Review – The Gaiam BalanceBall Chair can transform your time at your desk into an ergonomic core workout

Having had my share of back complaints in the last few years, I've noticed that when I've been seated awhile in any conventional office chair, even fancy ergonomic chairs with lumbar support, I often find myself in a slumping position. This poor posture can make my back and hip muscles sore and stiff, whether I'm stuck in a long meeting at work, or just checking my email at home. Although some might say that my aches and pains could be (gasp!) age-related and inevitable, I tried to stave off my discomfort with minor stretches during the day, and crunches at night. While exercise can make me feel a bit more empowered, it didn't really change that annoying little grip I felt on my sacral spine at the end of the day. I was open to finding a solution.

A few months ago, a friend sent me a link to an article in The New York Times by Olivia Judson that begins: "Your chair is your enemy." The author goes on to say that if you spend most of your day sitting, you could be at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and more – including an early death. But, she also offered a few constructive alternatives to being overly sedentary – elevate your desk so you're standing rather than sitting; add a slow treadmill so that you can walk while you work; or, get rid of your office chair and replace it with a therapy ball. I just had to find out for myself.

According to Gaiam, the BalanceBall Chair relieves stress on the spine and helps prevent health issues related to poor posture, which is a common condition both at office and home workstations. The BalanceBall chair is a two-part system ­– a black plastic chair frame, with casters and a low back, and a 22" inflatable yoga-style ball that the user pumps up, then places on the frame. The ball comes in basic black, plus three other fun colors. Retail price is $99.98, plus tax and shipping.

The packing box includes clearly written instructions, a plastic hand pump, and a few screws and bolts. Assembly took me only a few moments, and not much elbow grease. The casters snap on the base, and are lockable, for stability while you work. Or, they can stay unlocked, allowing the chair to roll. Since the ball is a bona fide balance ball, you can also do strengthening exercises in your seat, as long as you lock the chair's casters first, before bending or stretching (or remove the ball for floor work). You can easily roll the chair under a desk, as you would a conventional chair. The enclosed product brochure offers photos and instructions for several poses and stretches. (Note: unless you wear your workout clothes to the office, you may want to make sure your office door is closed before you do the extra deep stretches!)

Users are warned not to lean back on the support bar, something I found counterintuitive at first. After a day or so, however, I realized I didn't need to have my back supported as I did in a "normal" chair; I was actually sitting up straight without resting my back on the bar, and I felt no back discomfort. My spine was aligned, and I was using my core muscles to stay straight, rather than leaning on a seat back. The one downside I've found is that the height of the chair can't be adjusted much, other than by inflating or deflating the ball, so it may not be ideal for all workstation heights. I also noticed that as the weather began to get warmer, the rubbery surface of the ball sometimes can feel a little sticky, especially if you're wearing shorts or sheer clothing.

It took me a little while to get used to sitting on a soft sphere rather than a stiff-backed seat, but it soon became second nature. First-time visitors to my office notice the BalanceBall Chair right away – I've had more than one conversation halted after the first few moments, as my guest does a double take and asks me what in the heck I'm sitting on, and then asks to try it out. It’s great to know that with a Gaiam BalanceBall chair, working hard can actually make you feel good!

Nancy Burlan, Posted 10/1/2010

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