Sitting, Standing, and Bouncing

In my interview on The Setup (and subsequently on Twitter), I mentioned that I often stand while working, and that when sitting, I usually use a balance ball.

To my surprise, a lot of people have contacted me wanting to know more about it. Rather than answer everybody individually, I thought I’d share the information here.

Why work standing up or on a balance ball?

I began working standing up a few years ago to help alleviate a back issue I was having, caused primarily from sitting too long with bad posture in an unsuitable chair. Sure I was in decent shape, stretching, and running 3.5k every other day. But back muscles aren’t meant to be frozen in an unnatural, hunching, curving position for an extended period of time (even in a good chair, like the Aeron I was using).

Eventually these muscles can just give out. The many hours I was spending at the desk (without paying attention to my posture) combined with an overzealous weekend-warrior-style yard project took its toll on my back, and I wound up having to make a change while things healed up. This wasn’t the first time I’d had back issues either, and I knew I had to make a longer lasting change.

Through research (I know people will ask what research? but it’s been a while and I don’t really recall all the sources, but here’s one article), I learned that the sitting position that many (probably most) people assume at an office desk is pretty bad for your back, but standing could alleviate many posture issues, with a number of additional benefits.

I found that I felt much better standing up, but the only surface that was the right height was the kitchen countertop in the middle of the house. This might work if I lived alone, but I’m married (sorry ladies) and have a wonderfully talkative, energetic 2-year-old running around, so I needed to find another solution.

A standing desk

Initially I had planned to replace my current working habitat, an inexpensive pressboard desk I’d acquired from Organized Living many years ago, with an adjustable — and perhaps electronic — standing desk. I talked with a large number of people about this, took a Twitter poll, and spent many hours researching. I found a large number of excellent options in this space, from IKEA to Steelcase. Here’s a short list of some of the desks I found (electronic and standard):

I didn’t get any of them.

All of them were great, but except for the IKEA stuff (my least favorite option), they were a bit too pricey. After all, I’d never tried working while standing up for extended periods of time (like weeks or months), and I wasn’t ready to drop that much coin for something I wasn’t sure I’d use.

I also considered a laptop cart, but none of the options I found had the combination of adjustability with the kind of sturdiness I was looking for.

A temporary solution

I went to Target and bought two small, inexpensive modular shelves, which happened to be on sale. I put the Apple Display on the one in back, and a keyboard on the one in front. Although the height wasn’t perfect (or adjustable), it was better than being at the kitchen counter, and it would give me an idea of what working standing up might be like.

I spent a number of weeks working like this. At first my legs and different parts of my back hurt, but that went away after a few days, as my body got used to working this way while my back issue was healing. I was moving more, stretching more, and paying much more attention to my posture, too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to take a break and sit down unless I unplugged the MacBook Pro and used its display alone because the Apple Display was too high up on the shelf to view when sitting.

A mobile standing desk

I was talking with a friend about the situation, and she told me about the Anthro Adjustable Laptop Cart. I took a look at the ones they use in their facility, and I was impressed with its combination of adjustability (it works for sitting or standing), mobility, and solid, sturdy construction. Their staff is incredibly helpful and courteous.

While the Anthro cart isn’t cheap, it is very well made, and compliments rather than replaces a traditional desk. Even better, it’ll still be useful as a laptop station or worktable if I later decide to upgrade to a full-size, adjustable desk. Now I could sit at a desk as needed, or put the laptop on the Anthro Cart and stand (or adjust to sit) whenever I wanted to. And it was mobile, too.

Enter the balance ball

Several months later, I found that I was spending about equal time sitting as standing. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to develop better sitting posture, I’d sometimes fall into old posture habits. This wasn’t so bad, except that I also managed to tweak something in my back while lifting something heavy.

The physical therapist explained that — probably due to years of bad posture and genetics — it wasn’t enough to just stand. I needed to retrain and build up my core stabilizer muscles, especially now that I’m maneuvering a growing 2-year old boy so much, in and out of car seats, shopping carts, and playground equipment. Doing this would have the affect of strengthening my entire back, torso, and legs, so that future issues could hopefully be avoided.

A great way to do this, she explained, would be to sit on a balance ball. Sitting on a balance ball requires good posture, encourages movement, and involves your whole body. It will help strengthen your core stabilizer muscles, your upper and lower back, and your legs. I had to pick up a balance ball to do some of the exercises she’d recommended anyway, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

There are a lot of balance balls available, and many cheap ones exist in local stores. But my physical therapist recommended that I pick up one of the better ones which generally cost about $20-30.

I ordered a 65cm Thera-Band Exercise Ball for about $30.

I’ve been using the balance ball for a few months now, and I’m happy to say that it has changed everything about how I sit, work, move, and has significantly improved my posture and flexibility and strengthened my back. I can now sit all day (with breaks of course) on a balance ball, something I couldn’t do without discomfort or pain in a regular chair, not even in the Aeron.

An added benefit: I’ve read that you can burn up to 350 calories a day by sitting on a balance ball instead of a chair. I’m not sure if this is true (I’m not trying to lose weight), but my back certainly feels much better after a day of balancing on a ball than it ever did all day in a chair or standing up.

I should also mention that this position felt somewhat natural for me, as I spend about an hour each day in sitting meditation, with a back posture similar to the one you’ll go into when you’re sitting on a balance ball. (My physical therapist said the only time my back looked “right” was when I showed her how I sit in meditation.)

Yes, it’s true: I am now the poster child for using a balance ball as a chair.

How to transition from sitting in a chair to sitting on a balance ball

I knew I’d be in for a challenge, but I didn’t realize exactly what would be involved. So based on my experience, here’s what you can expect when you make the transition:

  • At first, sitting on the ball for more than a few minutes may be difficult. It was for me. You can help this by deflating the ball so it’s softer and therefore easier to sit and balance on. You can inflate it more fully once youre stabilizer muscles are stronger.
  • Your back — probably your upper back — will hurt. Mine did. This is because sitting on a ball forces your back into a good position with good posture (maybe for the first time), and the muscles in your upper back are now having to work to support your body rather than relying on a chair to do this for them. No more slouching.
  • Your lower back will probably not hurt. This is because it’s finally being allowed to assume the natural inward curve it’s designed for (hence the so-called lumbar support found on many chairs, to try and push you into this position).
  • Your legs may feel tired at the end of the day. They’re working now all day too — you’re balancing, after all.
  • You may have a tendency to lean your arms on the desk. Don’t, or else your shoulders will get sore and you’ll negate any of the benefits of the ball for your posture.

I really hope that this article is useful to you, especially if you suffer from back-related issues.

Please consider sharing your thoughts about adjustable desks, balance balls, and related topics here in the comments.

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