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Sorry to say, but sitting may be worse for you than donuts. Thankfully there are plenty of healthy alternatives to the modern day office chair. With so many options to choose from though, which desk chair alternatives are best?
The Consequences of Sitting
Before I get into alternatives for desk chairs, it helps to know why I would recommend staying away from the common office chair. Sitting has been dubbed the new smoking, and researchers have found it has some pretty unfortunate health effects. Risks for conditions like obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease (to name a few) all greatly increase the longer we sit.
For those who sit at a desk all day, even regular workouts aren’t enough to counteract the ill effects. Sitting for hours on end shaves about twice the time off of our lives than smoking does. In fact, some research shows that smokers had better health markers than other employees because they got up to move every few hours! This isn’t good news for those of us who spend a lot of time working on a computer or at a desk.
In one survey, nearly half of office workers didn’t feel comfortable at their workstations. Prolonged sitting has been linked with exhaustion, hypertension, and musculoskeletal issues in the shoulders, lower back, thighs, and knees.
Desk chair alternatives can help to alleviate these issues for a more comfortable work day.
Standing Isn’t Enough
So if the problem is sitting, then the solution is standing, right? Maybe not. One study of over 7,300 employees found that those who stood for their jobs had double the risk of heart disease than those who mostly sat. It turns out that it isn’t necessarily the sitting or the standing but the lack of movement and variety.
The best outcomes were seen when the employees utilized standing, sitting, and walking at different times throughout their work day. Movement and variety are key here!
Why Desk Chair Alternatives Are Healthier
It’s pretty clear that sitting for long periods is harmful, so the solution may be to not sit at all. The following desk chair alternatives give a wide variety of options to meet different needs. They allow the body to stay in motion (some more than others), and also help the pelvis maintain a proper tilt for good spinal alignment. At our house, we have a mixture of these, along with a mini-trampoline in our school room so that none of us are sitting for a prolonged amount of time.
While they may look a little odd, kneeling chairs serve a healthy purpose. A kneeling chair takes the weight off of the hips and helps improve and prevent hip joint issues. A study with 20 participants found that kneeling chairs helped the lower spine to stay in alignment better than a regular office chair. (Note if going this route, researchers in another study found that the ideal knee angle when sitting in a kneeling chair was 135 degrees.)
Some people may find that this chair works well for alleviating and preventing spinal issues. Others however may find the design cumbersome to get in and out of. This is the kneeling chair I have.
A saddle seat is a minimalistic chair that forces users to have better posture by eliminating a back to lean against. One small study found that those who sat in a saddle seat had better posture and less lower back pain, but hip and buttocks pain was worse. Interestingly, a comparison of chairs in this study showed it didn’t matter which chair was used — muscles tended to get sore anyway, just maybe in different areas of the body.
Another study found that sitting on a saddle chair improved lower back and pelvis alignment, but users also tended to compensate by jutting their necks out further … not ideal. None of the chairs compared in the study were perfect across the board, but the saddle chair performed better than both the office chair and kneeling chair when it came to proper spinal alignment.
A saddle seat can help improve lower back posture and alleviate pain. However, sitting in a saddle stool for too long can cause muscle fatigue and pain. This one seems to be a pretty good option.
A lot of different chairs fit into this category, but the premise is the same. These backless chairs, or stools, feature an unstable seat that constantly prompts users to maintain body balance. These stools are similar to yoga balls in that they tilt and swivel at multiple angles for an active sitting experience. A study comparing multiple chair options found that the balance stool helped promote better neck alignment compared to the other seats.
Balance stools help to engage the core and encourage active sitting. Many balance stools aren’t height adjustable, so they may not fit a particular height or desk for proper alignment. Some people may find the constant minute movements distracting from their tasks. I find that kids love these and we have personally tried (and liked) these:
Yoga, Stability, or Exercise Ball
Exercise balls (also known as yoga or stability balls) have been around since the 1960s but now they are becoming popular especially in office settings. Like balance stools, they encourage active sitting and are thought to engage the core and other muscles. The results are a little more mixed on this desk chair alternative though.
Several studies have shown that sitting on an exercise ball doesn’t expend more energy than a regular office chair. Other research has shown that trunk motion and lumbar movement were greater in the exercise ball group. However, the same group also experienced significantly more spinal compression.
Start out Slow
A small study of 14 people sitting on exercise balls found muscle activation minimal and the seat uncomfortable after an extended time. In a different study, those who slowly transitioned from an office chair to a ball experienced decreased back pain compared to those who just jumped right in. This seems to indicate that an exercise ball can be beneficial, but users should start out slow.
Finding the Right Exercise Ball
To adjust the height the ball can be deflated a little, and different sizes are available for people with different heights. Some exercise balls are weighted or have sand at the bottom to keep them from rolling across a room when you stand up.
An exercise ball can be helpful and encourage active sitting, but it may take a little more concentrated effort moving around on it to reap the benefits. Some people may find this option a little too unstable, bulky or uncomfortable for them. This is one that we have used.
Exercise or Yoga Ball Chair
This option offers the benefits of an exercise ball, but with a little more to it. Since the ball is resting in a frame it can’t roll away but is still bouncy enough to offer some movement. There’s a small backrest to prevent fatigue for those who need a little more support. It’s also a little less bulky for those who can’t comfortably fit a full size exercise ball into their office space. The wheels on the bottom making moving around the office easier, too.
While this desk chair alternative offers many of the same benefits as an exercise ball, it may not allow enough core movement to really engage muscles. However, it may be a good compromise for those looking to have the support of an office chair with the bounce of an exercise ball.
Unlike some of the other desk chair alternatives, a bike desk requires significantly more muscle motion. One study showed that bike desks help to burn fat and increase work engagement without negatively effecting cognition and work performance. Study participants cycled about 98 minutes a week, so they weren’t even active the whole time to see positive results.
Other studies have observed the following benefits of bike desks:
- Typing tasks and short term memory not adversely affected
- Response times that required attention improved
- Better attention and work performance
- More motivation
- More energy and a feeling of better health
- Increased typing speed without increasing typing errors
Bike desks can be a good option for those that have the space since users are reaping the benefits of actively exercising. Some people may find the cycling distracting or dislike the sitting position for certain work tasks. Here’s a decent one to check out.
Standing desks are a popular option available from most stores. Several years ago, even some of the White House staff transitioned to standing desks.
Surprisingly, standing desks have a long history. It’s been said that famous men like Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leonardo Da Vinci all utilized standing desks. Antique standing desks from the 18th and 19th century can be found at certain antique stores.
One study found that those who stood more for work had lower cortisol levels and decreased stress than those who sat. Other research has found that standing offers more body movement than chairs that were supposed to encourage active sitting.
Some standing desks remain at a comfortable standing height, while others also convert to fit a seated position. I prefer desks like this to raise and lower from sitting to standing (or to adjust if more than one person works there) at the touch of a button. A sit/stand desk offers the benefits of standing, but also allows a break for fatigued legs.
I love my standing desk (with treadmill option) because I felt it was a better option for me than a chair. I like that I can get some more movement in and the kids aren’t tall enough to reach my computer and other items on the desk. The downside to a standing desk though is that it can cause varicose veins and back strain if used for too long without moving around so it is important to walk or use a wobble stool some of the time.
Treadmill desks offer the benefits of standing, but pair it with more movement for increased benefits. It can help lower cortisol levels, discourage weight gain from a sedentary lifestyle, and improve overall health.
Some people worry that walking may be too distracting, but the pace is very slow. A study comparing treadmill desk users to those sitting in a regular office chair found that both groups had the same speed and accuracy on cognitive tests. Another study found that those who use a treadmill desk didn’t perform as well at typing and other tasks that tested attention, learning, and memory. Despite that, the physical and stress-relieving benefits can make it a worthwhile option for some.
Treadmill desks may not be the best option for everyone though I love mine and it’s what I use when recording The Wellness Mama Podcast. Those who do photo editing, graphic design, and other tasks that require a steady hand may find the walking too jolting. It’s ideal to have a treadmill that has a desk over it, instead of attached, since this makes the workspace more stable while walking.
Which desk chair alternatives have you tried? Does one of these options sound like the right fit for your workspace? Share below!
Discussion (4 Comments)
I was wondering what your thoughts are on the materials exercise/stability balls are made of? I recently received an exercise ball, but it contains styrene and latex and there was a warning on the box for possible carcinogens. I saw the ball you linked to was free of phthalates and heavy metals -does/did it still have the distinct “chemical” smell?
Thank you for all you do!
Katie - Wellness Mama
Yes!! I used to have SO much neck pain and loss of mobility from my traditional desk. I’m a writer and work at a desk for long hours… and I used to have the worst posture. I saw a huge improvement when I switched to a standing desk! I do want to try a treadmill desk next! Thanks for a great post. xo
Wow some really great ideas! Thanks for sharing!