The video above portrays how to best use an exercise ball while working at your desk. If you don’t wish to waste your money or are worried from having your colleague pop it, avoid getting one to your office.
As tempting as it is to hit two birds with one stone -the birds being doing your work and being physically active simultaneously- this method simply doesn’t work. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel or achieve a “life hack”, simply invest in a comfortable ergonomic chair (not a gaming chair) and separate your physical activity time from your cognitive work time.
Why you shouldn’t get an exercise ball to the office
As much as we advocate the notion of being more physically active during the day and reducing prolonged sitting as much as possible, we still have to be reasonable about the approach that needs to be adopted to achieve sustainable health outcomes. Unfortunately, sitting on an exercise ball is not considered the most sustainable approach, and here are some reasons why:
Absence of back support
Exercise balls resemble bar stools in respect to the absence of any back and lumbar support. This forces your back muscles to remain contracted in a static extended position for the entirety of your sitting time. This prolonged static contraction means that blood flow in and out of the muscles will be limited, which will prevent your body from releasing the metabolic waste and carbon dioxide produced from the contraction, causing you to feel discomfort and pain after as little as 5-10 minutes of your sitting time. This has been shown in at least two experimental studies for office workers. Unfortunately, sitting repetitively on an exercise ball won’t necessarily give you a higher endurance or back strength, given that there is a fine line between overloading your muscles through specific intensities, frequencies, and durations that elicit improvement in our fitness level, and simply fatiguing them every time you sit, hoping that you will someday have the endurance to last hours in this position. This statement has also been proven by scientific studies which revealed that sitting on an exercise ball does not provide enough stimulus to challenge the muscles efficiently.
Lack of stability
Another disadvantage of sitting on an exercise ball at your computer workstation is the absence of stability, as depicted humorously in the GIF below.
This pushed some manufacturers to create exercise ball chairs that would allow you to sit on a stable exercise ball, as shown below:
While definitely better than sitting on an unstable surface during the performance of cognitive tasks, this practice still advocates for the narrative of prolonged sitting, while trying to hack it with sitting on a partially unstable surface. This would create the false perception that you weren’t sedentary at work, but the reality of the situation is that not only were you sedentary, but also in a prolonged uncomfortable position for your back.
The only way this chair can be used efficiently would be as a brief alternative to a regular chair, for the sake of changing your sitting posture temporarily if you absolutely don’t have the time or means to have a movement break. Otherwise, just get yourself a comfortable ergonomic chair with good padding.
Creating a false perception of being physically active
Physical activity is characterized by any activity that challenges your resting physical state. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines published by the US department of health in 2018, physical activity can be simplified to anything that gets your heart beating faster, or your muscles working harder. Sitting on an exercise ball while working does neither of those; the only reason your back muscles feel sore after few minutes of this unsupported sitting is due to the fatigue of prolonged static contraction, not due to overloading them in any form.
Therefore, sitting on an exercise ball cannot be considered a significant sustainable intervention to reduce prolonged sitting. Considering this sitting method as a method of physical activity may create the false sense of confidence that you are being proactive about your physical health, but the reality is that you aren’t, because the energy expenditure resulting from sitting on an exercise ball has been shown to be similar to that of sitting on a regular chair.
Distraction from actual work
Computer tasks are considered cognitive sedentary tasks. It is important to distinguish between sedentary tasks and passive tasks, as cognitive tasks in no way implicate being passive at work. This means that in order to avoid and reduce the amount of errors done while doing computer tasks, it is crucial to focus and not be distracted by external or internal stimuli.
This is not possible when you are fighting for your balance and back stability on an exercise ball. The distraction caused by this uncomfortable and unnecessary sitting arrangement may result in errors and affect the quality and duration of your work. Practically speaking, you may have to sit longer to be able to finish your work due to the high levels of distractions caused by the exercise ball, which defeats the entire purpose of this intervention.
Are there better alternatives than the exercise ball?
Despite being against the underlying concept and mindset of sitting on an exercise ball while doing cognitive tasks, it is our duty to mention if there are any better alternatives to it. One safer and more comfortable alternative is known as the dynamic office chair, as shown below:
This chair design allows for some lumbar support and provides some instability at the level of the seat pad, which slightly challenges your balance and stability while sitting, which could be a more practical way of challenging your physical capacity while sitting. However, the advantages of this chair over an exercise ball do not outweigh the disadvantages of adopting the entire mindset of “hacking” your physical activity goals.
In conclusion, the most sustainable approach to improving your physical activity health at work is to break prolonged sitting by taking movement breaks every 1-1.5 hours. When movement breaks aren’t possible, consider having a sit-stand workstation. When such a workstation is not possible to obtain, consider changing the way you sit to reduce the time you spend in one posture. If all these solutions are not possible -which is highly unlikely-, it would be reasonable to consider investing in an exercise ball or dynamic chair for sitting while taking into consideration all the limitations surrounding them.
Lastly, keep in mind that the fitness and health industries have a thing for trying to constantly reinvent the wheel and push commercial products by inflicting guilt within you that you aren’t doing enough. Keep things simple and focus on the basic, evidence-based solutions in order to work well and prosper!