If you also took into consideration to use a Swiss ball instead of your usual office chair (that big inflatable ball from the Pilates studios)… or even thought about buying a standing desk, then this article is for you!
Already lots of people are becoming conscious of the fact that sitting is the new smoking. Indeed, sitting implies a 140% increase in pressure on your lumbar spine (so 40% higher compared to standing). But let’s see this phenomenon through the eyes of a specialist in posture and high-performance training. Generalizing: sometimes the chair is better, sometimes the ball and sometimes standing. But let’s see what’s actually happening to your spine and muscles!
About your body
First of all know that your muscles are a combination of slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers. The slow twitch fibers are activated usually even at the smallest of tasks like picking up a bottle of water. They have a low threshold of stimulation and your nervous system recruits them first by default to provide stabilization prior to using the bigger more powerful muscles. The fast twitch fibers have a higher threshold at which they are recruited by your nervous system. As a rule of thumb: the more fast twitch fibers are usually more superficial than the slow twitch ones. For example: your bicep is more visible and superficial than your diaphragm. The slow twitch fibers play a key role in your posture while the muscles containing mostly fast twitch fibers are considered „phasic” muscles, meaning they aid your locomotion and performing intense activities. For example: your glutes (butt muscles) and hamstrings contain lots of fast twitch muscle fibers which are only activated when your sprint but not when you walk or train on a Stair-Master. As far as sitting on a chair or a Swiss ball or standing upright goes, you will use predominantly your slow twitch muscle fibers to hold your torso vertically. Here is a key article I recommend to get an idea on which muscles have predominantly slow twitch muscle fibers and which have predominantly fast twitch muscle fibers: Intelligent Stretching Part 1
But how is this important when choosing between chair vs. Swiss ball vs. standing desk?
A matter of efficiency
When you sit in your chair your body will opt to not activate even most of the slow twitch muscle fibers necessary to be bipedal. This sort of efficiency is how we survived the Ice Age. The drawback when not activating a muscle is that you are depriving it of the work it needs to maintain that muscle and it will slowly atrophy. This is the exact reason why astronauts lose muscle mass and bone density when they no longer need to fight gravity. It may seem common just to stand, but bear in mind that an object which is not supported by anything will drop over 100 meters in the first 3 seconds! This is how much effort your muscles are doing just to hold you upright on planet Earth! And this is an effort (and a stimulus) which your body no longer gets when you sit in your comfortable chair. Moreover, when you are flaccid, hunched over in a chair, you will tend to not use muscles to maintain your trunk’s verticality but rather you will be held up by your ligaments… as in the ligaments of you spine. On the short term this should not be an issue, but if there is no healthy proportion between ligamentous support and muscular support you will tend to overuse the ligaments and this can lead to chronic pain as the ligaments become worn out prematurely. You can think of ligaments as a door stop. You don’t want to bang the door against a door stop all day every day and just because you can do it, does not mean that’s how it’s designed to work.
More unstable thus better?
When sitting on a Swiss ball, your body perceives instability as a threat. You will activate more slow twitch muscle fibers just to hold the vertical position of your trunk. Yes, the muscles responsible for posture do get a form of training this way. Apparently this is an advantage, but your body is not that simple. Please know that in any motion there needs to be a certain rhythm and synergy between slow twitch and fast twitch fibers. Both within each muscle (intramuscular) and between muscle groups (intermuscular). The reason why athletes get injured predominantly in the last quarter of a game is that their stabilizer muscles (composed mainly of slow twitch fibers) have become fatigued. This is making them less capable of fine control over the bone’s position in each joint. Now think of your spine… how well and precise it is created. How so many muscles, nerves, blood vessels are packed in such a small place and still you can maintain their functionality while moving in so many directions! So… when the stabilizer muscles around your spine fatigue, you are more likely to get injured. In other words, if you sit all day on a Swiss Ball it is more likely to get injured while playing football with your friends, while bending over to pick up the bowling ball and even when moving groceries from the car to your fridge. This is the exact reason why it is not recommended to train the abs and lumbar erectors (which are frequently and incorrectly perceived as your „core”) at the beginning of your training session. Rather it is best to train your „core” after you have done the compound movements like sprinting, deadlifts, squats etc. Of course, when a trainer uses a Swiss ball intelligently, his/her client can have amazing results very fast but how many times is this amazing tool overlooked?
When you sit all day you deprive your muscles of an effort which is very important in maintaining their tone and function. On the other hand if you switch to a Swiss ball as of now, it is likely you will fatigue your stabilizer muscles throughout your workday thus predisposing your joints and spine to injury due to lack of stabilization or even over-stabilization.
Yes, standing requires the most coordination of the three situations and bear in mind we are the only animal capable to stand for a long time. Still, we cannot equate standing upright to standing with our forearms on a standing desk, with a computer screen in front of us. On top of this, your optic nerve receiving stimulation from the screen will modulate the tension in your cervical spine which in turn leads to changes of the normal head position. This predisposes you to what is known as the forward head posture. And this in turn cascades into your whole body bringing about changes at the level of each joint and major muscle group. So what does this mean to you? It is not optimal for your posture to use a standing desk either. It does have the advantage that your hamstrings do not get chronically shortened (as in using a chair for too long, with your knees bent) but it still favors the development of a forward head posture and a sub-optimal center of gravity which will then influence the muscle tone in the hamstrings anyway (and virtually all other muscles) due to the complexity of your body.
The solution and conclusion
Studying experts in human movement such as Matthew Wallden and Paul Chek we learn that walking has very good therapeutic effects. The rhythmical movement favors peristalsis (the pulsatory motion which helps pump fluid and matter throughout the body), mobilizes and lubricates joints, oxygenates the tissues and a wide array of other benefits. Walking is also more beneficial than standing, so, in a parallel universe, your desk would be connected to a tread mill. Of course, this will not take place tomorrow, but already conventional office meetings have become walking meetings and corporations as well as smaller firms are shifting towards this healthier alternative.
Your posture needs to be optimized normalized to make both standing and walking more efficient and healthier. Posture is the result of the balance between the length and tension in certain muscle groups and to improve posture all you need to do is know exactly which muscle to stretch and which to strengthen. What I just said disqualifies from the start every group / generic training program in which everyone executes the same stretches and the same exercises. Furthermore it is unhealthy to stretch a muscle which does not need stretching. Of course, in various group training sessions it is easy to observe that people who tend to be quite mobile gravitate toward activities which imply even more stretching (e.g. Yoga), while the opposite is true for most body-builder types. Education is key and also balance. As it is in posture!
Chairs with lumbar support are, according to most specialists, to be preferred over chairs without lumbar support. But that support will only serve you if you place your lumbar spine on it! Unless you sit where you’re supposed to on that chair, upright, unloading the same weight on each butt-cheek, with your computer screen correctly positioned, your desk at the correct height… you will not get the benefit of it. In other words, even the best ergonomic chairs with the best lumbar support are only a tool which needs to be used in conjunction with every other tool in your office and merely having each piece without the right integration will not bring more than a placebo.
The Swiss ball needs to be used intelligently and inflated appropriately in order to provide the right stimulus for your muscles and nervous system. I highly recommend to educate yourself in this direction with the amazing Paul Chek – the man who introduced Swiss balls in the weight room: The Power and Beauty of Swiss Balls – Paul Chek.
The solution easier to implement
My recommendation for those who are relatively healthy and free of spinal pathology which can make them incompatible with either one of the three choices is to alternate evenly between the standing desk, using the Swiss ball as a chair and sitting in the ergonomic chair. For some, 15 minutes of standing could be sufficient stimulus while others could stand for hours without any issues. The main idea is that none of the three options is perfect and the balanced approach is preferred. Of course, if you can leave the computer screen behind and take a short walk about once every hour you will get to experience a different state of relaxation as it allows also your eyes to focus at different distances. Regarding myself I alternate the height of my desk just as I outlined above so that I spend some time in each position. I also balance between the positions depending on how much I already sat / stood up on that day in other activities. I use a plain chair with no lumbar support. I take breaks to do basic stretches according to my needs. I lie on the floor to allow the spine to decompress and also do easy exercises from the Feldenkrais method which are designed to cultivate relaxation.
I highly recommend reading the Healthy Fitness Bible: How to Eat Move and Be Healthy