Sitting on an exercise ball has become a fairly common practice in offices among those looking to incorporate more exercise into their day. Exercise balls are a key product in the active sitting market, which finds its purpose in limiting lower back pain and other harmful effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Theoretically, sitting on an unstable surface demands core muscle use and proper posture to keep you balanced. While this theory is sensible, the little research that has been done into exercise balls as seats has not been very promising. This may not, however, mean that exercise balls have no place in the home or office.
Over the past decade, few studies have been done into the use of exercise balls as seats. One of the larger involved only 28 participants, and found that posture suffered as much over 30 minutes of sitting for those using an exercise ball as for those using a chair. See more on this study at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
Another study of 14 participants (7 males and 7 females) found no significant differences (except for 1 of many muscles measured) between core muscle activation between chair and ball use. Each participant in this study sat on a ball for an hour and a chair for an hour while performing routine office tasks. Interestingly, this study did reveal differences in the effects of stability ball use between men and women; men were found to have an increase in trunk muscle co-contraction on the ball, whereas women were found to have less co-contraction on the ball. Whole-body discomfort scores were greater one hour after use of the exercise ball than the chair, although this could be an indicator of muscle usage in other parts of the body such as the legs, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. More on this study can be found at www.ahs.uwaterloo.ca.
Finally, one study of 10 females found sitting on an exercise ball to significantly increase trunk motion and muscle activation over sitting on a chair. This study did, however, find spinal pressure to be higher on the ball, marked by narrowing of the space between vertebrae. This means that exercise balls might be unsuitable seats for people with spinal disc issues. See more on this at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
It should be noted that these studies had very small populations and used participants who did not have lower back pain. Also, durations of sitting on the ball for these studies were 30 minutes to an hour, which may not be an adequate amount of time to test muscle engagement differences between sitting on a ball and a chair.
According to the current research, we can reasonably assume that spending a little time sitting on an exercise ball a day isn’t going to dramatically increase core strength. That said, unless you have a spinal condition, there isn’t likely any danger in doing so. While simply sitting on a ball may not yield dramatic results, practicing core exercises on an exercise ball has been found to increase the effectiveness of the workout. Therefore, an exercise ball is good to have around; if you choose to sit on it as well as exercise, there isn’t likely any harm in such
Don’t rely on sitting for back pain exercise. While active sitting may help mitigate the harmful impact of sedentary lifestyles, it’s important to move and exercise more.