How to stay on the ball and comfy at work

Health & Fitness

October 10, 2004|By Julie Deardorff | Julie Deardorff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

If you and your back are fed up with sitting at a desk all day, you might consider swapping your office chair for a large, vinyl Swiss ball, the kind found in health clubs across the country.

Socially, such a change might be difficult. Your colleagues might joke that you resemble a giant bird hatching an egg. But from a physical standpoint, getting rid of the office chair for even a few hours a day can help alleviate stiffness, flashes of sciatica and a sore lower back.

The simple act of sitting is "the occupational hazard of the century," said Cheryl Bennett, an ergonomic specialist at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who helps fit people in chairs.

"The compression force on the lumbar discs is higher when you're sitting than during most activities except lifting heavy objects," she said. "The other [detrimental] thing we do is we stay sitting. We sit and sit and don't move."

Chairs are designed to provide support, but that hinges on good posture. In reality, most people slouch, using only a few muscles. This can strain the low back muscles and increase pressure on the discs.

Swiss balls, originally used in Europe in the 1960s to treat orthopedic problems, were sold mainly to physical therapists, hospitals and clinics.

Gradually, the air-filled spheres were embraced by elite athletes and fitness buffs for their ability to work, stabilize and strengthen deep, core muscles.

Now the Swiss ball, also called a fit ball and physio ball, has been rolled out in birthing centers, offices and classrooms, where studies have shown it can help children focus.

Because the ball is dynamic, it creates "active sitting," forcing you to constantly exercise the muscles you need for good posture, said Jo Fasen, a physical therapist and clinical manager of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Spine and Sports Center.

Conventional chairs let us slide our hips forward, causing them to round the lumbar and thoracic spine.

That results in a rounded back, compressed lungs and weak deep spinal muscles.

The ball, however, virtually prohibits the slouch and removes the temptation to cross your legs.

If you're not ready to be mocked at work, try the ball at home.

Bennett, who specializes in ergonomics, children and educational environments, suggests using the ball while watching television or playing video games.

"More muscles are working to keep you balanced," said Bennett, whose 11-year-old daughter loved being on the ball - until she popped it.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Getting round in the office

A few things to consider if you're thinking of trading in your office chair for a vinyl Swiss ball:

The Swiss ball, also called a fit ball and physio ball, are available in several sizes, and it's important to have proper fit. A physical therapist can help set you up.

If you do make the switch from a chair to a ball, take frequent breaks by standing, walking or even returning to a chair.

Beware of gimmick products. If a ball comes with a frame or wheels, it won't have the intended effect. "The reason the ball works is that it's round," said chiropractor David Williamson. "If it's on wheels, it's just like a chair."

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