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Fed up with sitting at a desk all day, I began swapping my office chair for a large, vinyl Swiss ball last year, the kind found in health clubs across America.
Socially, it was a difficult adjustment. My editor decided I resembled a giant bird hatching an egg. Colleagues frequently interrupted me to inquire about my sanity. And occasionally, I returned to my cubicle to find some joker borrowing the ball for a few situps.
But from a physical standpoint, getting rid of my chair for a few hours a day helped alleviate stiffness, flashes of sciatica and a sore lower back.
The simple act of sitting is "the occupational hazard of the century," said Cheryl Bennett, an ergonomic specialist at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who helps fit people in chairs.
"The compression force on the lumbar discs is higher when you're sitting than during most activities except lifting heavy objects," she said. "The other (detrimental) thing we do is we stay sitting. We sit and sit and don't move."
Chairs are designed to provide support, but that hinges on good posture. In reality, most people slouch, using only a few muscles. This can strain the low back muscles and increase pressure on the discs.
Swiss balls, originally used in Europe in the 1960s to treat orthopedic problems, were sold mainly to physical therapists, hospitals and clinics. Gradually, the air-filled spheres were embraced by elite athletes and fitness buffs for their ability to work, stabilize and strengthen deep core muscles.
Now the Swiss ball, also called a fit ball and physio ball, has been rolled out in birthing centers, offices and classrooms, where studies have shown it can help children focus.
Because the ball is dynamic, it creates "active sitting," forcing you to constantly exercise the muscles you need for good posture, said Jo Fasen, a physical therapist and clinical manager of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Spine and Sports Center.
Conventional chairs let us slide our hips forward, causing them to round the lumbar and thoracic spine. That results in a rounded back, compressed lungs and weak deep spinal muscles.
The ball, however, virtually prohibits the slouch and removes the temptation to cross your legs. "The movement (while sitting on a ball) creates a type of pumping mechanism that brings nutrition to the discs and surrounding tissue in the spine," said Fasen, who uses a ball as a chair at home and at the office. "It also builds endurance in the long-acting postural muscles in our trunks, and we feel it improves balance, sensory and body awareness."
After researching the issue, Maggie Brewner, a 5th-grade teacher at Richmond Elementary School in St. Charles, Ill., tested the benefits by trading chairs for bouncy red Swiss balls during the last several months of the year.
Brewner, who worked with chiropractor David Williamson, director of the Advanced Physical Medicine clinic in St. Charles, employed the balls incrementally until the chairs were permanently gone.
"They were really comfortable," said student Rachel Rawson, 10. "Much better than a chair."
More important to Brewner was that the students' attention and academic performance seemed to improve.
"Teachers are always looking for ways to help kids learn," she said. "I found it helped all the students but especially those who had problems staying on task and focused."
For office workers, it can be fatiguing to be on the ball eight hours a day. Julie DeWerd, a physical therapist at Midwest Pilates and Foundations of Health in Chicago, recommends taking frequent breaks by standing, walking or even returning to a chair.
"Anyone prone to gluteal pain may find that the ball irritates their symptoms worse than sitting in a conventional chair," she said.
The balls are available in different sizes, and it's important to have proper fit, something a physical therapist can help set up. They also come in different versions, including an egg-shaped "ball" that has less motion and might benefit physically impaired.
Be wary of the pricey Exercise Ball Chair ($250), which consists of a Swiss ball stuck in a chair frame with wheels.
"Those are more of a gimmick," Williamson said. "The reason the ball works is that it's round. If it's on wheels, it's just like a chair."
And if you're not ready to be mocked at work, try the ball at home. Bennett, who specializes in ergonomics, children and educational environments, suggests using the ball while watching television or playing video games. "More muscles are working to keep you balanced," said Bennett, whose 11-year-old daughter loved being on the ball-until she popped it.
(Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune. Write to her at: the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.)
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.