It's 2023 and ergonomic chairs are now the norm in most offices and even many homes– as we go to the office less in our hybrid working world. Ergonomic office chairs might be ubiquitous, but they are not all created equal. Some are even dangerous.
There are three key things they don't tell you about ergonomic chairs in 2023.
I’m Kent MacWilliam, owner of Symmetrix Exercise and Rehab, a kinesiology studio that specializes in movement, rehab. We have been helping people live pain free since 1992. We won kinesiologist of the year in 2021 and top kinesiology studio two years in a row, in part for our ongoing work on standing desks, laptop and office ergonomics.
The three main issues with ergonomic office chairs are: the price, the huge variety in styles and more importantly having an ergonomic chair doesn’t necessarily equal good ergonomics. In this blog, I'll be discussing the pros and cons of ergonomic chairs and discussing why you should think twice before investing in a new one.
Definition of ergonomic chairs
Ergonomic chairs have been around since the 1850s when the first steel-framed office chairs were developed in America with the hope of making the workplace more productive. The term “ergonomic” is derived from words ergon (work or labor) and nomos (natural laws) by Polish Polish scholar, Wojciech Jastrzębowski. Some credit an american industrialist Frederick Taylor for pioneering ergonomics with his theory of “scientific management” method (Taylorism), and his search for the optimum method of carrying out a task and improving productivity. Since then, ergonomics have evolved into a field of science describing human interaction with our environment.
It wasn’t until the 1970 when modern ergonomic concepts truly inspired office chair design The Vertebra chair designed by Emilio Ambasz and Giancarlo Piretti is a great example.
These early designers used office furniture as tools in the workplace that was designed with consideration of efficient human interface. Ergonomics allows more natural, safe and intuitive use and these modern ergonomic chairs became more popular.
Since the introduction of ergonomic office chairs in the 20th century, a stream of designs, research and information have been made available. From Swiss balls to mono-leg seating stools to highback “:gamer chairs”, ergonomic chair designs are seemingly infinite today.
Benefits of ergonomic chairs
First, ergonomic office chairs are designed to keep your body from getting tired.
Our bodies need support when not on two legs, with an event and sustainable pressure on the spine, neck, and head. Getting support in the right places chairs reduce muscle and joint strain on the legs, back and neck. These features lower overall fatigue and improve your work stamina.
Second, ergonomic office chairs are designed to be comfortable.
Features such as adjustable seat height, lumbar support height and seat pan allow for the user to customize their chair to their body type and needs. Features such as adjustable armrests, tilt resistance and even a headrest can help to ensure the user is in a comfortable position. These features are very helpful to reduce stress and improve concentration at work.
Finally, ergonomic office chairs prevent repetitive strain injuries and improve overall health and wellbeing.
The right chair which is set up for your body can keep muscles at relaxed but not slack which prompts you to make efficient movements all day. Being poised for efficient movements at work is like a sports stance on the field, they will prepare you for what’s to come and lower your risk of injury.
An ergonomic office chair that is fit for you will also improve circulation and reduce joint discomfort by allowing proper alignment of your body’s systems. Good blood flow and optimized human function can help to improve focus and productivity.
What they don’t tell you about ergonomic chairs
Cost of ergonomic chairs
Let’s be real, ergonomic chairs are expensive. They are some of the most expensive chairs, and for a reason. Even regular office chairs are packed full of features. They're extremely well designed and built using high quality materials. The expression: “you get what you pay for”, definitely applies to ergonomic chairs.
Prices for a full ergonomic chair (well padded and adjustable, armrests, rolling and without headrest) range from $300 at the low end to $1500 or more at the high end. The more you pay, the more you can expect from your chair. With a cheaper chair you compromise on build quality, feature depth (like how up or down it will adjust), durability, brand reputation and service.
Like any investment, the more you spend upfront, the better value you will experience for the years to come. And don’t forget, ergonomic chairs are assets, certain brands hold their value well on the resale market.
There are a huge variety in ergonomic chair styles
Not all office chairs are created equal, and not all have all the ergonomic features.
Task chairs are a general name for a type of chair used for a specific purpose, but that also might not be intended for full time use. For example if you work in retail, a chair at the till might only be used when a sales clerk is ringing through a client. Generally speaking these chairs are lightly designed and swivel, with some adjustments but not to fit perfectly to one person.
These plush chairs look large and in charge, with fill armrests and a finish to match the desk. Executive chairs come in a range of sizes and styles with some ergonomic adjustments. Appropriate for a board room these chairs often do not have adjustable armrests or adjustable lumbar support.
Kneeling office chairs were all the rage in the 1980’s and 90’s, billed as a better way to sit. They were different, designed in Europe and very usable. They were, however, a fad and are not known to demonstrate any measurable benefit to the user in the long term ergonomically. With that said, they may be used long term if used correctly, as outlined in the next section on good ergonomics.
Moving from the 90’s into the 2000’s we saw the emergence of corporate yoga, open plan offices and the swiss ball for sitting. Similar to kneeling chairs, there were claims that sitting on a swiss ball improves posture and stability. The truth is that good posture is possible on almost any chair, but takes a lot more work on some– like the swiss ball.
Ergonomic stools are gaining popularity in recent years because of their simplicity. They’re usually colourful and cost effective, making them an easy option for offices seeking a temporary solution or replacement of a task chair. As with kneeling chairs, stools are very limited in functionality and are not a good substitute for an ergonomic office chair.
Every feature is a compromise. If you are looking for something lightweight and transportable, you are giving up features like adjustability, arm rests or even lumbar support. Normally folding chairs are not designed ergonomically for long term use.
Not your traditional chair, this subset of ergonomic chairs is designed for at home use during gaming. Gaming chairs are available in a wide range of quality, but tend towards the low end.
They are a dished chair, ergonomic-ish with emphasis on the following features: oversized backrest including headrest, a reclined or bucket seat including a wide upper arm rest, low and wide lower arm rests, lots of cushioning and bright colours and logos.
A gaming chair is very comfortable for gaming hours on end because it allows the user to move their arms around freely, but does not provide the same support for more work related tasks like typing, mousing or calling. It tends to feel more reclined and consequently more passive than an office chair.
Mesh ergonomic office chair
Many modern high end office chairs, for example Herman Miller Aeron chair, have part or all mesh supports. A mesh chair is in a breathable mesh fabric with strong enough weave to even improve on the support of foam. They work well, and for this reason brand name mesh office chair are highly sought after.
Ergonomic office chair
There is a modern ergonomic office chair design, with wheels, armrest and lots of adjustments. This is the best design for regular long term use at a desk in an office. If you are working at a computer workstation for hours each day, ergonomic office chairs are the best tool for the job.
What is the best office chair?
What you won't hear much is that there is no best ergonomic desk chair, there is only the best for your particular use. Task chairs, gaming chairs and even stools have their purpose and place, it is up to you to use it as intended, actively.
Each chair line is different, and each brand puts on it's own spin. If you're looking for better style and reputation of manufacturer, take a look at the following brands:
- Herman Miller
- Human Scale
- Steel Case
And many many more.
Having an ergonomic chair doesn’t equal good ergonomics
As discussed earlier, good ergonomics will help reduce injuries, keep you fresh and comfortable. But this is only possible if the tool, in this case an ergonomic chair, is used correctly.
If you try to strike a nail with the handle of your hammer, you won’t drive it in. Similarly, if you passively sit in an ergonomic office chair, unadjusted, off-centre, making awkward movements reaching for your keyboard or printer, you won’t see the potential benefits.
Think of the features of your ergonomic office chair as prompts. Each adjustment should be made to your body to achieve the proper fit. For example lean into the back and set the right resistance for your weight, then keep leaning back slightly all day long. The backrest really is designed to carry some of your weight. Armrest lateral adjustments, lumbar tension, all of these things are designed for you to set, and then keep using all day long.
And one critical tip is that movement is not only ok, it is recommended. If you find yourself leaning, crossing your legs, slouching forward then get up! Go get a drink of water, move around, take a short break even. Then sit back down with intention, use some small but deliberate tension on each touch point with your chair. Remember: “motion is lotion, movement is medicine.”
Maintenance of ergonomic chairs
Modern ergonomic chairs maintenance is designed to be simple. Set and forget, never to be revisited… until it breaks. Office chairs get bumped, tipped, scratched and just used year after year and it all adds up.
The good news? These are simple machines so the regular maintenance is simple as well. You might be wondering what to oil and where to crack it open, but the secret sauce is cleaning. Keep the adjustable levers, flanges that hold the wheels and floor underneath your chair dust free and clean, and the chair will last years longer.
If the chair is already old, and especially if you are the second owner, do a 360 check. Look at all the surfaces, materials, nooks and crannies, and then test each of the levers. Flag anything that looks loose or cracked, and replace the part or if necessary the whole chair.
Brand names will usually have parts available to replace. This service is often done by your furniture supplier, so check with them first. In all my years of using an office chair I’ve had to replace an armrest and a lumbar support once. For the lumbar support I called the supplier, Heritage Offices here in Vancouver, and a technician came within a week to fix it with a whole new part.
They won’t tell you the best way to set up your ergonomic chair
It's no secret that sitting for extended periods of time is bad for your health. But where do you start with your set-up, and what about your office chair?
What you don’t hear much from DIY ergonomic chair set up guides is that it’s not about your chair, and all its features. The best comfort comes from an evenly distributed and light pressure or tension against and within the body.
Movement is good. Notice it, readjust and reset that light internal tension again. The chair is simply a tool to make this easy. Ergonomics is like a house, it all starts with your foundation.
To optimize your standing desk set-up, we’ll start at the feet, and work our way upwards from the sitting position. We’ll start with setting up for a typical ergonomic office chair, with some tips at the end if you are using a non-ergonomic chair.
Get to know your office chair
Find all the levers and buttons, and identify all the possible adjustments which typically exist for the lumbar support. These are usually height, seat pan or seat depth, armrest and headrest.
Not all chairs will have all these adjustments. Also check for use, worn parts and cracks as these might limit the function of your chair. I will show you workarounds if you are missing any important adjustments.
Feet and foot rest
We’ll start at our feet (our foundation) because we want our feet flat on the floor in front of our knees. This will help keep you back in your chair with your back supported. Use a foot rest if your feet don’t touch the ground with the chair’s lowest setting.
Plant those feet in front press ever so slightly into your foot. This will allow for your hips, shoulders and head to get into stacked position for the most relaxed and upright posture. Feel planted will prevent you from slouching, and keep your back, neck and shoulders healthy.
Adjustable seat height is a common feature in all work chairs. Start with the seat in the highest position, then lower your chair while sitting in it until you can plant your feet firmly on the ground and your knees and hips are at a 90 degree angle.
Seat pan (seat depth)
Next is the seat pan: you want to put your bum back as far as you can into your chair and have 3 finger widths between the back of your knees and the chair. The back of your knees are sensitive and will become irritated if they’re in constant contact with your chair. Adjust your seat depth to allow for this space when sitting back into the seat.
If your chair is too long and you can’t adjust the seat pan any deeper, you’ll need to add a backrest to be able to bring your body forward enough.
Lumbar support is available on most office chairs, and is very important to keep your shoulders from rounding forward. To identify the height for your lumbar support, scoot forward, and feel the more concave (curved inward) part of your lower back.
The middle of that curve should be the middle of your lumbar support - adjust it on your chair to match. You’ll know when there is enough support because it should feel super comfortable when you sit back into your chair.
Leaning back into your chair is important, the chair should do the work to keep you upright. If you sit too far forward and your body will lean forward and tire out your back and core. And if you’re sitting too far back for long periods and reaching out to your keyword you will experience strain on your arms and shoulders.
To achieve the perfect support, adjust the back of your chair on a slight incline backwards so that you feel that it is pushing back against you when you are in a neutral position. It’s hard to focus and work when you’re reclined. Rather, find your “prefered” position that keeps your feeling alert and focused, but relaxed in their body.
The back of your shoulders should touch the back of your chair. That helps prevent a slouched or head-forward forward posture. By keeping your chest and front side open you will prevent strain on your back. Be mindful of the back of your posture by making sure your shoulder blades are touching your chair throughout the day.
You want your shoulders to be relaxed, and elbows supported with your elbows at your side. Everyone’s body is a different width and chairs tend to fit too large, leaving most of our elbows a bit far from our body.
If your armrests are too far from your body your shoulders will become tired over time. If the armrests move sideways, adjust them inwards to allow your arms to rest comfortably as close to your sides as is possible. On some chairs you might achieve this by rotating the armrests inwards.
Some chairs have a head rest, but not all. You don’t want to lean on it with much force, aim for more of a light touch to help remind you where your head should be. Think of it like a mindfulness cue.
If you're not sure if your head is too far back or forward, plant your feet, rest slightly against the backrest and lightly pull down your shoulder blades. You will quickly find a neutral position.
A headrest pillow is simply added padding on your headrest. Push the headrest back to accommodate the pillow and continue using a light touch
Tips for using your chair
If you find yourself slouching, lifting your feet off the ground, crossing your legs or leaning to one side, that’s ok! It’s totally normal to re-adjust, just think about gently bringing your body back to the correct position. Remember, movement is good!
Tips for using a non-ergonomic chair
As listed above, several ergonomic chairs are missing important ergonomic features, or maybe you’ve read this far and you’re still sitting on your kitchen chair or coffee shop lazy boy.
Some office chairs lack the adjustments above, or maybe you're using a kitchen chair for now and are looking to troubleshoot. Here are a few tips:
- Use pillows to increase the chair height or as a back rest. These will help make adjustments for your seat height and seat pan depth.
- Use a footrest like a small box or phone book for a chair that’s too tall
- For lumbar support, roll up a hand towel and place it in the concave part of your spine
An ergonomic chair Improves posture and proper movement improves concentration and productivity, reducing risk of injury. Is it going to make you employee of the year while tightening your golf swing? No, but it is one tool in your toolbox to optimize your health and develop and keep healthy habits.
Quality movement and solid posture is at the core of ergonomics, and an ergonomic chair will cue you to achieve this. But make sure to educate yourself optimum use. We spend hours a day in our chair so let’s not feel down about it, let a quality ergonomic office chair dial up your health to a “net positive” in your life.
Know what ergonomic chairs are, what type of chair you have, what maintenance is necessary and how to actually set one up. Avoid the hype and get to the point of these useful office tools.