Are Fitness Balls as Chairs Ergonomic or Not?

During a Pilates class I took in grad school my teacher mentioned that the large bouncy fitness balls we used in class also made great office chairs. “Active sitting” induced by balls, she said, keeps the core muscles active, strengthening the abs and spine and promotes good posture.

Whether or not she was qualified to give such advice, I tried it. And I have been using a ball as my sole office chair ever since, spending 8 or more hours a day on it. As I mentioned in 5 Reasons Why Balls are Better than Chairs, I love being able to feel active while doing an otherwise sedentary activity. I love sitting on my ball, and over the past couple years my balance has improved so much, I can now actually stand on the ball and juggle.

You would imagine my surprise when I recently uncovered some opinions that balls are not the miracle seating solution that I had thought. In this Ergoweb article, Peter Budnick says “The people who seem most enthusiastic about their use and efficacy are often those that are selling or promoting them, not the users who end up sitting on one for 8 or more hours a day.”

I sit on a ball all day, I absolutely love it, and I do not sell or promote balls professionally. Anybody else feel the same way?

Another argument against balls was addressed by Ergoweb Forum expert John Ridd, who says,

apart from the spinal risks already mentioned there are general health and safety risks to consider; the potential for injury, if the user were to become so unbalanced as to fall off the ball is enormous, and I can only imagine the awkward questions that might be asked after such an event.

I have to totally disagree with this. Sitting on a ball takes some getting used to, of course, but your balance and stability actually improves as a result. After sitting on a ball regularly for some time now, worrying about the idea of falling off the ball while sitting on it sounds as ridiculous to me as worrying about falling out of a chair. These days the only times I fall of the ball is when I am trying out some daring new tricks, which definitely do not belong in an office setting anyway.
The other main argument against sitting on a ball all day is that it causes compression of the intervertebral discs.

Since the muscles shorten during contraction, there is a huge compression placed on the intervertebral discs. Prolonged compression is contraindicated, especially during sitting since the pelvis is rotated forward which flattens the lumbar lordosis adding a further compressive penalty to the discs.

I must admit, I don’t know much about this. It sounds bad, but I haven’t experienced any back pain, and I’m not sure how I would know if I am being negatively affected or not.

About.com walking expert Wendy Bumgardner says,

there have not been many studies on the benefits of using an exercise ball as a chair. However, the physical therapists and kinesiotherapists and personal trainers I have known all congratulate me on using the ball as a chair and say they do so themselves. Perhaps it is a fad, but it is one with many converts among the exercise and therapy experts.

So really, it seems that the verdict on ball sitting is not yet out, there is a difference of opinion among experts, and not enough research to really know one way or the other.

According to another Ergoweb article, an interesting application of ball sitting has been applied in a few classrooms around the country. Some school teachers tout ball sitting as keeping kids focused on learning by allowing an outlet for their fidgeting that is not distracting, and keeps blood flowing to their brains.

Colorado teacher Lisa Witt studied a dozen of her sixth-grade students in 2001 to demonstrate the benefits of the balls to a skeptical principal. Video studies of the students showed improved posture, more time spent on task and less squirming while they sat on the balls, she told the newspaper. “People are not meant to sit still.”

I imagine ball sitting in classrooms will not become widespread practice until more studies are done showing that balls are indeed safe to sit on for long periods of time. Or at least, that the benefits outweigh the costs. With kids carrying heavy backpacks and hunching over computers every day, keeping kids active and focused in school and improving their posture sounds good to me.

So for now, I remain a proponent of ball sitting. I invite more experts and ball sitters to add their opinions.