The inspiration for this post came as I walked by our local office supply store and saw they were having a sale on chairs. They had a few models including what they called a “ball chair”. This is not just a ball you blow up and sit on with or without a plastic base. Rather it was upholstered, had legs and was taller and a bit firmer than anything similar I have experienced. Personally I was intrigued. However, I am not in the market for a chair and the purpose of this post is not to evaluate specific chair models.
I get many questions about chairs and sitting in general. Many can be put into the category -“is such and such chair good?” Underlying this is a probably unconscious assumption that the object you are sitting on has primary responsibility for how comfortable you are when you sit. Another version of this is “I bought this fabulous/expensive office chair and I still hurt when I sit on it.” There are definitely more and less appropriate seating solutions that depend in part on your sitting surface, but most importantly depend on how you are sitting on that surface. Because we come in all shapes and sizes, have different tasks to do and different histories of pain and injury what works for one person may not work for the next.
To start on the path toward sitting well it is important to have a very clear distinction between “supported sitting” and “unsupported sitting”. The former refers to using a back and possibly also a neck rest, and the latter to sitting without either of these as on a ball chair, kneeling chair or similar.
I’ll start with supported sitting. The more “constructed” a chair is meaning specific support areas; the more important it is that it be well fitted. Sometimes the chair itself has enough adjustments to make things work. Other times a different chair is needed. The key to sitting well with back support is to be sure to use that support fully meaning that your bottom is all the way back in the chair. I have observed many people in office chairs with their upper backs against the chair back, but lower backs are rounded and heads/necks are pushed forward – Ouch!
If when you sit all the way back your and find that your thighs are too short to accommodate, you need a different chair or adapt an “unsupported sitting style”. You also need to be able to have your feet on the floor. That is usually easier to adjust by changing the chair height or putting something under your feet. This post is just about sitting. Figuring out how to make sure your whole work set up is appropriate is a topic for another post.
Ball chairs, stools are other backless surfaces call for unsupported sitting. Remember too, that if you have a backrest that you are not fully using, these ideas also apply. So- why do chairs have four legs? The reason of course is for stability. When I explain unsupported sitting I ask people to think of their two feet and two sitting bones as the legs of a chair. If you can sense and sit on top of their sitting bones and place their feet flat and comfortably hip width apart, the rest takes care of itself. There is no need to contract specific muscles or pull yourself into a perceived ideal configuration. In fact this often leads to discomfort.
To help you find this sit on a stool or other relatively firm surface. Ideally your knees should be slightly below your hips and definitely not higher. Begin a slow gentle movement of rounding and arching your full back. As you round you can gently pull your abdominal muscles in, but as you arch be sure to free your belly. Do this a few times looking for the point in the range where you feel really on top of your sitting bones. Stop there. It is likely that you have found the most effortless and comfortable unsupported sitting position. Please make sure your belly is not contracted when you sit. Contracting your belly tends to make you slump – you just experienced that. I know lots of folks find this idea challenging. If you have a question about this please leave a comment and I will answer.
The last thing I want to address here is variation. No one should expect to be able to sit comfortably in one position for hours at a time. In fact many of the unsupported sitting options out there are designed to allow for some movement while you sit. Do take frequent short breaks. My personal preference is to mix supported and unsupported sitting styles when I have to sit a lot.