When shopping for an office chair, you may have seen a rating that indicates how long they’re meant to be used at a time. Task chairs, those small, barely-adjustable office chairs, are typically only rated for 1-2 hours of use. What chair is the best for a full day at work, though?
The answer is many of them. Rather than looking for a particular brand or model, look for features that are important to you. Remember, too, that the ideal chair for you might not be the same as the ideal chair for someone else. People of different heights, weights, builds, and activity levels may need different chairs. Additionally, it can matter whether or not you’re moving frequently, sitting and standing, or remaining relatively stationary while you work.
What features should you look for in a chair designed for long hours of sitting? Here’s our guide.
The study of ergonomics is always ongoing, and as such, chairs that have been designed in the last few years tend to be better than chairs of an older design. That said, most modern ergonomic chairs will be leagues better than the standard office chair from your local office supply store, and they only get better as you go up in prestige and price.
Ergonomics are all about forming the chair to fit your body in a way that puts a minimal amount of stress on the spine, the muscles of the back, and even the pelvis. A properly-designed ergonomic chair can alleviate neck pain, shoulder tension, headaches, upper and lower back pain, numb legs, and a range of other systemic issues that can crop up over years of sitting.
What should you look for in terms of ergonomics for your chair?
Mobility. A good chair is mobile for the needs of your workspace. This depends in part on your desk; how often do you need to swivel from side to side, roll back and forth, or lean around as you do your job? Some chairs have different levels of mobility than others. If your desk and activity are largely stationary, a chair with a broad, flat base can be beneficial. Otherwise, you’ll usually want one on at least five legs of support with high-quality casters. We’ll talk more about the casters later.
Lumbar support. One of the most important aspects of ergonomics in a chair is the shape and support of the back. Some chairs have a straight back. These are bad chairs. You want a chair that has a curved back, meant to support your spine.
There are three kinds of back support you’ll typically find in an ergonomic chair. The first is adjustable pillow support. A lumbar pillow is usually attached to the back, but it can also be held on by a strap. Some are relatively fixed, while others can be adjusted up and down or in and out. As a general rule, the more adjustable the chair is, the better it will be once you have it dialed in to a setting that fits you best.
The second kind of lumbar support is a static composition of a chair. Many mid-range office chairs have this kind of design today. They are curved and have tension and support in the right places to support your spine, but they are not very adjustable (if they have any adjustments at all). They fit with the standard, average human spine, and that’s just how they work.
The third kind of lumbar support is a dynamic composition. Many of the most high-end ergonomic office chairs have this kind of support now. They may have numerous zones of tension in the mesh of the back, or they may have dynamically tensioned hotspots in the back of the foam or mesh or a similar innovative design. These are less common but very comfortable and more automatic in their adjustments.
Adjustable height. The height is one of the simplest and easiest things to adjust about a chair, and also one of the things many people get wrong. The height of your chair should be roughly equal to your knees. When you sit in the chair, your feet should be flat on the floor. Too high, and your feet dangle, putting tension on your spine and across your back. Too low, and your knees are raised, compressing your abdomen, tensing your back, and throwing your body out of balance.
Your chair’s height should also be positioned such that your arms can hang loose at your sides, bent at the elbows, so they are flat across to your keyboard. To some extent, you’ll want armrests that can adjust to this position.
Adjustable seat pan. A seat that you can adjust forward and back is ideal for ergonomic positioning. When you sit down, you should be able to sit comfortably against the back of the chair without pressing too far back, or leaving too much space between your back and the lumbar support of your chair.
You also want the front lip of the seat pan to curve down, so it doesn’t press up into the backs of your thighs. This is what cuts off blood flow to your legs and can cause issues ranging from numb and tingling feet to blood clots in the deep veins. Additionally, the lip of the seat should be far enough back that you have about an inch of space between it and the back of your legs. This helps minimize the same pressures and makes it more comfortable to sit in.
Comfortable tilt. Some office chairs do not tilt, and that’s fine for short term use. Long hours, however, encourage you to change your position throughout the day. You may want to tilt back and away from the screen while you use a phone or read on a tablet or a book. You may also want to be able to recline to relax in brief moments between tasks.
Reclining can be done from a single pivot point or in a multiple pivot dynamic system. A system with multiple pivot points allows both the seat pan and the back to recline, sometimes even in proportional degrees, to maintain an ergonomic posture while leaning back.
You may also consider looking for a chair with a tilt restrictor. A tilt restrictor may be static – a fixed range of motion for the chair – or dynamic, with an increasing tension the more you lean back. This helps prevent leaning so far back you tip over, or jolt like you’re about to.
Armrests. Some office chairs do not have armrests. That can be fine if you’re getting close enough to your desk that you can use the desk itself as an armrest. However, that can still put stress on your neck and shoulders over time.
Armrests should be positioned such that your arms can rest comfortably on them while remaining at the height of your keyboard. This minimizes stress on arms, shoulders, and neck while making it easier to type without risking a repetitive stress injury.
Armrests should also have as much range of adjustment as you think you may need. Some chairs are fixed or only adjust up and down. Others might be able to adjust forward and back, angle out to the sides, or slide sideways. All of these adjustments may be necessary to fit your build and posture. They can also make it easier to get out of a chair later after you’ve been sitting for hours.
Headrests. Not all office chairs have a headrest. A headrest is not always part of ergonomic support, so it may depend on how much support you think your neck needs. Some chairs have neck pillows. Some have headrests that can be removed or adjusted, up and down, or forward and back. Still, others are simple straight backs. In large part, the style of headrest you choose is up to personal preference.
Composition: Leather, Mesh, Upholstery, Etc.
The materials from which your chair is made are important for a handful of reasons. Comfort is the big one. If you often work in a hot environment, or an environment where you do not have air conditioning, you may want a material that is lighter and easier to breathe. You may also be concerned with the durability of the material over the years of use, as well as the material’s ability to resist stains.
Leather chairs are typically large and bulky. Leather is a resilient material, and its elegant appearance is often a selling point for executive chairs. High-quality leather can last for decades with proper care, and there are examples of comfortable leather chairs that are over 100 years old. Leather is also quite resistant to stains and grime, and relatively easy to clean with the right cleaning supplies.
On the other hand, leather tends to be more costly and can be scratched easily. Excess heat and sunlight can bleach and dry out leather, which requires restoration or repair. Also, most “leather” chairs are bonded leather or fake leather, which means they can crack and fall apart much more easily. Leather is also awful in hot environments, where it traps heat against your body and can stick to exposed flesh.
Fabric chairs are more typical. They aren’t as durable, but they’re much cheaper and come in a wider variety of forms. They are not resistant to stains, but they are easy to clean. Often, a fabric chair has a mesh back, using fabric solely for the seat upholstery.
Mesh chairs are the most breathable in hot environments, especially if both the back and the seat are mesh. Mesh is also very flexible and comfortable, but it may stretch out over the years of sustained use. A small tear in the mesh can ruin the whole thing, as well, so even minor damage needs to be repaired, where for something like leather, it’s mostly cosmetic.
Some chairs are made of a more novel material like polyurethane or vinyl. These tend to be very durable and relatively cheap, but they may not be as comfortable.
When looking into a chair to purchase, consider the quality of the materials. You may need to read reviews from people who have owned the chairs for a while, to get an adequate idea of how they hold up. Some concerns you may have include:
- Quality of support. Most chairs are made of either a plastic or aluminum frame, from which the rest of the chair is suspended. The quality of these materials determines if some elements might work lose or bend over years of use. Plastic can also grow brittle and crack over time.
- Quality of material. If your chair uses something like leather or fabric for its seat or back, it typically has foam beneath. Does the foam hold up to hours of use, or does it compress and start to fail to hold its shape? If it's mesh, what material is it made of? Does it have a warranty?
- Quality of gas cylinder. Most chairs use a central gas cylinder for pneumatic adjustments in height. Some use similar pneumatics for other adjustments. These cylinders can lose pressure over time, so check to see how easily they can be replaced, and how high quality they are (to begin with).
- Quality of the casters. Small plastic casters are suitable for hardwood and flat surfaces, but they can get clogged up with hair and dirt over time and make rolling more difficult. Larger casters are better for carpeted and other softer surfaces and are more reliable over time. If your chosen chair has all of the other features that you like but has poor-quality casters, you may be able to buy higher quality casters and replace them yourself.
Picking a quality chair with plenty of ergonomic features will help you feel much better with extended use. An ergonomic chair can solve back pain issues, and one designed for long use is going to be better than one designed for only a couple of hours at a time. With enough research, you’re sure to find one that works for you. If possible, make sure you buy a chair with great reviews and with a warranty. That alone will help you avoid a lot of headaches.
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