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Why are non-ergonomic office chairs bad for your back?

Non-ergonomic office chairs have basic adjustable features. You can only adjust the seat height and rock the chair. They have fixed armrests and a fixed, non-reclining backrest. Used part-time, basic office chairs work fine. But for longer periods, they lack ergonomic essentials that prevent spinal misalignments. That causes poor posture, which degrades health and cripples productivity. Learn in detail why non-ergonomic office chairs are bad for your back.

Why are traditional office chairs bad for your back?

There are many ways to define ‘ergonomics’. Humanscale describes it as “the science of fitting a workplace to the user’s needs.” The point is to “increase efficiency and productivity” while reducing discomfort. Its definition also notes that ergonomic furniture should adjust effortlessly to the needs of the user.

Most studies on healthy sitting cite three adjustable features that make a chair ergonomic. First and most important is adjustable lumbar support. Second is adjustable armrests. Third is a tilt-locking backrest recline.

Generic office chair limited features
Traditional office chairs only let you adjust the seat height, rock the chair, or lock it in place.

Generic, mass-produced office chairs lack all three of these essential features. Below, we explain how these missing features cause health, wellness, and cognitive functioning problems.

Problems caused by cheap office chairs

There’s no official name for cheap, mass-produced office chairs. We also refer to these fixed-component chairs as traditional, generic, classic, etc.

Poor posture health problems
Sitting full-time without ergonomic support degrades posture, health, and wellness.

Traditional/ basic/ generic office chairs lack three essential components: adjustable lumbar support, adjustable armrests, and a tilt-lock reclining backrest.

A chair without these features can cause serious health issues when used full-time. The reason comes down to basic human physiology.

Humans are not designed for sitting

The human body isn’t designed to sit down for long periods. For over three million years, humans survived by moving their bodies.

Hunting, fishing, and gathering provided vigorous daily exercise. Evading predators taught generations to exist with swift agility and vigilance.

Active versus sedentary lifestyle
Modern humans enjoy unmitigated gluttony and plenty of screen-based sedentary hobbies.

Fast-forward to the modern era. A study conducted between 2001-2016 found American adults sitting around 6.5 hours per day. Meanwhile, teens 12-19 average around eight hours per day.

Common health issues caused by unsupported sitting

Sitting so much without proper support takes a toll. For example, this study looked at dentists with poor sitting habits. Among those surveyed, it found five common musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). These disorders are common in the general population as well:

  1. Wrist disorders: 4 million Americans suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. (source)
  2. Neck pain: the fourth-leading cause of disability in America. (source)
  3. Shoulder pain: Americans average 4.5 million doctor visits and $3 billion in associated health costs. (source)
  4. Elbow and forearm pain: 1-3% of all Americans suffer from elbow tendonitis, aka tennis elbow. (source)
  5. Low back disorders: 31 million Americans are suffering from low back pain at any given time. (source)
Other sitting-related health issues

Beyond MSDs, unsupported sitting also caused other endemic health issues. For example, there are around 4 million Americans (mostly women) who suffer from chronic migraine headaches.

Office worker with bad sitting habits
Poor sitting habits can drain energy, cripple productivity, and crush users with chronic pain.

The total cost of lower-back pain exceeds $100 billion per year in lost wages and productivity. Over 42% of American adults are obese. Two-thirds of the workforce suffers from chronic fatigue.

Poor seating causes health problems
The wrong type of seating can leave you feeling bloated, listless, and unproductive.

Full-time office workers suffering such issues should assess their sitting habits. In many cases, problems can be fixed by adding ergonomic support.

Non-adjustable lumbar support = slouching

When standing with good posture, there is a mild curve in the lower spine (lumbar area). When you sit, the lumbar curve slightly flattens. That encourages the hips to scoot forward. With a flattened lower back and hips angled forward, the upper spine sags into a slouch.

Sitting versus standing mechanics
Sitting without support flattens the lumbar curve and also tilts the hips forward.

Then, it’s left to the back muscles to hold the spine straight. When the back muscles inevitably tire, slouching kicks in.

Usually, three things happen as a sitting user slouches in a basic, non-ergonomic chair. First, the lumbar curve flattens.

How slouching affects posture while sitting
Slouching flattens the lumbar curve and rotates the hips forward.

Second, the hips curl forward. Third, the user must hold themselves upright by leaning against the backrest. Sitting in this awkward position over long periods places a severe strain on the body.

How lumbar support helps

Lumbar support is the key to sitting up straight. Even a slight amount of pressure in the lower back reflexively straightens the upper back.

How does a gaming chair lumbar support help?
Slight pressure in the lower back curve reflexively straightens the upper back.

You can try this at home using a rolled-up towel or yoga mat. Place the roll into your lower back curve and lean into the backrest. The pressure in your lumbar area makes it easy to sit up straight — without needing the backrest for support.

DIY lumbar support for a home office
Slight pressure in the lumbar area reflexively straightens the upper back.

You can also test the effectiveness of lumbar support using a weightlifter’s belt. That exerts pressure on the lumbar curve, helping bodybuilders maintain good posture while lifting. When used while sitting, it has the same effect in keeping the upper back straight.

Learn more about lumbar support fundamentals here:

The biomechanics of healthy lumbar support

Fixed armrests = spinal load

Adding lumbar support to an office chair is an easy ‘hack’ that makes it easier to sit straight. For example, in this image, I used a cheap office chair enhanced with a Secretlab memory foam lumbar pillow.

Lumbar support hack for cheap office chair
Adding a lumbar pillow to a cheap office chair makes it easier to sit straight.

At a glance, it makes my posture look pretty good. But if you look closer, there is still a problem:

Lack of armrest problems illustration
Without armrest support, the upper back and shoulders must hold up both arms (around 20 pounds).

A human arm makes up around 6% of total body weight. Thus, A 170-pound person’s arm weighs around 10 pounds x 2 arms. Without support, the spine bears the weight of holding that weight up against gravity.

Lack of armrests causes poor posture
Over long periods, unsupported arms will drag the upper body down into a slouch.

Over long periods, that transfers the weight of the arms onto the neck and shoulder muscles. As those muscles tire, the weight pulls the upper body down. At the same time, the lumbar curve flattens and the hips shift forward.

How do adjustable armrests help?

Adjustable armrests let you sync arm support with your desk height. That lets the armrests hold up the weight of the arms, instead of the spine having to.

Pro esports player using gaming chair armrests
Adjustable armrests absorb arm weight while providing support for the wrists and elbows.

As well, adjusted armrests reduce the threat of carpal tunnel syndrome by aligning wrists close to a user’s mouse and keyboard.

Fixed backrest = no seated movement

Thus far, we’ve covered two out of three ergonomic essentials for healthy sitting. Adding lumbar support helps, but only partially. Adding adjustable armrests fill some gaps, but not all of them. The third essential needed for healthy sitting is a variable recline backrest.

Gaming chair versus office chair recline
A reclining backrest reduces spinal strain and adds seated movement options.

Generic, one-size-all office chairs have fixed backrests. These are cheap to produce, rugged, and versatile. The problem is that instead of the chair adjusting the user, the user must adjust.

Traditional office chair discomfort
Fixed backrests force users to adopt awkward positions to stay comfortable.

To get comfortable, most will adopts awkward sitting positions. That misaligns the body even further, exacerbating both pain and discomfort.

Benefits of a reclining backrest

Having a backrest that reclines yields two physiological benefits, and a usability one.

Reduced muscle strain

First, studies show that with a backrest recline set to 100 degrees, muscular activity decreases in the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical areas.

Optimal recline angle for health
The healthiest recline range is between 100-130 degrees.

Further, with a supported recline between 100-130 degrees, muscle activity in those areas is at its lowest.

Opportunities to move while sitting

Most ergonomist scientists suggest that healthy sitting involves regular position changes. Active (aka dynamic) sitting engages back, abdominal, and leg muscles while you sit. By making small position changes, key muscle groups remain active. That improves circulation, strengthens core muscles, and reduces lower back stiffness.

Gaming chair recline modes
Switching backrest angles stimulates movement in your hips, spine and upper body.

This is why gaming chairs come with deep-reclining backrests. For example, the Secretlab Titan’s backrest has a recline range of 85-165 degrees. With a simple click of a side lever, you can alter recline, switching up the alignment of the hips and lower back.

User customization

Physiologically, a reclining backrest replaces muscle strain with healthy, circulation-boosting activity. It also allows for user customization.

For example, I sit around 10 hours every day doing a mix of writing, design, and spreadsheet work. For my needs, a backrest set to around 110 degrees works best.

When doing focused work, I like to sit upright in the chair at around a 95-degree angle. With proper lumbar support, sitting that way is effortless.

Active sitting in a gaming chair
When doing office work, I like to vary my recline by leaning back or sitting upright.

When doing passive work (like reading emails), I lean back. As a result, my back and hips are in constant movement with a 15-degree range of motion.

This works well for me, but might not be perfect for others. That’s where the value of ergonomic (adjustable) furniture comes in.

Ergonomic chairs provide the support you need to sit up straight. At the same time, they also grant the freedom to tailor back support as you prefer.

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