by Adrian Farrell
Cynical click-bait headline aside, I’ll cut to the chase, they don’t work. There, I said it.
But let’s look at why that is, there are 3 main reasons:
1. You will think that it’s supposed to take responsibility for you. This is a commonly held view, and it seems the more expensive the chair is, the more likely you will fall into this trap. Harking back to my first ever blog, you have to remember that a chair is an inanimate object, it is incapable of “doing” anything, let alone taking responsibility for you. For sure, a good ergonomic chair will provide what we call in the Alexander Technique a “mechanical advantage”, but it wont be providing any guarantees.
2. There’s a strong chance that you will adjust it to your current conception of comfort or habitual use, i.e. to support your current levels of collapse and effectively ingraining them further.
3. This is probably the most pernicious of the three, you’ll bring your old habits to it. Even if the chair is set up perfectly to offer you the greatest mechanical advantage, the habitual way you use yourself will fight against this advantage. Have you ever felt that a well set up ergonomic chair leaves you feeling more tired than a regular chair?
It may seem a little unfair to single out one particular chair , but I do so partly from my personal experience and partly because it coincidently exhibits a point I’ve made a few times previously. They’re also extremely common, certainly across the Square Mile (London’s financial district) where I worked for many years as an IT consultant for a number of investment banks. For me, the “Aeron” style chair fails simply because the surface on which you sit is unstable. To repeat my mantra, “if you can stand on it, you can sit on it“, this is clearly not a surface on which you could stably stand, being a stretchy woven fabric. It’s like trying to stand on a trampoline, it provides little more support for your sit bones than a sofa. Maybe it’s my narrow definition of what sitting is, standing on your sit bones, but I found that the Aeron strongly encourages a collapse into the back rest. That might be fine for resting/reclining, but aren’t these supposed to be work chairs? As a reminder, the roots of your arms are in your back, you don’t want to loose that support when you are typing away at your keyboard, it invariably leads to tense shoulders and potential repetitive strain injury.
For the sake of fairness I’ll mention another ergonomic chair that I’ve had plenty of experience with in the past. Kneel on chairs do encourage an alignment of the spine, but they leave you somewhat immobile, and freedom to move is an essential aspect of using yourself well. I find that after a few minutes I feel locked in place and rigid, and that always leads to tension and feels more tiring in the long run than sitting on a simple flat surface. I also found it reduced the blood flow through my legs, causing discomfort.
Although it should be obvious by now that any flat surface will suffice for standing on your bottom (yes I will keep hammering home my definition of sitting), there is actually one style of ergonomic chair that I do quite like. Under the assumption that you are not expecting it to take responsibility for you, I find saddle chairs to be very comfortable, and ironically, it’s not a surface you can stand on easily! It looks like there’s an exception to every rule, but the sit bones are still well supported.
When you consider the cost of ergonomic chairs, and they don’t come cheap, it is far better value, and cheaper than many ergonomic chairs, to learn to how to use a simple chair, freeing you to sit anywhere with ease and poise.
“No, what we need to do is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, nor develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon” – F.M. Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance.