The wrong chair = real health problems. (Photo: watz)
(Total read time: 8 minutes)
In this post I’ll cover how I identified the best high-end chairs in the world, which I ultimately chose, and the tangible results that followed.
In January of 2005, I found myself on a veranda in Panama after the usual afternoon rain, dreaming of the upcoming year and reflecting on lessons learned since leaving the US. Maria Elena, the matriarch of the Panamanian family that had adopted me, sipped her iced tea and pointed at my bruised feet:
“Tim, let me share some advice I was once given. Buy the most comfortable bed and pair of shoes you can afford. If you’re not in one, you’ll be in the other.”
I followed her advice upon returning to CA and the results were sudden: Plantar Fasciitis disappeared, as did shoulder impingement after switching from coil-spring to foam-layered mattresses.
But what about chairs? On January 4th, 2009, I tweeted out the following:
“Is the Aeron chair worth it? http://tr.im/2uxd Do you have any fave chairs for extended sitting and writing?”
Even though I’m financially comfortable now, I didn’t grow up spending a lot of money, which I’m thankful for. To this day, I’ve never paid for first-class airfare for myself. Not that it isn’t worth it — I just can’t do it. Similarly, I had trouble believing a chair could possibly be worth $850-$1,200, but my back pain led me to pose the question to the omniscient Interweb.
How did others feel?
More than 95% of Aeron users replied with “yes, absolutely”, but it wasn’t the only chair with a cult-like following.
Four of the five are manufactured by Herman Miller (HM) and Humanscale (HS). Prices are from Amazon, as are the star reviews, but discounts of $200-400 can be negotiated with dealers. Both eBay and Craiglist offer similar discounts.
In descending order of popularity:
2. Mirra (fully loaded) (HM) – $829 (14 reviews; average review: 4.5 stars) Note: the Herman Miller sales representatives I spoke with preferred the Mirra seat feel for shorter legs vs. the Aeron. Easier to adjust: Mirra is about 9 revolutions from loosest to tightest settings; Aeron is 40+.
I like the design concept, but I would suggest other forms of “core exercise”.
6. Embody – $1,800 list price (negotiated with dealer: $1,200-1,300): Basis of chair design – sitting is bad; movement is good. Even in locked position, it still has some backward flex at the top position. No forward tilt option.
For personal testing, I also added a Swiss-ball chair (Isokinetics Balance Ball Chair – $75) to the mix, as seen below:
3 Key Findings
Surprisingly, the Isokinetics chair is more comfortable than most fixed chairs I tested, though there is some minor… ahem… testicular compression that isn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds. If you don’t have jewels to worry about, this chair could well be an ideal cost-effective choice.
The chair I most wanted to test was the Mirra, which seems to have the best combination of price point (bought used or via eBay) and multiple 5-star reviews. Not to mention it’s also the name of one of the best BMXers of all time. But I digress.
In the end, I bought a used C-size (technically a bit too large for me) Aeron for $450 on Craigslist. I’m impatient and didn’t want to wait over the weekend to schedule sittings for other Herman Miller chairs with a certified dealer. Once I have some conclusive comparable data, I want closure.
Aeron sizing chart. I’m 5′ 8″ and 170 lbs., but the C works with no problem.
3 Personal Lessons:
1) The lumbar support is — by far — the primary determinant of comfort or pain. I’ve lowered this adjustment and found that maintaining the natural S-curve through pressure on the lower back is what prevents pain most consistently. Comfortable sitting time is now 7-8 hours vs. less than 2 hours, with no ill after-effects.
Sliding lumbar support on the Aeron.
2) Seat height (and secondarily, depth) will determine the rest.
If the flats of your feet don’t make complete contact with the floor, you will move your hips forward and slouch, eliminating the S-curve in the lower lumbar. If your seat is too low and your knees are above your hips, you will shorten the habitual range your hip flexors (negative neural adaptation) and end up with severe lower-back pain.
Aim to keep your hamstrings parallel to the floor, and if the seat is too long for your femur (thigh bone) — as is mildly the case with my C-size Aeron — just separate your knees a bit. If you’re not wearing a tight skirt, I’ve found a basketball of space between the knees to provide the best lateral stabilization, which reduces torso fatigue. Take off heels when sitting at a desk, lest you end up with hot calves and Quasimodo-like posture. Not good for mating. If you are wearing a tight skirt, I suggest taking up the Japanese tea ceremony and sitting on tatami side saddle. It’ll be more comfortable than crossing your legs all day.
Parallel hamstrings?! True, I’ve thought more about chairs in the last few weeks than anyone should, but I do it to save you the trouble. Benefit from my OCD so you can obsess on other things.
3) Using a 3′ long and 6″ diameter foam roller three times per day for 5 minutes can eliminate persistent middle-back pain from mediocre chair use; conversely, it can extend your comfortable sitting time by 30-40%.
A Visual Before and After
Knowledge workers often log more ass-in-seat time than sleep. Coders, in particular, are often subjected to a steady diet of Mountain Dew and hunching for 12+-hour marathons. I don’t put in these hours, but I found myself with severe mid-upper back pain from using a non-adjustable chair and craning over a desk that was too low, even for 30-60 minutes per day.
Two doctors suggested various therapies, but a quick experiment (placing a laptop on top of a dresser and writing while standing for two days) proved that posture was the problem.
In less than a week following my switch to the Aeron, all upper middle-back (lower trapezius, rhomboid major) pain disappeared completely. The results: better output during work and writing, faster and deeper sleep, and a huge smack on the forehead. Why the hell didn’t I do this earlier?
In my case, was it worth it at $450? Most definitely. Particularly looking at the value of time per hour and the lost income due to doctor visits, massage, etc., this is $450 I should have invested years ago.
Odds and Ends: Twitter Giveaway Winners
Coming soon! Patience, young Jedi. The travel bag and Fujitsu color travel scanner are gone. More giveaways coming here this week…
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