An exercise ball, also known as a stability ball, is traditionally used in exercise routines as means to improve balance, allow exercisers to do exercises they would not otherwise be able to do (i.e. using the ball against a wall to squat) and expand range of motion (i.e. crunches).
Use of exercise balls has moved out of the gym and into the office, where increasing numbers of people use them in place of chairs.
Sitting On An Exercise Ball Benefits
The idea of sitting on the ball versus a traditional chair is that this change can increase core strength, since the abdominal muscles must be constantly engaged to avoid falling off. Improving core strength means improving posture, balance, and stability. Proponents also cite increased calorie burn as a benefit of maintaining your balance throughout the day.
Sitting On An Exercise Ball Risks
Opponents of using exercise balls to sit on at work argue that what is desirable in a chair is not the same as what is desirable in a piece of exercise equipment. A chair, they say, should take pressure off of the low back and provide support for the arms, which can alleviate discomfort and lessen fatigue. The constant muscle activation required when sitting on a ball for prolonged periods can increase fatigue and make back pain worse.
Sitting On An Exercise Ball Research
I found a number of studies examining the benefits and drawbacks of sitting on an exercise ball at work. With a few exceptions, the research overwhelmingly shows that a chair is a better option than a ball, at least when you’re at work.
A 2006 paper published in Human Factors examined differences between sitting on a stability ball and in an office chair in terms of trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine posture.1 The authors found that, though there was a small increase in the activation of certain trunk muscles, sitting on a ball resulted in significant discomfort. So, their recommendation is to avoid using a ball for this purpose.
Another study looked at similar variables and found an increase in “spinal shrinkage” in people who sit on an exercise ball,2 which certainly doesn’t sound desirable.
Yet another research paper concluded that “prolonged sitting on a dynamic, unstable seat surface does not significantly affect the magnitudes of muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads or overall spine stability.” The authors also found higher levels of discomfort in the stability ball users, which may be a result of soft tissue compression against the ball.3
I found 1 paper that supports the use of stability balls for decreasing pain. In a case report published in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 2 low back pain sufferers reported improvement in symptoms after changing from a chair to a ball.4
Sitting on a ball versus a chair may increase passive caloric expenditure. A study from SUNY Buffalo showed a 4.1 calorie per hour increase in energy expenditure from sitting on a ball versus a chair.5 This translates to an extra 32 calories over an 8-hour work day.
So, Is Sitting On An Exercise Ball At Work A Bad Idea? Yes.
In short, yes. Chances are you will experience more low back and neck discomfort without any benefit to your posture or core muscle strength. If you like the idea of the extra calorie burn, you can get the same effect from walking 1/3 of a mile at lunch or during a break. Getting up from your chair a few times per day, stretching and walking around the office will also do more to improve your posture and reduce pain than sitting on a ball.
The idea of improving your health while doing something you have to be doing anyway is attractive. However, this is not a good means to do it. If you want to improve your health, eating healthfully, being active, stretching, and engaging in an effective exercise program are much better ideas than swapping out your chair for an exercise ball. Save the exercise ball for crunches and wall squats.
- Gregory, D, Dunk, N, Callaghan, J. Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting. Hum Factors. 2006 Spring; 48 (1): 142-53. ↩
- Kingma, I, Van Dieen, J. Static and dynamic postural loadings during computer work in females: Sitting on an office chair versus sitting on an exercise ball. Applied Ergonomics. Volume 40, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages 199–205. ↩
- McGill, S, Kavcic, N, Harvey,E. Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: Various perspectives to guide decision making. Clinical BiomechanicsVolume 21, Issue 4, May 2006, Pages 353–360 ↩
- Merritt, L,Merritt, C. The gym ball as a chair for the back pain patient: A two case report. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2007 March; 51(1): 50–55. ↩
- Beers EA, Roemmich JN, Epstein LH, Horvath PJ. Increasing passive energy expenditure during clerical work..Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Jun;103(3):353-60. ↩
Hello, I have a desk job (Human Resource Manager) and do sit on a balance ball chair at work. Would you say the same risks are associated with the balance ball chair as with just the balance ball? I find that it helps me sit upright. And also forces me to take a break away from my desk, since sitting on this is not as comfortable. Look forward to your views.
I was not familiar with these chairs before I looked them up (just now after reading your question). It looks like a lot of them provide lumbar support which is one of the issues with sitting on a balance ball. I could not find any research studies on balance ball chairs, so I would say if you feel it is beneficial then continue using it. If you get pain or fatigue or whatever, then consider switching to a regular chair. I am sorry I could not provide a more definitive answer, but I hope this helps.
For people like me who perspire very easily, walking on a treadmill desk or sitting on an exercise ball isn’t a good idea.
The first question that comes to mind is what was the length of the studies that are referenced? From my personal experience in switching from sitting in a desk chair to sitting on an exercise ball it is absolutely true that you experience an increase in discomfort. I found the first days very uncomfortable and stood up and walked around for 20 seconds frequently. It took two weeks for my muscles to acclimate to the increased load and demands of sitting on a ball. Now, four years later, I prefer sitting on a ball to sitting in a chair. I find myself slouching more in a chair. Though, even now, I tend to stand up frequently and do a lot of reading while standing up. I personally feel this is better than sitting for prolonged periods in a desk chair, no matter how comfortable it may be. I recall seeing studies I should go find that showed that prolonged sitting was quite dangerous.
Interesting but goes totally against my personal experience. I had a major back injury in 2006. I have been symptom free since 2011 due to the exercising I do to keep my core strong. One of the first things I did was switch to sitting on an exercise ball while working. That was in 2008. I felt immediate relief. Even before my back injury, I could rarely sit in a chair for long periods without discomfort and soreness. I happily sit on my ball, now and then bouncing or rolling around on it, or even rolling it under my back to do some nice back stretches and other exercises for brief breaks. When forced to sit in regular chairs for any period of time, I experience discomfort and soreness which I never experience on my exercise ball. I realize we’re all different but, for me, the exercise ball works great.
I don’t have any personal experience with using a stability ball, but those who use them in my office tend to slouch their lower back. it seems to me that the key to making the ball work is proper posture. I’d be interested to know if the research took posture into account in their study.
I too have noticed that some people tend to slouch when on the ball. I’ve switched to a standing desk (along with many in my office) and really like it. I use a standing matt which I think is important. What are your thought on standing at work? It might make for a good article. Thanks
My experience using a stability ball has been positive.
A couple of things to note, and some questions for the author:
1) The exercise ball in the picture is obviously under-inflated. I find the best results are to keep the ball as firm as possible. I wonder how many people surveyed have their ball under-inflated? Could that have been a factor in ‘lower-back pain,’ fatigue and other negative results?
2) “If you like the idea of the extra calorie burn, you can get the same effect from walking 1/3 of a mile at lunch or during a break. Getting up from your chair a few times per day, stretching and walking around the office will also do more to improve your posture and reduce pain than sitting on a ball.”
Okay, this is good advice. You can use an exercise ball instead of an office chair, and it follow this advice as well.
Your first question is interesting. I would hope the people who ran the studies ensured the balls were inflated properly, but I do not assume anything anymore. I do agree that an under inflated ball is not good for the back.
I also agree that getting up from your desk, walking around and stretching is a good idea regardless of whether you sit on a ball.
I used an exercise ball chair for a while, and I’d say it can be effective if you’re mindful of your posture while using it. Personally, it caused me to sit up straight and engage my back muscles for a few days, then I found myself creating entirely new forms of bad posture as I began to compensate.
Wow, That was all good as I have struggling and researching to get over my lower back ache while in sitting posture. I take inbetween, wear Back braces now and then, try not to slouch, try to do quick stretch inbetween….But the pain keeps coming back. I do stand and work and sometimes rest against the wall and stretch my legs and work…I have tried a backrest on my wooden couch, a firm Japanese chair…No solution yet.
I was planning to go with exercise ball …(tried long time back, but felt my back was hanging in the air without support), heard COSCO has good chairs..
Just praying I get the solution as I am a software professional and has no other option but to work on computers
I’m really glad you found this article helpful! Have you considered getting an adjustable standing desk, so you can switch between sitting and standing throughout your day? I know a number of people who’ve experienced a lot of benefits and alleviated their back pain by getting an adjustable desk. Give that a try, and let us know how it goes!
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
I have been sitting on an exercise ball for about a year now. I do have back problems due to my equestrian competition and running history. I have found that sitting in a regular chair compresses my spine, and the lack of motion causes my muscles and joints to stiffen and ache. I actually found the adjustment period to take more like 3-6 months before I was “comfortable” sitting on an exercise ball with little/no fatigue. I do have to be mindful of posture or I may slouch. However, overall, as long as I keep the ball properly inflated I have found the ball to be a God sent. I bob around a little as I work, and move my hips and lower-back side to side (just slightly). The initial fatigue has dissipated. Over all I feel SOOOO much better. My back doesn’t hurt after sitting for hours. Also, because I am not still and the exercise ball does force me to use more muscle on a daily basis I am encouraged to get up and move around a little bit more. I am NOT using this as a form of exercise, more as a form of staying loose and less still.
Also, I have been known to throw in a couple of crunches here or there. They really really help my lower back… Hey, I already have the equipment =)
I guess my point is, the exercise ball might be worth trying for those with lower, and even upper-back problems. (People really were not made to sit in a chair for 8-12 hours.) But, there is a real adjustment period. It takes a while for the body to find sitting on the ball normal. I would not go back to sitting on a chair though. Brief chair use is fine, but the exercise ball is just so much easier on my joints and spine.
Hope this helps!
Just one more thing. I would definitely prefer a standing desk to an exercise ball. If I could do that at work I absolutely would. Because I can’t I have found the exercise ball to be a sufficient solution. For me, much better than a chair.
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Lauren! I used to use an exercise ball too, but now I have a standing desk. I vary between sitting and standing throughout the day, which I’ve found to be ideal. But I agree – if you don’t have the option of getting a standing desk, then using a stability ball could be a good solution. Like you said though, it’s important to remember your posture. Slouching on a ball is not ideal. But bouncing, rocking your hips, and doing other small movements are great ways to engage your muscles while otherwise primarily sitting.
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor