I have two daughters… it seems it was only yesterday that they were doing what kids do being energetic and mischievous. To quell this infinite energy I purchased a large inflatable rubber ball from a local department store, coincidentally about the same size as one of those exercise balls touted as an all encompassing solution to the seated workstation but with one distinct advantage: it has a handle, a large handle. My daughters (about ages 4 and 7) found great delight in holding onto this large handle while bouncing all over place, sometimes using their legs as propellants or simply jumping up and down on the ball like a bucking bronco. They even mastered stairs. They also took great delight in riding on Dad’s back while he held onto the handle and bounced all over the lawn and living room on the ball. I never did master the stairs - my sense of safety and self preservation precluded that.
Fast forward to present times…my daughters are getting ready to graduate college. All of us spend countless hours in front of a computer, and because I’m getting on in age I sometimes have a sore back or stiff legs and could really use a massage from such activities. I’m sure many of you do the same.
During an office ergonomics evaluation, a worker grabbed me and enthusiastically espoused how good a ball works as a chair. She showed me a bright silver ball in front of a reasonably good computer workstation. She had gotten rid of her office chair, and wouldn’t give up the ball for anything - she sits on it while making stupendous claims that all her shoulder, lower back and upper leg problems have magically disappeared. Not only did it rid her of the discomfort that she had, but looks like it will keep it at bay and may even prevent any and all things related to back symptomology from evolving into something nasty. In short, it is the panacea of all panaceas as far as computer seating goes for her. She suggested that I help install a company wide program for everyone to get one of these new wave seating devices... and bless her heart, she couldn’t think of anything better to do for her fellow workers than to take care of all of their back pain.
I thought she might be onto something. I remembered doing something like this with my two girls, so I rummaged through the garage and dug out our old orange ball. I decided to try it out as a computer office chair and give it a critique. Coincidentally, I started running into more and more folks using balls, talking about balls, advertising balls, thinking about using balls for office chair replacements. Maybe I was just noticing these because I was personally involved with one, or maybe it was the latest and greatest fad that solves perceived problems and was so “hip” that it just had to be a real uncovered secret discovered by a fitness guru in their exploration for optimum physical performance or simple pain relief for all the computer jockeys they see with tight or worn out musculature. Balls are even commercially available through mainstream retail outlets, and show up at exhibition halls in Ergo Conferences. Everyone seems to have a friend or knows someone who has a friend who owns, or at least has tried one.
So, is this just a fad to replace $800 office chairs with a $24.99 as seen on TV type of ball? Have the physiologists and exercise gurus really uncovered something applicable that has been staring us in the face ever since someone sat on an inflatable device, or is it simply just so avant-garde that the cool, hip and “really does work” concept completely overrides our understanding of a chair? Psychosocially are we so ready for a new approach that this appeals to our sense of meeting the need at a vastly cheaper price, and “My aren’t we great using simpler devices, getting back down to the basics of simply plopping our behinds on something soft? Look at all the benefits - oh and by the way it must be (to add another hip term) “ergonomic” if it does so many nice things for the human body…”
But what really are the benefits, if any, and are they biomechanically real or just perceived? In some circles, perception is the only thing - if it works for you, then Godspeed, use it and make sure it is doing what you think it is doing for you. There is no argument for success - just make sure its benefits are real and measurable.
But what about the masses – are they for everyone? Do these balls really do what those who use them say they do? How about the failures - those who tried them and found out they weren’t as advertised? Can the balls really replace a good task chair? Remember, under the right (or wrong, depending upon your viewpoint) conditions, a tree stump can be proven to be more effective and more comfortable than an expensive task chair - no matter how well the task chair is designed.
Well, we put together a small task force made up of users, Certified and Associate Ergonomists, physical therapists, engineers, occupational therapists, and exercise physiologists - all professionals and all (not surprisingly) with opinions.
Would you like to know what we thought? The answer is in the sequel to this article Part 2: What’s the Hubbub About Ball Chairs? Are They Really Ergonomic?
Ian Chong, a Certified Professional Ergonomist with Seattle based multi-disciplinary Extreme Ergonomics Inc., designs and prototypes unique tools, equipment and workstations addressing occupational injuries in all occupational environments, industrial and office on a national level. Ian holds advanced degrees in Ergonomics & Occupational Biomechanics, Industrial Design; and Architectural Engineering, and is also profiled in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Originally published on ergoweb.com December 16, 2010.