The Office Chair: 4 Seating Tips from an Occupational Therapist
Dr. Nikki Weiner OTD, OTR/L
Chairs, chairs everywhere. You’ve been sitting in chairs since before you could even sit up on your own. Your ancestors sat in chairs too, just much less than we do now. Historically speaking, the earliest physical chairs date back to ancient Egypt. Over time, chairs have taken on many designs and functions and have traditionally been markers of status and wealth. These days, with the advent of modern technology, we are doing far more sitting, so ergonomics has come to the forefront of modern chair design.
Chairs are such an integral part of human life that most of us probably don’t stop to think about them very much. Unless, that is, you are faced with purchasing a chair, in which case you are probably looking at thousands of features and options, especially when it comes to office chairs. Choosing a chair can be daunting, so here are a few things to remember about sitting:
“Ergonomic chair” is an oxymoron. Millions of products on the market make the “ergonomic” claim—from backpacks, to shoes, to furniture. It’s difficult to tease out marketing ploys from actual health benefit. The vast majority of chairs, by nature, are relatively fixed and allow little body movement. The idea of putting the body in a fixed position, even in the most ideal ergonomic pattern, for hours each day while performing repetitive computer movements is not ergonomic. No matter what chair you use, remember that good office ergonomics allows many flexible work positions and the opportunity for movement throughout the day. Even the best chair will not fix your ergonomic woes.
Personal comfort does not equal ergonomic. Lounging on my couch reading a book is really comfortable, but it’s not ergonomic. Comfort is a subjective idea and can vary day by day for an individual. A seated position is ideal when the bones, not tissue, are taking the physical load of the body, primarily through the buttocks and feet and perhaps minimally through the elbows if using arm rests. Also, when it comes to chairs, Goldilocks was right about the whole “too soft” thing, again relating to the ideal physical load distribution. A chair does not have to entirely lack padding, but there can be too much of a good thing. A reasonable amount of seat padding for an office chair is ¼” to ½”.
Good sitting posture takes work. A classic postural pattern for sitting is the “C-shape” spine which is associated with many negative health trends, including poor core musculature, decreased circulation, decreased lung expansion and capacity, decreased digestive functions/ elimination, and neck/ lower back pain. Yet, we often slip into this pattern not only because it’s “comfortable” (in the short term, at least), but because it’s easy. Our bodies don’t have to work very hard to sustain it. Good ergonomics is not necessarily immediately comfortable and it actually takes work!
Adjustability is key. Chairs are not one size fits all, and when sharing chairs amongst co-workers, a 5’0” woman and a 6’5” man do not have the same seating needs. For this reason, adjustability is paramount to good ergonomics. An office chair should at minimum be adjustable in the following ways: seat height, seat back angle, back rest height, arm rest height/ option for arm rest removal. Now the challenge remains for the person to properly adjust the chair with each use.
The most important thing to remember is that ergonomics by nature is interactive and dynamic, and involves both the person and the environment. This means that even the top of the line ergonomic chair is a failure if it is not used correctly by the person.
When choosing a chair, there is so much to consider—design, aesthetics, cost, function.... Don’t let ergonomics fall short on your list. Are you having trouble choosing or not sure you are using your current chair for the most benefit? Contact me at The Rising Workplace for a personalized ergonomic consultation: email@example.com
Cranz, Galen. The chair: Rethinking culture, body, and design. WW Norton & Company, 2000.
Harrison, Donald D., et al. "Sitting biomechanics part I: review of the literature." Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics 22.9 (1999): 594-609.
Hedge, Alan. Ergonomic workplace design for health, wellness, and productivity. CRC Press, 2016.