Does sitting on an exercise ball actually do anything?
About a decade ago, the Swiss ball (the giant inflatable rubber stability balls you’ll find in any well-equipped gym) moved from fitness centers to the office in a big way. Desk jockeys rolled them into their cubicles en masse, convinced that sitting for eight hours straight provided an ab workout that they couldn’t get from sitting in a chair all day and could prevent or reverse the low back pain that affects just about everyone who works at a desk.
In theory, it makes sense: you undeniably use your abs to sit on any chair without a backrest more than when you sit in your lumbar-supported, ergonomically-adjusted, Herman Miller Aeron chair.
Even Dwight Schrute jumped on the ball-as-a-chair bandwagon. Here he explains the many supposed benefits of ‘the fitness orb’:
What the evidence says
Unfortunately for Dwight and every other ball-sitter who bought into the hype of their life-changing potential, the evidence tells a very different story.
In a landmark 2008 study, a group of researchers from the University of Waterloo observed a group of office workers sitting on both a stability ball and office chair for an hour each while they performed normal daily tasks. They measured, recorded and analyzed the participants spinal posture and muscle activation. They found that while sitting on a ball did increase muscle activation and reduce pelvic tilt (which I’m constantly talking about at Ascent Chiropractic), it was simply too uncomfortable to keep up for any significant period of time.
A separate group of researchers from the same university had performed a similar study in 2006, in which volunteers sat on both a stool and stability ball for 30 minutes. They found that the ball had no effect on the participants “muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads or overall spine stability.” The volunteers in that study also complained of low back pain, which the researchers suggested was due to increased butt-to-seat contact, resulting in uncomfortable compression of soft tissues.
The bottom line
The researchers basically confirmed what we already know: humans are inherently lazy with their posture. No matter whether the participants were sitting on an exercise ball or an office chair, they all naturally reverted to their classic “slumped over” posture if given enough time.
But there is a silver lining, even if the fitness orb isn’t the miracle cure Dwight claimed it to be. Case studies have shown that if you already have low back pain, for some patients short lengths of time sitting on a ball can reduce the frequency and severity of low back pain (though it’s important to note that the patients who saw a benefit only sat until they became uncomfortable, not all day).
The real answer is simply that we need to sit less overall
Instead of debating over what we’re sitting on, we really need to think about how we can sit less overall. Prolonged sitting can contribute to muscle imbalances of loss of normal motion in the joints of the low back, pelvis and hips. These joints are designed to move and be upright so minimizing your time sitting is your best bet.
Dealing with low back pain from too much sitting at work?
At Ascent Chiropractic, we utilize hands-on spinal manipulation, soft tissue therapy, postural strengthening exercises and active rehabilitation to relieve low back pain, improve function, and help the body heal itself. And if we can’t help, we’ll sort out whether you should be in the care of a physical therapist or medical doctor and refer you appropriately. Ready to get rid of back pain and activate your health? Make an appointment by calling us at 262-345-4166 or via our online scheduling app.
Gregory DE, Dunk NM, Callaghan JP. Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting. Hum Factors. 2006 Spring;48(1):142-53.
Kingma, I. and van Dieën, J.H. (2009). Static and dynamic postural loadings during computer work in females: Sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball. Applied Ergonomics 40:199-205.
McGill SM, Kavcic NS, Harvey E. Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: various perspectives to guide decision making. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2006 May;21(4):353-60.