“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” So when it’s suggested a large air filled ball will solve or prevent any or all MSDs, a claim like that should be treated with skepticism. A few years ago, the Swiss Ball (or Fit Balls, Physio Balls, Exercise Balls, and any other name they may go by) came to the office workspace from the gym in a rush. Many office workers tossed them into their cubicles, convinced that sitting for several hours straight on a ball was ergonomic or even exercise by supposedly providing a subtle abdominal workout that spending hours in a chair did not. Inexpensive, they come in many colors, and they seem fun to use. Also, they claim to tone up your core just by sitting on them. So why wouldn’t you want to swap your office chair for a fitness ball?
In 2006, researchers from the University of Waterloo, asked volunteers to sit for 30 minutes each on an exercise ball and a wooden stool. Many body and spinal positions were examined—as well as more than 14 different muscle movements and pressure distribution across their buttocks. No difference in muscle activation between the ball and the stool was recorded, and researchers concluded the ball had no effect on the volunteers’ “muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads, or overall spine stability.” Volunteers actually complained of lower back discomfort after sitting on the ball. Researchers suggested this was because of the creation of more buttocks-to-surface contact, resulting in uncomfortable soft tissue compression.
A different group of researchers also from the University of Waterloo, conducted a study in 2008. It compared people sitting on an exercise ball and an office chair for one hour each while performing various routine computer-based office tasks. Spinal posture as well as the use and activation of eight different muscles were recorded, measured, and analyzed. Sitting on the ball, the subjects showed increased activation of only one muscle group and decreased pelvic tilt, too much of which can be a significant postural problem. This did not occur while they sat on the chair. They also complained of increased discomfort. Researchers concluded changes in biological responses were not significant and didn’t outweigh the reported discomfort enough to make prolonged ball sitting advantageous.
Specific issues that can accompany prolonged sitting on a ball are:
They’re effective as exercise equipment because they provide an unstable surface that constantly requires your muscles to work to prevent you from falling and keeping you upright. They are beneficial for short periods of time—but few people have the core strength to maintain this activity for a full working day. People who use these balls as chairs compensate for muscle fatigue by tucking their feet under the ball to keep it stable, defeating the purpose of having the ball.
Prolonged use of gym balls does not significantly affect the magnitudes of muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads, or overall spine stability and actually increases discomfort, which is supported by research. The most likely reason is decreased support for the buttocks and thighs.
A risk assessment should be carried out by the employer to make sure employees can work in a suitable position and without creating other risks in the area. Getting on and off the ball may increase the risk of injuries or accidents due to instability. An especially important consideration is that the employee’s head, neck, and arms are in the correct position. If not, desk height will need to be adjusted and since most office desks are not adjustable this will mean purchasing a new desk. If a ball is supplied for or brought in by the employee, there should be a verifiable reason for this such as a recommendation from a licensed health professional.
In addition to these issues, gym balls do not meet DSE (Display Screen Equipment, a UK entity similar to the United States’ OSHA) regulations. These recommend a stable, adjustable chair with adequate back support. Since most offices provide fixed-height desks, it’s unlikely a ball will be the correct height for the person to achieve and maintain a good head, neck, and arm position while working.
Suited for exercise, not your desk
For all the benefits they may provide at the gym or in physical therapy, you might want to reconsider before outfitting your office with these inexpensive “miracle cure” devices. While they can offer certain advantages when used for a specific period of time for a specific short activity, but they present more risks than improvements when utilized as an office chair.
Instead, check out what the Ergonomics Guru has to say about our Wobble Stool.