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Can Changing Your Office Chair Help You Lose Weight?

Care to sit on a balance ball?

Millions of people spend their workday sitting at a desk. Over time, all that sitting has begun to have some serious consequences on our health. The only exercise many office workers get is when they push themselves away for lunch or to leave for home.

The companies that make exercise balls decided they had just the solution we needed. Swap out your office chair for a fitness ball and start reaping the benefits.

Instead of passively sitting, you'll be actively balancing. Over time you'll burn more calories, improve your posture and increase your core strength. It sounded easy. Could something that simple really work?

One of the first published studies that replaced chairs with exercise balls was done in 1992 on school children. The aim of the study was simply to "determine the value of a new type of seating accommodation – a large plastic ball." In one school year, 162 children used the ball and a similar group of 148 children used ordinary chairs. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers said:

"The results suggest a possible effect of the new seating accommodation on the back and abdominal muscles, but on the whole we found little improvement due to the ball alone."

The ball didn't seem to be better than a chair, so interest dried up.

Fast forward to the year 2006, suddenly exercise balls are everywhere. Personal trainers use them to target abdominal muscles, yoga and pilates instructors use them to build core strength and gyms started setting up dedicated areas where they can be used. Exercise balls were hot and the companies that made them wanted to sell more. So to expand their sales, they started marketing them as healthy chair replacements. Clinical researchers disagreed.

In a study carried out in 2006 at the Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, they concluded:

"The results of this study suggest 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. Sitting on a ball appears to spread out the contact area possibly resulting in uncomfortable soft tissue compression..."

In other words, your muscles didn't get bigger, your spine didn't get more stable and sitting on an exercise ball made your butt hurt.

In June of 2008, the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the State University of New York looked into how many calories someone would burn while word processing and either:

a) sitting in an office chair,
b) sitting on a therapy (exercise) ball, or
c) standing.

Adults ranked their comfort, fatigue and liking of each posture over a 20-minute test.

The good news is people who sat on an exercise ball or stood up burned an average of 4.1 calories more than the people sitting in a traditional office chair. The bad news is 4.1 calories is the equivalent of three Tic Tacs.

More bad news was delivered in early 2009 from the Faculty of Human Movement Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam. They "monitored posture, muscle activation and spinal shrinkage in 10 females performing a 1-hour typing task, while sitting on an office chair with armrests and while sitting on an exercise ball."

The subjects who sat on the exercise ball had 33% more trunk motion (that's good) but, they also experienced more spinal shrinkage (that's bad). In the end they concluded, "the advantages with respect to physical loading of sitting on an exercise ball may not outweigh the disadvantages."

The Bottom Line

Exercise balls are a great tool when used for stability or core strength-building exercises. Unfortunately they're not a good replacement for your traditional office chair. If you want to burn more calories, set an alarm to get up and walk for 10 minutes every two hours. You'll burn more than 50 calories each time and get back to your desk feeling refreshed.

Despite the limited results, some people may still want to get a ball chair just so they can have a change. If you're looking for something different, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  • First, don't throw out your traditional chair. It takes a while to get your muscles used to the constant task of balancing. Start by sitting on the exercise ball for 30 minutes at a time and slowly work your way up to longer stretches.

  • Exercise balls not sitting in a chair frame will roll when you stand up. Be careful not to trip over them as you move around the office.

  • People with lower back problems, poor balance or weak hips should avoid the balls. You don't want to fall off and suffer a serious injury.

  • Finally, remember that sitting on an exercise ball doesn't replace regular exercise. An adult should still get 2-3 hours of resistance training and 2-3 hours of aerobic exercise every week.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.