You’ve probably come across the term “active chair” or “active seating” over the past few years. These seats are billed as a countermeasure to the sitting epidemic—numerous studies have shown that sitting for hours at a time worsens health, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
Pandemic lockdowns increased the prevalence of remote work, which often translated to more time in front of screens and less daily activity. Since remote and hybrid work are here to stay, a slew of companies are introducing “active” chairs that promise to inject some movement into your day. So how exactly do they work?
Active chairs come in various forms, but the most common is an adjustable stool with a seat base that can rock to varying degrees. You keep yourself balanced—with your feet on the ground—and as the seat tilts, you engage your core muscles to stay upright, all while writing that email or Slack message. Companies liken these adjustments to the kind of low-level physical activity that can alleviate the effects of prolonged sitting.
I have tested several active chairs now, with mixed results. After I spoke to a few kinesiology experts—people who study the body’s movement—the consensus seems to be that active chairs may work for in short bursts, but there are better (and free) ways to counteract the effects of sitting for too long.
With all the active chairs I’ve tested, I’ve never been able to use one for a full workday. These stools are comfortable enough to sit on for an hour or two, but eventually I want to slump back and relax my muscles. You should think about them not as a replacement for your office chair, but as a way to switch things up. However, the balancing act these stools offer might not be meaningful enough to be considered “active.”
“Movement is important,” says Anne-Kristina Arnold, who has been in the kinesiology field for more than 30 years. She’s currently chair of the Ergonomics Stream and a senior lecturer at the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. “Any kind of static movements in our bodies, we can only withstand and maintain for short periods of time,” she says, adding that it “can cause discomfort and ultimately potential injury as well.”
The latter is no joke. Look at the product page for this active chair from QOR360 and you’ll notice it asks you to read a safety notice that says people who are older or anyone who finds it difficult to balance may have an increased risk of falling while sitting on the stool.
Arnold doesn’t think using these chairs is inherently harmful (as long as you can balance yourself), but she suggests a simple alternative: Get up and walk around every so often. “You’re going to get more circulation throughout the whole body rather than just those static contractions in maintaining your balance on the chair. If you’re into burning calories, an active chair is not going to work for you any more than getting up and going to the water cooler a few times during the day.”
If you suffer from back pain, you may experience some benefit from an active chair. Arnold notes that the forward tilt helps bring the lumbar back into a neutral position, but this is still something you’ll only want to rely on for short periods of time. Otherwise, your upper body will be too static as it tries to maintain balance, and your stomach muscles are going to have more tension and fatigue, especially over the course of a full eight-hour workday.
“What we really want to do is design jobs that don’t require static work for long periods of time,” Arnold says. “We want to be able to encourage people to get up regularly and change their posture.” This doesn’t mean using a standing desk for eight hours a day, which Arnold says is just as bad, or putting a cycling machine or walking treadmill under your desk.