Everything you need to know to choose an office chair
It's 2021 and we're still destroying our backs and vertebras with gameeerz chairs. I talked with an expert to learn how to chose an office chair that respects our bodies.
My partner has two herniated discs and when her company decided that office work would not be mandatory, even after the pandemic, we went to a profesionnal office chair seller in our local town. We had a very great experience with Catherine and Yvan Couloigner, the owners of La boutique du dos à Brest, to the point where I went back to see them to write an article about chairs, that was initially published in French on Geekzone.fr.
This page is a condensed version of the article. All prices are indicated in Euros. No brand sponsored the initial article or this version.
Why office chairs hurt you
If you already spent 50 to 300 euros for a chair and it hurts, it's probably because you bought it inside a generalist furniture store like IKEA. Those stores don't want to have expensive prices and will logically only sell you basic models.
If you consider an office chair for what it is, an accessory attached to your health (just like a mattres), buying cheap is hurting yourself. The Markus from IKEA is the primer example: if you have the right morphology and your desk has the right height, you're a lucky person and will feel good for just under 200 euros. If not, you'll suffer.
The truth is, the lowest price for an entry-level office chair with a range of adjustment that fits most people and can be used for a full day's work is around 450 to 600 euros. If you spend more than 5 hours at your desk, you need adjustable depth, adjustable armrests and adjustable backrest height.
Fixed armrests impede movement and do not allow getting close to the desk. They force people to work on the front of their chair, or push the keyboard away and use the front of the desk as the armrests. Doing this will make you curl up at the chest level and will cause muscular constraints.
Basically, the chair has to adapt to the body, not the opposite.
The sitting position
But how should you actually sit? What's the good position between being stuck inside your chair or sitting at the tip? Unfortunately, there's no made up answers: the right position is the one you can keep for hours.
From a purely theorical standpoint, the good office chair position that you see in schematics is good. The back is well supported, the knees are very slightly below the hips, with an opening of about 92 to 95 degrees.
But staying this way for hours will hurt too. Sitting on a giant inflated ball, that are often seen as replacement of office chairs as they are cheaper and recommended by physical therapists, will also hurt in the long run as they are not ergonomic and provide literally zero adjustement options.
How to feel comfortable
It's a bit contradictory but movement is key. When you are sitting still, your venous flow does not happen naturally. When you walk, you give an impulse for the blood to go back to the heart, which does not happen when you are static. So you have to alternate different positions inside your chair to provide better blood circulation.
If that doesn't feel logical (after all, chairs are rigid things), it's probably because your chair doesn't allow it. There isn't a lot of ways to sit on a kitchen chair until fatigue prevails and you take a painful position (laptops don't help, we'll talk about them later).
Ergonomic chairs on the other hand, are designed to alternate positions. The tilted backrest, for example, allows you to stretch your body lengthwise, and also offers a second, more relaxed working position than the upright one.
To be enjoyable, the rocker resistance must be adjustable, as people with different weights will have different rocking points. Effort must be minimal in order to be able to tip from one position to the other. Sitting at the tip of your chair for is also good, as long as it doesn't last too long. Once again, a chair that allows to change position without forcing is key.
As for the foam and cushions, it all depends on personal preferences. People with pain around the coccyx or sacrum will need more foam (or a hole in the sit cushion_, while others won't. A cocooning effect can also be important to feel relaxed for more anxious people.
Ask yourself the right questions
A lot of people project on others their own experience with their chair. But what counts is YOU. Ask yourself those questions: is the chair adapted to my height, my weight, my morphology? Do I have long legs? Short torso? Long neck? All those parameters matter as well as your working conditions.
Depending on them, the chair model will differ. If you are a cashier, you'll move your arms and twist your back a lot, which means you need freedom of movement and a strong lumbar support.
If you do a lot of videoconferences on a laptop, you'll need to raise your computer with a support and use a chair that support the upper body to avoid neck pain and musculoskeletal disorders. You'll need to alternate positions to avoid getting stiff.
Some people only spend one hour and half at their desk. If that's the case, a kneeling seat can also work as it's cheaper and takes less space.
Standking desks, a good or bad idea?
Standing desks are more and more criticized, often for good reasons. As we already said, moving is important, but too many people understood it as standing. But you won't be able to move and walk as your desk can't come with you. So what's the point of having one?
The goal isn't burning calories or making baby steps, but prevent potentiel issues by alterning positions. Working in a standing position relieves pressure on the back and reduces circulatory problems in the legs. Sitting down amplifies these issues, especially for women who are more prone to venous flow problems. It can also prevents digestive problems, as standing even for a short period of time relieves pressure on the intestines and stomach.
In order to achieve this, what you need isn't a standing desk. It's a sit-and-standing desk. A desk that allows to go from one position to the other. Once again, movement and choice are keys. You won't stand up for a whole day anyway, as you discs will be under pressure and your lumbar vertebae will take the hits.
If you take a sit-and-standing desk, be coherent and take an electrical model with a memory of your positions. Cheaper models with cranks exist, but from experience, Yvan told me most people adjust them for the sitting position and never touch them again. If changin position is seen as a chore, nobody will do it.
Also, of course, it's useless to have a sit-and-standing desk if you have a crappy chair.
Ask for advice from profesionnals
If all this sounds complicated, thats's because it is. If you are unsure about what to buy and what is better for your, look for stores specialized in office furniture for disabled people. Employees working in these stores are not medical staff, but they have met thousands of people with broken backs and necks. They've seen all type of morphologies going from the 2 meter, 120 kilograms guy to the 1 meter and half 40 kilograms lady.
They also know how to adjust chairs to your body while you try them, and it makes a big difference when someone else is tweaking the chair while you seat instead going back and forth to the cranks in order to adjust them. It's the polar opposite of the 20 seconds try of a mattress.
Of course some sellers can be bad. If you are in a very business oriented part of a city, shops might want to sell you very expensive "president like" chairs that look super good (ex: an Aeron Miller), while omitting that for half the price, you can have the same comfort minus the style.
Do your research and take care of yourself!
More important informations
Here's a bunch of important informations about chair adjusting, special types of chairs and prices.
How to adjust your chair?
You need to go from the top to the bottom, not the opposite!
- Start by adjusting the height of the armrests so that they are just below your elbows. The armrests should not be too high or too low. Your shoulders should not sag, but they should not rise either.
- Adjust the height of your chair so that the armrests are in line with your desk, even if your feet are no longer flat on the floor.
- Remember to adjust the height of the backrest so that the lumbar support is in the right place, as well as the headrest to support your neck.
- Adjust the depth of the seat so that there is enough space between the back of your knees and the beginning of the seat.
- If after all these adjustments, your feet are not flat on the ground, get a footrest! Conversely, if your knees are too high, it means that your desk is probably too low for you.
The off-center rocking mechanism
On most chairs, the back presses on the backrest to trigger the tilt. But if you have lumbar problems, using your back could cause you pain. In this case, look into off-center rocking mechanics, where the impetus will come from your legs.
The seat tilts as if you were in a shell, in one piece. It is much more natural and respects the human anatomy. But of course these mechanisms are more expensive.
Standing chairs are a strange compromise that allows a relatively comfortable seat while remaining at a higher height than a normal chair. Some companies adopt them in meeting rooms under the pretext of energizing the people who use them.
But standing chairs should only be used by people who can't stand or sit for long periods of time. Those people have to work in different positions throughout the day (sitting or standing), and the standing chair gives them a third option.
Standing chairs can also be found in medical fields, like in dentists or physiotherapists cabinets, who want to work sitting, but need to get some height. So unless you have a specific need, avoid them.
It's hard to find your way through the jungle of chair models and prices. Here are different price ranges to make your life easier. Note that they correspond to a purchase from a French retailer and include VAT.
The lowest price for an entry-level office chair with a range of adjustments that can be adapted to most people, and that can be used for a full day of work is between 450 and 600 euros.
What about the often recommended Aeron Miller? They can be found around 1600 euros in their latest version, and often cheaper second hand (between 300 and 600 euros, depending on the condition, the model and the options). Be careful, they exist in three sizes, but we often find only the B, the "standard" size. They are a bit of a luxury item with a "mesh" fabric that has no equivalent on the market. Unfortunately, the lack of a headrest (and the poor quality of the add-ons made by other brands) make them unadapted to people with neck injuries.
In the case of a kneeling chair, it will be between 150 and 300 euros depending on the model.
As for the more common armchairs like the Markus from IKEA, they cost around 250 euros. As alrady mentionned this is a very reasonable price, but it's not recommended as they do not offer any adjustment, especially for the armrests.
As for giant inflated balloons, you can find them from 30 to 180 euros (for a more stylish model), but most people should avoid them as they are not ergonomic. Note that it's possible to add an air cushion on any chair to obtain the same effect as a balloon, for a much smaller space. Count around 30 euros for a brand like Sissel Pro SITFIT or DISC'O'SIT.
Keyboards, mouses, monitors and laptops
More and more ergonomists are recommending the use of narrower keyboards than the traditional model with numeric keypad, as it creates less travel and twisting when switching from keyboard to mouse, and the arm that uses the mouse stays in line more easily. And yes, the TKL (without numeric keypad) or 60% models are also more ergonomic than full sized ones.
Finally, your screen should not be too high or too low. If the stand doesn't allow you to go high enough, invest in an articulated arm or an adjustable stand. Or stick a book underneath! When you're comfortable, your eyes should look straight to the center of the screen.
That also means not working on a laptop sitting on the desk. A stand for the machine and an extra keyboard and mouse are the minimum you should demand from your employer if you spend hours on it.A huge thank you to Catherine and Yvan Couloigner from La boutique du dos à Brest for their welcome and their explanations! Catherine and Yvan have been selling chairs adapted to all types of people and pathologies for 14 years and have a great expertise in their field. If you are in Brittany, don't hesitate to contact them and come to the store, located at 16 rue de la Villeneuve, to benefit from their expertise.