Do you have an office job? Then you probably know that sitting in a chair, especially slouched over or with poor posture, is harmful to your back and neck and for your health in general. As if back and neck pain isn’t enough, studies link long periods of sitting with a greater risk of all-cause mortality, particularly death from cardiovascular disease. Sitting is bad for your metabolic health, too. A meta-analysis of eighteen studies published in the journal Diabetologia linked sitting with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Why is sitting so bad for your back? Staying seated for long periods forces your hip flexors, the muscles in the front of your lower body to shorten and the hip extensors in the back, including your glutes, to lengthen. This creates a muscle imbalance that can trigger lower back pain and bad posture. You may have seen people with a “swayback” due to tight hip flexors. Not only is this an example of an unhealthy posture, but it also puts added stress on the facet joints in the lower spine. Over time, these joints can deteriorate.
If you work a desk job, you’re probably looking for ways to get out of the sitting position for portions of the day to break up periods of sitting. Some people take frequent walking breaks, climb the stairs, or even do exercises at their desk. Others buy a standing or treadmill desk to force their bodies to move more and sit less. Another popular trend is to use a stability ball in place of a chair.
Why would you want to sit on a ball rather than a chair? A stability ball is a large, soft ball that’s a handy prop if you do core exercises. So, you might already have one and use it for fitness training. Should you take it to work and use it as a seat? Some sources recommend doing this, based on the idea that the unstable surface of the ball engages the core muscles more. So, you could theoretically activate your core muscles throughout the day while you sit. But it might be better to leave the stability ball at home and use it exclusively for core workouts. Here’s why.
Why a Stability Ball Isn’t a Good Substitute for a Chair
The idea behind sitting on a stability ball is to engage the core more. However, a study carried out by researchers at the University of Waterloo dispels this notion. It found that sitting on a stability ball doesn’t boost core engagement more than sitting on a flat stool. In other words, your core isn’t working any harder on a stability ball than when you sit in a flat chair or on a stool.
Another reason people trade in their office chair for a stability ball is the belief that sitting on an unstable surface, like a ball, burns more calories. This idea, too, is overstated. In fact, a study found that you burn only about 4.1 additional kilocalories per hour when you sit on a stability ball rather than an office chair. Over an entire day, that’s only about 34 calories. Hardly anything to write home about! Another study found no difference in calorie burn between sitting in a chair and on a stability ball. So, the difference if any is minimal.
Finally, it is not clear whether sitting on a stability ball poses a greater risk of falls. It’s an issue that, at this point, hasn’t been studied, although there are anecdotal reports of people losing their balance on the ball and falling. So, there may be risks to taking that stability ball to work!
Other Options for Staying More Active at Work
If subbing a stability ball for your chair offers no significant benefits from a core or metabolic standpoint, how can you break the sitting cycle? A treadmill or pedal desk is still an option if your office will allow it, although there’s also a potential for injury with these devices too. It’s also not clear whether pedaling or walking on a treadmill interferes with fine motor skills and slows down work-related activities, such as typing. A standing desk is another alternative. Although standing burns more calories than sitting, the difference is still relatively modest. Over an 8-hour day, you’ll burn about 240 more calories if you stand rather than sit.
You can always set an alarm or a reminder to get up and walk around every 30 minutes or so or take a stretching break. It’s important to do this anyway as sitting too long increases the risk of developing a blood clot in the leg. If your workplace has a staircase, take advantage of it. Climbing up stairs is a calorie burner and cardiovascular training stimulus that also works your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, hip flexors, and core. Take a stair climbing break after lunch to help lower your blood sugar response to the lunch you just ate. If not, take a 10-minute walking break. Studies show that brief periods of exercise throughout the day have health benefits.
The Bottom Line
Don’t give up your stability ball. It’s a good tool for diversifying your workouts and building a stronger core. But you’ll get more benefits if you use it at home. There’s not enough evidence that replacing your office chair with one has health or fitness benefits. Instead, make other plans for staying more active during the day. Take advantage of a lunch hour and break time to move more. Make sure the chair you sit in and your work station is ergonomically friendly and that you’re sitting in it properly. Ultimately, we need to break up sitting more by taking more movement breaks. There’s no substitute for it!
• Diabetologia. 2012 Nov;55(11):2895-905. doi: 10.1007/s00125-012-2677-z. Epub 2012 Aug 14.
• Am J Health Promot. 2015 Mar-Apr; 29(4): 207–209. doi: 10.4278/ajhp.140331-CIT-127.
• Int J Obes (Lond). 2014 Jun;38(6):755-65. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2013.223. Epub 2013 Nov 28.
• American Cancer Society. “Sitting Time Linked to Higher Risk of Death from All Causes”
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