These Active Desk Chairs Want To Transform The Way You Sit

06/16/2014 08:28 am ET | Updated Apr 01, 2015
  • Sarah Klein Senior Editor, Health & Fitness; Certified Personal Trainer

In case you haven't heard, sitting is the new smoking. And to make matters worse, it appears that no level of physical activity undoes the damage of too many sedentary hours.

But what's the average desk jockey to do? While some employers spring for standing desks, others have left it up to employees themselves to craft DIY standing workstations. Still others have turned to (at least slightly) more active alternatives to the standard desk chair -- chairs that allow you to wobble, bounce and otherwise engage your muscles as you sit.

"The dynamic chairs do offer benefits," says Line Barlund, a senior ergonomist with Ergo Concepts, LLC, who also works as the project director for the nationwide ergonomic program at AOL, the parent company of The Huffington Post. Their biggest benefit comes from their ability to let us sit a little higher than usual, which increases our hip angles, she says. A more open hip angle not only activates the core muscles, but helps us keep more of a natural curve in our spine, called the lumbar lordosis. "Usually when we're sitting, we pull the pelvis under us more," she says, which can lead to disc pressure and other back pain.

Because most of us are lacking in core strength (sorry), we'll likely be inclined to slouch, even on these posture-promoting stools and chairs. But as soon as you start slouching "or getting out of that neutral posture position [or] leaning on your desk," says Barlund, "it's a sign you're getting tired and your muscles are giving up on you a little bit." Don't expect to last the entire workday your first time. "They are good tools for building posture and really great as occasional chairs," she stresses. Like any new activity, sitting on an unstable seat is going to take some practice, and as soon as your form starts slipping, it's time to move on to something more supportive.

There's not necessary one active-sitting solution for everyone, says Barlund, which is why we put nine options currently on the market to the test. Ideally, you'll want to look for something that's height-adjustable, so you can use it as a chair and as more of a standing aid to lean back on. Also, look for something lightweight, since you'll be swapping it for your regular desk chair pretty regularly as you build up that core strength. Make sure it's stable enough that you won't go tumbling to the ground. And don't forget to look for something with a comfortable, cushy seat!

People with existing back problems -- like bulging or herniated discs -- may find sitting whatsoever too painful, says Barlund. Be sure to discuss an alternative seat with your doctor if you have known back issues. Check out some thoughts from our team of testers below.

  • Zenergy Ball Chair
  • Height Adjustable: Only by how much the ball is inflated
    Assembly Required: Yes
    Price: $247 at SafcoProducts.com
    Benefits: Active engagement of those core muscles -- and the ball can't roll away!
    How It Felt: Much more secure than sitting on a ball without feet, which likely makes it a little easier on muscles. Still, it encourages fidgeting because a spill won't catapult the ball across the office. It's a comfy, squishy seat, but not all that active.
  • Swopper
  • Height Adjustable: Yes
    Assembly Required: Yes
    Price: $699 at Swopper.com
    Benefits: This stool encourages movement in all directions, requiring core-muscle engagement.
    How It Felt: Even the flexibility of the stool is adjustable, so you can adjust how much you bounce and wiggle, eventually making it more difficult as you grow comfortable Swopping. It felt surprisingly sturdy to our testers, and the seat is quite plush, but one of our testers noted if it was too bouncy, it started to distract from work tasks at hand.
  • Wobble Stool
  • Height Adjustable: Yes
    Assembly Required: Yes, and a little tricky
    Price: $179 at UncagedErgonomics.com
    Benefits: The rounded bottom makes for very natural tilting motion in all directions, so your core muscles will work overtime to keep you balanced. The Wobble Stool is also adjustable enough to work as a seat and as a standing aid.
    How It Felt: The consensus among our testers was that the seat could use slightly more cushion, especially on its angled sides. The base allows movement in all directions, which many of our testers noted as particularly fun. A few wished it had an even lower setting to fit perfectly at our desks, but overall it was one of the biggest hits.
  • Rockin' Roller Desk Chair
  • Height Adjustable: Only by how much the ball is inflated
    Assembly Required: Yes, but at least it came with a foot pump!
    Price: $149 at Pottery Barn Teen
    Benefits: Thanks to the bouncy nature of the ball, this also targets the core muscles, and once again, the ball can't roll away!
    How It Felt: Like sitting on any other ball, with an additional dose of fun. Just don't plan on sitting on one of the furry ones in your best black suit if you don't have a lint roller nearby!
  • Humanscale Freedom Saddle Seat
  • Height Adjustable: Yes
    Assembly Required: No
    Price: $279 at ErgoDirect.com
    Benefits: The saddle position is optimal for opening the hips because it lowers the thighs, promoting that natural curve in the spine.
    How It Felt: While this option certainly doesn't have the bells and whistles of some of the others we tested, it got major points for a soft, cushiony seat and created instantaneous posture adjustments. Because of its sturdy nature, though, one of our testers noted it was easy to find herself slouching on the Saddle Seat.
  • Wigli
  • Height Adjustable: No, but available for purchase in three different heights
    Assembly Required: No
    Price: This European import is tricky to get your hands on in the U.S., with only one retailer in Chicago, but you can nab it for €339 at Wigli.nl
    Benefits:
    By allowing pelvic motion in all directions, the Wigli makes you work even harder to keep yourself balanced. How It Felt: Tough. You cannot zone out while sitting on this ultra-wiggly (they aren't kidding with that name) stool. "This one really forced me to use my core and keep my feet flat on the ground in order to sit up straight," one of our testers noted. Compared to some of the other options, there's not a lot of cushion. This probably isn't an all-day option... unless you want to risk what one tester called "semi-permanent flattening."
  • Gaiam Classic Balance Ball Chair
  • Height Adjustable: Only by how much the ball is inflated
    Assembly Required: Yes
    Price: $79.98 at Gaiam.com
    Benefits: Like other ball-based options, this requires core muscle engagement -- and the ball can't roll away. Plus, this setup has the additional benefit of some low-back support.
    How It Felt: Some of our testers noted that the low-back support didn't quite match their bodies perfectly; it may take some tinkering with the level of inflation of the ball to find your perfect position. Otherwise, this was a comfy and sturdy option.
  • Height Adjustable: Yes
    Assembly Required: No
    Price: $199 to $298 at MyTurnstone.com
    Benefits: The curved base of this stool means you're always moving, encouraging core muscles to engage.
    How It Felt: Keep in mind the Buoy was not designed to be an all-day desk chair. Still, there's not a lot of padding, and it doesn't allow for as much range throughout the hips. "As a fidgeter, this chair is up my alley," one of our testers noted, thanks to its rounded base. Despite all that movement it inspires, the Buoy felt surprisingly stable to our testers. "It wobbled in a comfortable way, so that I could pick up a dropped pen, but I never felt unbalanced sitting on it," one tester commented.
  • Muvman
  • Height Adjustable: Yes
    Assembly Required: Yes
    Price: $599 at Swopper.com
    Benefits: Movement in all directions engages the core muscles. The adjustability allows it to function as a stool or as a standing aid.
    How It Felt: The Muvman encouraged wiggling, but not excessively so, and not in a way that was distracting from work. One tester named this her favorite of the bunch, while another felt it was too stiff, like a high school lab stool.

Think you'll try one? Let us know in the comments below.

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