From slowing metabolism to increasing the risk of diabetes, several studies confirm the negative effects of sitting too much. In addition to countering the effects by getting up and walking frequently, some people swap an exercise ball – also called a gym ball or stability ball – with their regular desk chair to sit ergonomically and “actively.” The theory is that using an exercise ball – which is inherently unstable – forces the body to constantly make small adjustments in the core and lower body, resulting in stronger abdominal muscles and better posture. But this claim finds little support in research. In fact, an exercise ball used as a chair substitute is not as healthy as people think, and may even have adverse effects on posture.
Possible benefits of using an exercise ball as a chair substitute
A 2012 study found that office workers who used an exercise ball perceived better posture, more energy, and better overall balance. In a 2017 study, researchers actually observed how the body physically responded during a 10-minute sitting period and concluded that sitting on an exercise ball activated the muscles of the lower body while not activating the midsection of the body.
Many proponents also believe that sitting on a ball encourages more movement. If you have the ball handy, it’s easy to roll back from your desk and do some abdominal crunches.
Many manufacturers advertise their exercise balls as improving posture and strengthening the core. In a September 2020 article, “The Washington Post” reports that the hype seems to have worked. According to data from market research firm NPD Group, sales of balance balls increased 67 percent year-over-year from January to July 2020. An NPD spokeswoman said sales grew fastest in March, April and May, which corresponded to the time when many gyms were closed and Americans began working from home.
Brian Lowe, a research industrial engineer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and his colleagues published a commentary in the American Journal of Health Promotion in March 2016 that ended, “The research to date does not suggest significant health benefits to justify unstable sitting as a health-promoting intervention.” Until studies show clear benefits, the authors added, recommendations to use exercise balls in the workplace should be viewed skeptically.
Disadvantages of using an exercise ball as a chair
Some studies have found little to no correlation between using an exercise ball in the workplace and the supposed benefits. In fact, some of the studies even show a potential for injury.
No core activation: Studies are divided on the theory that sitting on an exercise ball increases core strength. While one analysis found that this form of “dynamic sitting” works the core muscles, others found no difference in core engagement between an exercise ball and a regular desk chair.
Insignificant caloric expenditure: according to a 2015 study, the energy expenditure of sitting on an exercise ball is low and not enough to reduce the health risks of sitting for too long.
Increased pain: sitting for long periods of time can lead to back pain, but using an exercise ball can have a similar effect. One study found that nearly half of those who used the ball reported pain.
Gym ball as chair replacement: precautions.
If you decide to use an exercise ball as a chair replacement in the office or home office, consider the following factors to get the most out of it and ensure safety.
Consider the size of the exercise ball.
The height, angle and inflation of the ball make a difference. Your thighs should be slightly tilted down and not at a 90-degree angle, but the ball should not be so high that you have to balance your wrists on the keyboard.
Sit on the ball and make sure your hips are straight or slightly higher than your knees. As a recommendation, use these guidelines:
55 cm diameter for a body height of 150 to 162 cm
65 cm for a body height of 165 to 180 cm
75 cm for a body height of 183 cm – 200 cm
Create a safe place
Especially when you first start using it – and if you have the freedom to customize your workspace – it can be helpful to place the ball in front of a wall to catch it if you roll off. An exercise mat under your ball can provide cushioning and support for the same reason.
Add time gradually
If you want to use an exercise ball as a desk chair, you can start with a half hour or less and increase the time each day to see how you tolerate it. You may want to alternate between an ergonomic desk chair, a ball chair, and other forms of Active Sitting solutions. In addition to ball chairs with frames, wheels and lumbar supports, there are other options, such as a treadmill desk or deskcycle, that can increase activity.
Despite its popularity with physical therapists, kinesiotherapists and personal trainers, research studies have not confirmed the benefits of using an exercise ball as a desk chair. If you’re looking for alternatives, consider other options such as sit-stand desks and balance chairs. If you have back pain or other musculoskeletal conditions, be cautious about changing chairs for hours of sitting. It’s also important to pay attention to your posture and get up and move around as often as possible, even if it’s just for a few seconds. This is so much more beneficial than anything you sit on.
1. “Sitting on Stability Balls: Biomechanics Evaluation in a Workplace Setting” – Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, November 2012.
2. energy expenditure and muscular activation patterns through active sitting on compliant surfaces – Journal of Sport and Health Science, June 2017.
3. the effect of active sitting on trunk motion – Journal of Sport and Health Science, December 2014
4. unstable sitting in the workplace – Are there physical activity benefits? – American Journal of Health Promotion, March 2015