employers out there it is also worth noting also that gym balls do not meet HSE regulations for use as an office chair as they don’t have a five-star base, height adjustment or an adjustable back. If one of your employees falls off a gym ball or it bursts, you may be liable as you have allowed the usage of the equipment on company property.
Keeping in mind all of the issues from using a gym ball, for those of you wanting to try out the trend, here is some of our advice for users…
- Only use the equipment for a maximum of 20 minutes and alternate between an ergonomic office chair.
- Make sure you buy the right size so you sit at the right height for your desk (if you are not sure what the right height is – check out our guide to a healthy workstation)
- Focus on pulling the tummy button in to keep the ball stable and keep feet flat on the floor.
- Make sure you purchase a ball with anti-burst technology. Not only will a burst gym ball be embarrassing, but it’s also going to hurt a lot!
A great alternative that ticks all of the boxes for us is a SitFit cushion. The SitFit Cushion relieves upper body tension and builds back musculature. It exercises the muscles of the back and pelvic floor and also builds foot and leg muscles. As well as preventing back problems and correcting poor posture, there is also no need to spend 20 minutes trying to pump it up. You can also fit it in your desk drawer, which our research has concluded, a gym ball can not.
This post was updated on 10/10/21 to include information on recent research, and expand the guidance on how to work out which gymball is suitable for you, the pro & cons of sitting on one and how to work out what height your desk should be at if you are sitting on a gymball.