Your butt is going numb. Or your low back is burning. Or maybe it feels like something is burrowing into your hip.
It’s time for an ergonomics series that looks at some of options to help you deal with the challenge of working in a new at-home office environment.
In this first part, we’re looking at some potentially quick and easy products to help break up the monotony of working from home.
What’s a wobble chair? What’s a knee-stool? What’s the difference between active and passive sitting and how can it help you? It’s time to find out.
I can’t keep working like this forever
There are many ways to describe the budding repetitive stress injury you have from doing office work in a less than ideal office environment.
Perhaps you’re one of the millions of office workers now realizing that the less-than-stellar ergonomics of your workstation at the office maybe weren’t so terrible after all.
If you’re thinking, “Okay, I can’t keep working like this” (referring to neck, shoulder, arm, hand, back pain or numbness, tingling, spasming, etc) then there are a few things you could be doing to help yourself.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff. And let’s start with the low back.
Quick word of warning: government authorities want you to know that some links to products in this article may have an affiliate code in them. Which means if you end up buying something to help yourself, I’ll get a few cents on the transaction. It’s like a virtual tip jar for writing this 3,000 word article, and spending hours reading product reviews. I’m not endorsing any specific product for your situation. Just letting you know what’s out there.
Shocking! You still need to take breaks and move around…(Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique?)
Let’s get this out of the way right now: you need to take (many) sitting breaks.
And it’s fun to take a lap around the office. Maybe not so fun to take another lap through the kitchen. (Or maybe too fun?!)
Still, you need to set a timer and get up and go somewhere else, even if it’s just to stretch (more on stretches later), at least 3 to 4 times per hour.
One way to start taking frequent breaks without hurting your productivity is to start using the Pomodoro Technique. You can read more about the technique here on the creator’s official page, but the gist is: you work in short focused bursts, and then reward yourself with a short break.
There are plenty of Pomodoro themes apps and websites to help you, like:
25 minutes is what’s suggested, but for the purposes of ergonomics, I’m just suggesting starting timing your work intervals. 25 minutes may be too long to not get up for some people.
When you’ve reached your break, why not put that incredibly danceable happy song play list at the ready, and do 60 seconds of ridiculous dancing?
Keep the chair but change the surface: give your sensory system something to think about other than your discomfort
Most sitting is still sitting (the new smoking) no matter how you do it. But there are a few ways to break up the monotony of your sitting position besides getting a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair.
By switching the surface on your chair, you can stimulate your body’s sensory system in a different way. It’s not going to be mind blowing, but it can make a difference especially if you swap out surfaces a few times per day. (Anyone who has more than one pillow will understand instantly what I mean.)
What’s the point? To change the sensory input coming from your “sit-bones” – AKA your ischial tubes, and the very complicated bundles of muscle and soft tissue down there that sends tension shooting up your spine.
Below I’m linking to a handful of products as example of what can work…These aren’t endorsements of these products necessarily. You might find using a bed pillow or a bolster can provide the same “change in surface”. Keep in mind the shape of the seat you most commonly use will change the way that these products rest underneath you. A flat chair may be easier to swap the surface on than a molded or contoured chair.
Gel and/or memory foam chair cushions
When it comes to changing seat padding, almost everything is gel and memory foam or some combination. Most of these products are going to be too soft or too hard for long term sitting for all people. Just read the reviews: there is no perfect product because there is no universal “bottom shape.”
So, what I’m not suggesting is that you find a cushion that eliminates your pain forever. I’m suggesting a cushion that alters what your body is feeling for a short duration to provide a variety of sensation. Find something you can use for an hour, or perhaps two.
Here is one that has a high percentage of five star reviews but is also mid-range in price:
- Plixio Gel Seat Cushion Memory Foam Chair Pillow with Cooling Gel for Sciatica, Coccyx, Back & Tailbone Pain Relief
Here is another without as many reviews (a high percentage are positive for the product type) but its dimensions are larger:
Seat wedges that alter your “seat angle”
The concept is the same as above: most will end up being too hard or too soft for forever sitting. With a wedge you can raise the angle of your seat and bring your body higher relative to your workstation. The change in your pelvic position will naturally influence the tension in your legs and low back as your core engages differently. At least for a little while. Here are a couple of different types that look promising.
This one is built to help you engage your core while sitting:
Over 70% five-star reviews:
- Memory Foam Car Seat Cushion: Breathable, Non Slip, Dual Layer Memory and Polyurethane Lumbar Support Pad
You could also think outside the seat, and try a wedge that’s built mainly for sleeping, and re-purpose it for your home work area. The bottom, legs, and low back can interact with this particular wedge:
- Brentwood Home Zuma Therapeutic Wedge Pillow, Helps with Sleep & Acid Reflux, 100% Made in USA, CertiPUR-US
The original “sensory seat disruptor:” that big ball
Yoga ball. Swiss ball. Exercise ball. Whatever you want to call it, this was the first “weird surface” that many chose to bring to dull office environments. Somewhere between giant inflatable cushion and non-traditional seating, people are still sitting on the big inflatable ball to break up the monotony of sitting.
Be sure to think about size: if you want to try one of these, and you haven’t yet, the size of the ball relative to preferred work environment really does matter, so you might want to take some measurements. (If you’re taller than about 5′ 6″, you may not find a ball big enough.)
Some choose to use them with a stability platform to keep the ball in place, and others go more “free-range” to have different engagement of the core muscles of the abdomen.
After reviewing 20+ balls on Amazon, I cannot link to one in particular–sorry to disappoint you. Most don’t have ratings above 60% in the five star range, and the few companies that do don’t have exercise balls big enough to be a functional seat for most.
I’d hate to link to a product that randomly popped, like some of the cheaper ones can do…(Who knew?) So I will leave it to you to start your search.
That said, I still believe this sitting surface is worth exploring for a work station if you’re at least a few inches under six foot.
(And if you’re a little taller and are willing to spend more money, you can check out the Swopper Chair below for a seat that moves similar to a yoga ball without the ball itself.)
There is another kind of cushion called a wobble cushion…But we’ll get to that at the end of the next section.
Get another chair to also use, and make it non-traditional
In addition to swapping surfaces on your chair, you can also swap out your seat itself. There are some “classic” non-traditional seating options, as well as some trendy hipster office chairs that you can bring into your home office.
Personally, I can’t imagine ditching a traditional chair or couch/laptop scenario for most of these seats full-time. What they do offer is a way to change our work ergonomics by forcing our body in a different position or a chance to move while working. Something to trade in/out over the course of the day.
Many of these designs take us from passive sitters, just resting on a surface, to an active sitter, where we are forced to increase engagement of core musculature in order to make them work.
The modern grand-daddy of the non-traditional seat: the kneeling chair (aka kneeling stool)
The kneeling chair (originally called the Balans Chair) has its roots in the late 1970s, when a Norwegian designer created a seat where most of the body’s weight was split between the shins (anterior tibia below the knee joint) and the “sit-bones” of the pelvis, instead of having the bottom/lumbar spine talking the full brunt of the seated position.
I like to think of it as the water bed of non-traditional office seating. Contrary to popular belief, the weight of the body is not supported by the knees directly.
There are a variety of kneeling chair designs that follow this same principle, and there’s even evidence that the original Balans Chair does help the body maintain a proper lower back curve and increase blood flow to the legs, when compared to a standard office chair. Participants in the study didn’t call it more comfortable than a normal chair however (1).
They are still making kneeling-chairs with a variety of designs. And it might be something to consider for a lower-cost non traditional office chair. It definitely will engage your core and help your seated posture.
Here is one of the highest rated kneeling chairs on Amazon; I couldn’t find anything that came close as far as ratings percentage:
- KOVALENTHOR Ergonomic Kneeling Chair, Adjustable Stool for Home and Office, Comfortable Knees and Straight Back, Flexible Seating, Improve Your Posture with an Angled Seat, Knee Rest Thick 265 LBS
The original Balans Chair from Norway is still sold online, and its about three times the price of a generic kneeling chair. It’s design is a lot easier on the eye, however, than the usual, dare I say ugly kneeling chairs:
The saddle seat, for your first or your 100th rodeo
The saddle seat is another “proven” alternative to the traditional office chair. Coming more from the world of the stool than the world of the office chair, saddle designs have been used in dentistry and surgery in order for doctors to get closer to their patients, while maintaining stability.
The saddle stool allows the worker to angle the body forward (similar to a kneeling chair) without increasing the foot print of the chair/stool, effectively bringing the seated person closer to his or her work.
- There is a study from 2017 that showed microsurgeons using saddle seats experienced less musculoskeletal pain than those using a traditional chair (2). (Micro surgeons conduct surgery with the use of microscopes…They themselves are not tiny, just to clarify.)
- Another study of 150 dental students showed less work related pain for those students who were using a saddle seat as opposed to a conventional dental seat. (3)
In addition to changing the angle of the pelvis, and bringing one closer to their work, It’s believed that saddle seats may take pressure off of the lower sacrococccyx region of the spine (the saddle area/perineum) if they are a split-saddle, which may offer comfort advantages for men.
There are a variety of saddle chairs, and many have back rests if you’re looking to straddle (pun intended) the difference between a traditional office chair and a saddle variety.
This one has a saddle and back rest that tilt independent of each other, which will offer more ergonomic customization.
The recline office chair – 20 minute power nap comes free
For purposes of being thorough, I’m including a brief note about the reclining office chair. It does what its name says: it’s an oversized office chair that also has reclining capabilities.
If you’re potentially interested in a reclining office chair at home, I might suggest you head to your existing recliner. The only way to work reclined is with a laptop with a sizeable lap desk to work at an angle. So, I’m moving on to the hipster chairs.
The trendy “active sitting” or non-traditional office chairs
Here are the trendy office non-traditional chairs you might want to bring to your home office to give your body some seating variety.
If you cannot fit into skinny jeans, or grow a beard that you spend time oiling, you can at least have a chair that makes people say: “What is that?”
And honestly, all of these look pretty darn fun.
The Bouy Chair
This chair is a spinning round cyclinder with a curved base that encourages your movement while moving. It’s the “fidget device” of chairs.
The cylinder height is adjustable by five inches. The built-in handle is provided in the design, which makes it easy to move to wherever you want to work next. It’s on the less-expensive side of the trendy work chairs, and the five-star review percentage is high for an ergonomic product. It’s sized for most seated work surfaces.
If you think the “wobble” aspect of the chairs below might be too much for you, both in the challenge of active sitting, and the pocket book, the Bouy Chair might be an option for you.
The Swopper Chair
Like the Bouy Chair, the Swopper is made to keep you moving in a sitting position.
Swopper’s active sitting is encouraged through a “springy” stool column, rather than a flattened, round surface. Because of this column, you can lean like the Bouy, but you can also bounce like you’re on a Yoga Ball.
The chair is naturally going to cause you to angle your pelvis toward your work, much like a kneeling-chair or saddle chair. And as you sit back to think, relax, or take a break, the movement of the chair will keep your lower and upper body engaged while activating your core.
Like all of the active seating options listed here, it’s an option that may want to ease into, especially if you have chronic pain. As movement is key to pain relief for many, many people, the Swopper is part therapy device, part work station chair.
It comes with and without wheels.
If you remove the bounce of the Swopper, and make it taller, you get the Muvman, which is a better fit for standing desks. You get the forward position of a kneeling-chair, but this time you’re feet are planted firmly on the floor.
The Muvman has the ability to go up and down by 13″ which allows for a variety of positions if you have an adjustable height desk.
Unlike the Swopper or the Bouy Chair, or other generic wobble chairs, the Muvman has a set angle forward, which keeps the side-to-side movement of the chair pointed toward your work.
Generic Perch or Wobble Chairs
If you like the concept of the Swopper or Muvman chair but don’t like the price, you don’t have to go all out.
There are plenty of generic perch or wobble stools and chairs which will still allow for active sitting. They are a little more cost-effective, even if their features are a little limited.
And there is some minor evidence that “active sitting” (sometimes call unstable sitting) is helpful with back pain (4,5).
Kore Designs has the most options with the a higher percentage rating:
- Kore Design Office Chair: Wobble Chair – Standing Desk Chair, Active Sitting, Adjustable Stool for Office
A few other designs that look promising:
- SONGMICS Active stool, Adjustable Height Standing Stool, 360° Swivel Sitting Balance Chair, for Office Home, Black
- SUN-FLEX Ergonomic Height Adjustable Balance Wobble Perch Stool for Home Office and Standing Desk with Natural and Active Posture (White)
The low cost wobble alternative: the wobble cushion
Some people wishing to try the wobble chair or active sitting strategy may want to get in at the basement level with a simple wobble disc that sits on top of your normal office chair.
This is definitely one of those times where the surface of your chosen chair matters. A flat surface is going to function better than a contoured surface.
Get a standing desk, or variable height desk for your home office
When it comes to the low back, there is no discussion about ergonomics without addressing standing desk or variable height desks. That said, we’ll have to save that for part two of this home-office ergonomics series.
(2) Saddle seat reduces musculoskeletal discomfort in microsurgery surgeons. Int J Occup Saf Ergon. 2019 Dec;25(4):545-550. doi: 10.1080/10803548.2017.1389463. Epub 2017 Nov 17.
(3) Assessment of the ergonomic risk from saddle and conventional seats in dentistry: A systematic review and meta-analysis.PLoS One. 2018 Dec 17;13(12):e0208900. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208900. eCollection 2018.
(4) Trunk postural balance and low back pain: Reliability and relationship with clinical changes following a lumbar stabilization exercise program. Gait Posture. 2018 Mar;61:375-381. doi: 10.1016/j.gaitpost.2018.02.006. Epub 2018 Feb 9.
(5) Improvement of lower extremity electrodiagnostic findings following a trial of spinal manipulation and motion-based therapy.
Chiropr Osteopat. 2006; 14: 20. Published online 2006 Sep 12. doi: 10.1186/1746-1340-14-20
Pomodoro Timer: The original uploader was Erato at Italian Wikinews. / CC BY-SA
Deluxe Kneeling Chair: TonyTheTiger / CC BY-SA
Saddle Seat By Salli Systems – Salli Systems, Public Domain, Link