Gym balls (so-called Swiss Ball) are in fashion, but are they healthy to sit at work and at home? Let's go back to the basics...
A healthy sitting posture revolves around a stable pelvis. The first posture below (on the sit bones or ischial bones, and against the lumbar support) is the healthiest to sit for prolonged periods of time. Conversely,
What happens when sitting on a gym ball? Firstly, the flexible and round shape of the seat create pelvic instability. Hence, the spine is also unstable. Secondly, the lack of lumbar support makes that your pelvis is free to rotate backwards, i.e. your spine tends to slouch unless you mobilize your muscles: your weight remains on your tissues instead of being transferred onto the chair. If you try and "sit straight", you will hollow your back, sometimes helped by keeping your feet back.
how to sit on a swiss ball?
To sit well on a gym ball, you should have your heels under the knees and sit with a flat back, i.e. on your sit bones. As when you sit on an office chair, your torso should be slightly forward.
To hold the pelvis in this neutral posture, you should engage the lower transverse abs (under the navel): if you bring them slightly inwards, you increase the pressure around the lower spine, which stabilizes it. This muscle effort explains why you can't sit for too long on a gym ball.
To make your job easier, the ball pushes your feet and knee outwards. As a result, the femur bones tighten the sacro-illiac joint, and therefore participate in stabilizing the pelvis. This posture is particularly advised for pregnant women to compensate for the softening of the ligaments that occurs after 3 months. However, nothing prevents you from assuming the same posture on a standard office chair...
Some advocate in favor of the gym ball because it allows for a "dynamic sitting posture". Of course, you need to move, but not anyhow and anytime! A well adjusted office seat does not make you a rigid statue; rather, it allows for micro-movement which supplies oxygen to the deep muscles whilst distributing your weight on the tissues. After 25-30 min, it is indeed time to decompress the lumbar spine, but the best solution is to stand up and consequently adapt the task: make it a habit to stand for informal chats and phone calls, and you will move whilst always keeping a posture that is adapted to your activity.
a swiss ball for all?
A gym ball is therefore a training tool... but nobody should train 8hr per day, a certainly not while focusing on something else (esp. work!). The gym ball is therefore meant
Hence, I do not recommend that companies invest in Swiss balls as an alternative to ergonomic office chairs that are individually adjusted. As a private person, you may however want to give it a try, provided that you remain within the above-described framework.
Personally, I prefer however to invest in things only when I am in full control of what Mother Nature gave me, i.e. my muscles and gravity. These two are always available, and mastering them makes me free: my health does not need to depend on anything but me.
For more information on office ergonomics, DSE and homeworking, visit the course summary on Erg'OH Conseil website.
The cartoon below reminds be both of my job as an ergonomist and of my job as a posture therapist.
The ergonomist works mainly with companies (B2B). For many of them, improving working conditions takes time and energy. However, in thinking so they forget future gains in terms of productiviy, quality, motivation, lower absenteeism, etc.
The posture therapist works more with private people (B2C). He also meets many who believe that they lack the time (or the energy, or both) to think about the new behaviours that they need to repeat in order to anchor new habits. In doing so, they also ignore future gains in health, quality of life, performance (e.g., in sports), and even energy and immunity as several clients of ours reported.
Hence, yes: we always have other priorities than to correct an unhealthy state of things, which violates the laws of physics and anatomy. But do we really have a choice when we are not the ones who set the rules?
A recurring question usually comes when I train office workers: what is the right distance to the desk when sitting? The picture below illustrates 3 situations that I will comment below: at the right distance, a bit too close, much too close.
"Text neck" is an umbrella concept to describe the neck (and head) symptoms of those spending too much time on their smartphone (typically to write text messages). The March 2017 issue of the Spine Journal rings the alarm bell: practitionners notice an increase in the prevalence of the issue.
We absolutely agree on the fact that mobile screen devices (smartphones, tablets, etc.) are a health hazard. Our main and most effective recommendation is therefore to limit their usage time. One way to do so is to call rather than to text, another one is to send vocal messages (e.g., via Whatsapp) rather than to type. Teenagers need particular attention from adults in this respect.
Once this is done, it is indeed true that raising the phone helps avoiding a forward head posture. However, holding the phone at eye level may also create strain in the neck and shoulders area. Hence, placing the phone on an elevated surface (e.g., shelf), inclined if possible, is surely a healthier option.
Finally, a good body awareness will help you keeping the neck aligned: make sure that your thoracic spine is not rounded, that your shoulders are not pushed forward, and that you keep your chin drawn slightly inwards. It will also help you slowing down when your body tells you it has enough...
Many people and companies purchase office chairs without really knowing how to recognize good ones from less good ones. Let's have a look at what field experience teaches us.
First of all, there is a difference between buying a chair for one person and buying a chair for a population. If you buy it for one, the chair may be less adjustable, as long as it is adjusted! If you buy it for a population, it needs to fit a wider range of morphologies. Hence, the adjustement ranges may need to be larger.
Secondly, you should bear in mind that the more adjustment possibilities, the bigger the risk that it is not adjusted properly. One may rightfully ask whether more is always better.
These technical specifications will help you choose a chair for a population. On the video below, you will discover the usual adjustments for a good quality chair. [...]
For the last 10 years we have been giving numerous conferences and workshops. More often than not, participants asked why we were not intervening in primary schools to teach children early on. Today we are officially launching a pilot project in Switzerland to achieve this. It was time: a large number of teenagers already suffer neck and shoulder pain, before even entering the job market! [...]
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