COVD-19 last year brought the world to its knees – or more appropriately, its backside. The pandemic sent some 72 percent of the workforce home to pursue business on a more round-the-clock scale that many actually find more workable than the stressful central office setup of yore.
In fact, a new Pew Research Center survey notes that of those now bound to their home office, more than half (54 percent) like it that way and hope to continue the practice long after the world gets back to normal.
Hence, the chair. Choosing the right office chair can be a life or death matter, literally. While the meme “sitting is the new smoking” may be a phrase turned lightly in social gatherings, studies show a direct correlation between sitting and chronic disease and premature death.
Other research clearly shows the link between the ergonomics of sitting and subsequent pain in the back, spine and legs. The cure? Short of surgery, there is much that can be done to prevent injury, promote wellness and live a long, happy and productive office life. And it all begins with – the chair.
Bag the Ball
So, what to look for in you search for the ultimate office chair? First, do not be looking for the ultimate ball. While a fun fad during the early aughts, the science of wobbling your way through a Zoom call does not back the whimsy.
Over a long day at the desk, muscles will fatigue rapidly and cause the body to compensate into non-neutral postures, otherwise known as slumping. That will place pressure on the spinal discs, which may cause discomfort and outweigh the assumed benefits of using the ball as a chair – although it is definitely well recommended for various types of exercise and relaxation.
All That’s Fit to Sit
1. The Seat
The ideal office chair should start with at least five casters at the base to ensure stability. Then there is the seat, which should be adjustable until your thighs are parallel to the ground, not sloping toward it.
According to a deep dive paper from the University of North Carolina, the seat pan depth should provide a three-finger gap between the back of the calf and the front edge of the seat pan. If the seat pan is too shallow, all the pressure from sitting is placed on a small part of the thighs, which may lead to discomfort. If the seat pan is too deep, it will either be difficult to use the backrest or the front of the seat will put pressure on the back of the nerves and tendons at the backs of the knees.
Stand in front of the chair and adjust the height until the top of the seat pan is at the height of the bottom of your kneecap. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground, then adjust the chair height up/down slightly until you find a comfortable location.
2. The Angle of the Chair
The seat pan should also be able to tilt backwards and forwards to allow for shifting posture throughout the day. The seat pan should have a rounded front edge to increase the pressure on the backs of the thighs and help distribute the pressure over a larger area.
You want between three fingers up to a fist’s width of space between the back of your calf and the front edge of the chair when your back is touching the backrest. If you are unable to adjust the seat pan, consider adding a pad to the backrest that will shift your posture forward in the seat while still allowing for contact with the backrest.
3. The Backrest
The backrest height should be an adjustable element of the chair to ensure lumbar support is fitted properly into the lower back. Ideally, the backrest will mirror the shape of your back and allow the weight of the upper body to be supported by the spinal vertebrae at the bottom of the lumbar curve at the small of the back (where most back pain begins).
In addition, the backrest should be able to recline independently of the seat pan and be set at an upright or slightly reclined position. A slightly reclined posture opens up the angle between the hips and trunk and decreases stress in the lower back.
Ensure the lumbar curve on the backrest fits into the small of your back. Do this by raising the chair back as high as possible and then move the backrest downward in small steps until it feels most comfortable.
If the chair is not adjustable or doesn’t have adequate lumbar support you can add a lumbar pad to the chair with a pillow or towel, as long as it does not suddenly make the seat pan too short. When seated, the angle between the thighs and back should be a bit more than 90 degrees.
4. The Armrests
Now, there is the topic of where to put your arms. In fact, armrests are optional. Even if adjusted properly for comfort, there are some setups where armrests will interfere with work.
Should armrests work for your needs they should be adjustable in height. Too high and you’ll find yourself shrugging your shoulders to use them. Too low, and you may end up leaning on one armrest. Moreover, they should be rounded on the edges to distribute the pressure over a larger area. And they should, ideally, be spaced wide enough or narrow enough apart to be comfortable.
Sit in the chair with your arm bent at a 90-degree angle and adjust the armrest until it is directly under your elbow. Make sure both armrests are the same height. They should not obstruct your movement of pulling up to your desk or reaching for the mouse. Armrests are “rests” not “supports” so actually typing or doing other intensive arm-related work while resting on these elements is not recommended.
The Total Chair
As a frequent sufferer of sciatica and lower back pain, I have weathered the gamut of chairs – from Herman Miller to Office Depot and Ikea to a fast grand spent at Relax the Back for what seemed like the most promising cure.
In the end, the chairs ended up in the garage and I ended up in the doctor’s office for a continuing series of acupuncture treatments. And that seemed to work well enough – until the pandemic hit.
Since then, I have taken out and dusted off those garage-stored chairs and have been running an inconvenient and continuing rotation of sitting solutions mixed with regular standing breaks (word is every 30 minutes or at least 71 minutes total in an eight-hour day) and daily five-mile walks to keep my spine happy and circulation in motion.
All33 Backstrong Support
And then I came upon an unlikely option while watching an episode of Shark Tank. The All33 Backstrong chair did not get the deal but it got my attention.
It claimed to be the only chair that allows natural movement of the pelvis and back, stimulating circulation, thus encouraging an increase of oxygenation and improving flexibility. The item was designed by a well-reputed chiropractor who is the designated back-cracker for the Los Angeles Clippers. My pain was nothing compared to repeated tumbles on a court.
What made me interested was something I had not seen before in a chair: A cradle. Because I am short (5 feet) I am not the average customer for chair manufacturers. In fact, it is rare to find a chair that actually allows for my feet to rest squarely on the ground.
Similarly, I am usually given the choices of sitting toward the front of my seat and not benefitting from back support, sitting properly in the back of my seat and having my legs dangle weightedly under my desk or sitting with a variety of cushions, pillows and towels so that I can type without tension in my back or under my thighs. Hence, the acupuncture treatments.
The ”cradle” in the new ALL33 Backstrong chair ensures that wherever I put my derriere, a built in cushion support will be meeting my delicate lumbar area. The soft, yet firm seat pan and back support are both part of this cradle that pivots up and down to not only meet my body where it is or needs to be, but also ensure continuous movement of my spine and thighs. And yes, there are arm rests – padded for comfort and arching slightly.
The look is good – a sleek sloping contour that fits right into my wedge of a home office, and the components are non-leather and made with sustainability in mind.
The downside? I am short and not all components adjust for that – hardly a surprise, given the primary clientele of the chiropractor who designed this chair. But I also know that unless I grow some inches or have a chair custom made for all of my odd measures, I am at the mercy of fast-talking sales assistants or images on Amazon Prime for anything that might work for me. My garage is already full.
Meanwhile, I have been sitting in this chair for several weeks while managing an intensive production schedule, and that sciatica? A memory, a bad one. My savings on acupuncture translated into investing in this chair – currently available online and at select b8ta retail stores for around $799.