If you're uninjured or you've been discharged from treatment and have been doing back-strengthening exercises for a while, an exercise ball may prove to be a time-saving way to work your core. Core strengthening is used in physical therapy clinics to help relieve back pain due to muscle weakness and muscle imbalance. It is also used to help people with back pain increase their ability to perform daily activities.
However, if you have a back pain condition or are still recovering from an injury, using an exercise ball as a full-time office chair probably isn't for you.
Using an Exercise Ball As An Office Chair - What the Experts Have To Say
Many credentialed ergonomic and spine experts recommend that people with back problems not use an exercise ball as their main office chair. Studies have shown that sitting on an exercise ball while typing increases back muscle contraction. Because the ball does not provide back support as a chair does, there's no way to rest back muscles when they need it. And most study participants report more discomfort from using the ball than from sitting on a regular desk chair. Exercise ball chairs also put pressure on your bones and your soft tissues, which may cause back pain or discomfort.
Most people have at least some degree of strength and flexibility imbalance between the muscle groups responsible for upright posture. When we exercise without first addressing these imbalances (done by establishing ideal alignment), we run the risk of developing this dysfunctional muscle use pattern even further. This is why it’s a good idea to learn how to sit upright with good posture prior to using an exercise ball. It may also be another reason why those in the know recommend against using the fit ball as an office chair, especially by people with back problems.
Any kind of sitting increases compression on your spine. Remember, the ball does not support your back muscles -- it only challenges them. Compression combined with a lack of support may irritate any injury, condition or muscle imbalance you may have, and will likely increase your pain if used for too long.
But if you've been doing your back exercises faithfully for some time, and your doctor or physical therapist has given you the okay to work with an exercise ball, you may find that using it as an office chair in a limited way makes a good adjunct to your home program. Performing trunk strengtheners while sitting on the unstable surface the exercise ball provides may even help you take your back exercise routine to the next level. Again, get your doctor's approval before trying this. If possible, ask your physical therapist for some things you can do on the ball.
Tips for Using Your Exercise Ball Chair
Start using the exercise ball chair for about 15-20 minutes or less each day. Let your pain and discomfort level help you determine how long to exercise while sitting on the ball. Don't work through pain. Then, build up your tolerance over time.
Using a fit ball as an office chair is probably not a good way to help you establish your desk posture for the first time. This reason for this is obvious -- the ball will move underneath you as you attempt to position your body parts in neutral (non-stressful) positions. You can't really learn the details of good alignment while the surface that’s supposed to support you moves unpredictably. Also, it takes some time to learn how to sit upright on your exercise ball chair. For some, this may be a balance, coordination and strengthening exercise in itself.
Once you’ve learned and practiced good desk posture, the next step is to do core strengthening and dynamic stabilization exercises on firm ground. For most people, a few weeks of daily back exercises may be all they need before graduating to using an exercise ball as their office chair. If you’re excited to get started with your exercise ball routine, you might pick out the exercises you plan to do and practice them in your regular chair for a few weeks. This will prepare your muscles for the extra challenge added by your having to manage your posture while sitting on an unstable surface.
Remember, while a fit ball office chair may be an effective tool for developing core strength, if your back muscles are tired or your pelvic position is not level and neutral, you’ll likely lose that great desk posture you began with. At that point, you’ll be exercising with an increased risk for back pain or muscle strain. The risk is even higher when you have a back condition.
More Reasons Not To Use An Exercise Ball Chair as Your Office Chair
Other reasons not to use a fit ball include balance problems, frequent bouts of dizziness, vertigo or Meniere’s disease. Other reasons include if you’re pregnant or if you're sick with the flu. If you have a spinal disease, including degenerative changes in the spine (which most of us get as we age), speak with your doctor before trying the exercise ball chair.
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McGill SM, Kavcic NS, Harvey E. Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: various perspectives to guide decision making. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2006 May;21(4):353-60. Epub 2006 Jan 10. Accessed Oct 2010.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16410033
O'Connor, A. The Claim: Replacing Your Desk Chair With an Exercise Ball can Improve Your Posture. New York Times Health. Sept. 20 2010. Accessed Oct 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/health/21really.html
Robinson, J. et. al. A comparative study of the stability ball vs. the desk chair in healthy young adults: sagittal curvature, sitting duration and usability. Scoliosis. 2009; 4(Suppl 2): O33. Published online 2009 December 14. Accessed Oct 2010. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793460/