Finding the Perfect Office Chair: Aeron vs. Swiss Ball vs. the FBI's Pick…

256 Comments


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:

1. Aeron (Fully loaded) (HM)$879 (1 review; average review: 5 stars)
Used at NASA mission control and tech start-ups worldwide.

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+.

3. SwingChair$495 Recommended by a strong contingent of writers, including one of my favorite visual storytellers, Kathy Sierra.


I like the design concept, but I would suggest other forms of “core exercise”.

4. Liberty (HS)$899 (6 reviews; average review: 3.5 stars)

5. Freedom Task Chair with Headrest (HS)$999.99 (1 review, average: 4 stars) Used at the FBI and by other governmental agencies with three-letter acronyms.

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.

Before:

After:

###

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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256 comments on “Finding the Perfect Office Chair: Aeron vs. Swiss Ball vs. the FBI's Pick…

  1. the aeron hermann miller chair is worth every cent and you can get decent 2nd hand ones off ebay.

    then…
    buy a really good monitor for your laptop and get it at the right height. a laptop screen is an annoying toy once you get used to a really good resolution (of course your laptop needs a decent graphics card first).

    buy a ergonomic keyboard and mouse and plug that into your laptop too.

    i don’t understand why people use laptops in ways they weren’t designed for.

  2. I’m with Ross. Ditch the chair altogether. I have 2x more energy standing when working. To break it up a bit, I have a high swivel chair that I’ll plunk my butt on from to time. I pace when I make phone calls. I have a white board to mix up the media and thinking process too, so when in creative mode I use the white board, a journal, and the PC interchangeably.

    I also believe more monitors are better. Internet one side, client apps other side. I also have a screaming PC, which I don’t really need, but I decided that waiting for a PC is one cost I don’t need to incur anymore. To hell with optimizing it for what your doing – get the fastest you can afford and let it run 5 years. If you maximize speed vs. budget, go for a tower, not a laptop. Spend the money you save for a tower on more monitors. 35% productivity increase for me because I switch between apps all the time.

    My “other” desk is a treadmill with a home-made customization, which is a platform to set the keyboard at the right level, and another platform to place the laptop screen at optimal height. While I can’t use it when making phone calls (the treadmill is too loud) I can motor along at 1.5 mph and type just fine. If surfing, one can go much faster.

    I use SugarSync to sync files between the workstation and the laptop continuously, so if I need to head out for a meeting or trip I can just grab the laptop and everything is there.

    Just started trying out Evernote – like the concept of it so thanks for turning me on to that one, Tim. Just started 4-hour body last week too. So far so good!

  3. Herman Miller makes some amazing seating tools. If you do a lot of work online as the case with the NR, spending a little bit more on a comfortable chair is worht every penny. It will save your back thus boosting your energy to do other productive things.

  4. Many people hesitate to sit on an ergonomic chair ball. They worry about falling because the circular seating. But after some time sitting there, you’ll get used to. Do not be afraid.

  5. This is an important subject — and lots of good ideas here.

    When you have been computing as long as me, even tiny things can develop repeated stress problems. Like armrests — my elbows finally are very sensitive to pressure. So I think super padded armrests are very important. I notice some people like sitting on “balls” without armrests, but several times I got painful shoulder soreness from the weight of my arms hanging. I’m sure it is also from the unnatural position using keyboard and mouse, because the condition doesn’t arise when on my feet all day, such as on vacation. Which leads me to agree with those who recommend switching postures regularly to keep stress from accumulating.

    Ironically I found that a super soft seat, while initially more comfortable than a harder seat, seems to numb my legs more — maybe when the pressure is focused on my “sit bones” (not so comfortable) with a hard seat, it allows better blood flow to the surrounding tissue.

    This is stuff that didn’t matter much for the first few decades of computer work — but now is becoming critical due to back/neck/wrist problems.

    Forest ranger job sounding more and more attractive…

  6. This is related to your search for chairs. Try a dentist’s chair if you can get your hands on one. My wife’s dad is a retired orthodontist, and he gave me his chair. I have a protruding disc, and broken tail bone (sacrum?), but am a competitive track runner. My disc problems cause me to squirm in my chair all day. The chair rocks back and forth, and raises and lowers, but doesn’t lock into a reclined position.
    It’s not a pretty chair, it’s industrial strength, but, it’s kind of cool in a retro way. Looks aside, it’s the best chair for my back I’ve ever had, and it’s practically indestructible.
    I’m sure they’re expensive new, but maybe you could find one used. It’s not chic, but, I bet it will outlive me by 100 years.

  7. I really enjoyed this article. I have found through experience that the SwingChair has been the best chair for my back. With it’s natural body of motion counter balancing every motion my body wants to make, I have never been more comfortable. My back pain has also dramatically decreased in the past months of usage.
    Thanks for this article, as it is what lead me to this awesome chair. Go SwingChair!

  8. My chiro recently introduced me to the idea of “microbreaks”. Every 20 min, a timer goes off and you stand up and stretch for 4 seconds (thoratic extension and reaching for the ceiling). The idea is that after 20 min, your elastic tissue reaches a critical point of no return, after which it won’t snap back to its normal shape.

  9. People underestimate how important your office chair can be for your body and posture because, after all, you spend most of your day sitting on it. The chair you used to be working on looks very uncomfortable, but what I would like to know is if you have fully adapted to the new one? I know that some people, after a few months, find a few niggles with their backs after changing posture.

  10. I have some back problems as well, and having having a crummy (albeit adjustable) IKEA chair for some years, I decided it was time for a switch. I settled on the Kinnarps Plus[8] series, fully loaded, and sitting has been like a continual orgasm ever since. Most tech companies don’t realize that buying proper chairs for their employees is something that HAS to be done. Also, one size doesn’t fit all. Don’t be too strict. It’s great if you can buy Aerons for everybody, but someone might want something else, so try to be accommodating. At my new company I found a swiss ball sitting around, which I’m going to try this week. Not a day goes by where I don’t think “I should bring my own chair to the office”. This happens at every school, every employer, everywhere where I have to sit for any extended period of time. I bought the chair around 8 years ago for the equivalent of 500 EUR. The same chair today costs around 1500. Still, it’s worth it. You might not realize this immediately, but in the long run, it’s heaven.

  11. Aeron chairs are wildly popular in my field (computer graphics). However, I dumped mine after trying the exercise ball for just 2 weeks. After 15 years of various back and hip pain, it all cleared up like magic! Never will I use a chair again, no matter how advanced. YOU’RE STILL SITTING – that’s the problem.

    ALSO, don’t get the exercise-ball-on-wheels model! It won’t have the same effect. Just a simple ball, one size larger than it recommends on the box.

  12. It’s important a chair addresses factors such as sitting duration, task, and workstation placement so the end result can help users stay productive and alert throughout the day. Great post!

  13. Being regularly sat in an Aeron chair for the past 6 months with work I can safely say it’s the best chair I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on.

    I even went to the trouble of buying one for home use because it was that comfortable. As I’m from the UK, I’ll let others know that you can find a used one on gumtree for a very respectable £250 – £300.

  14. This is super insightful. I was doing a bit of research between the Aeron and the Leap chair actually. It’s a shame that the posture fit costs so much more for the Aeron. I think I will lean more towards the Leap chair by Steelcase, as it seems to be a one size fits all, with no extra add-ons necessary.

  15. Hi,

    I suffer from what is called hyperlordosis, or forward hyperextension of lower ( lumbar ) spine. I find most chair with lumbar support to excasarbate the condition. In other words, I find lumbar support pushing my lumbar spine forward even further. Chairs without lumbar support are equally bad for my back.
    Over the course of last few years I set in several Herman Miller chairs: Aeron, Mirra and currently own Embody
    My overall impression is that HM chairs are more about style than ergonomics.
    Lumbar and back support is in my opinion one of the worst in the industry, and Embody particularly fails in this area. Pixelated support in lower back on Embody is too hard and inflexible causing actually my mid back to overly flex and arch, instead of providing support.
    Aeron was terrible due to sharp and uncomfortable edge on the forward sloping part of the seat. While it did provide some support in the lower back, it tottaly failed to provide any in the upper back.
    Also, I’m not sure why, but neither Embody nor Aeron have option for being equipped with arm rests that can be adjusted forward and backward.
    Arm rests on these stick too far out, and it’s impossible ( for me at lest ) to keep arm rest at the desk level and bring chair close enough so I can type on the keyboard without bending my upper back forward.
    I have a feeling these chairs are not properly tested for work in front of the computer when they are designed.

    Anyways, my negative experiences with HM chairs can be attributed due to my lumbar hyperlordotic condition, so please take above statements with caution.

    Finally, can anyone recommend good chair or solution for people suffering from lumbar hyperlordosis? I have seen several physicians, chiros and physical therapists, but no treatment gave any positive results, nor were they able to offer any practical or usefull advice on dealing with this condition while at work ( FYI I’m full-timve software engineer ). Even if there are any benefits from the treatment, they are easily undone by even few hours of work in front of the computer.
    The condition is causing me lots of grief and it is seriously impacting both my overall well being and work performance. Any advice and tips will be hugely appreciated!

  16. Hi Tim, I came across this article while looking for a more comfortable lounge chair, I was surprised to see it was by you as I have read one of your books.

    I am sitting on a brand new leather sofa that is part of a suite that was pretty expensive and my wife loves the design and I cannot get comfortable in it at all.
    I have mild scoliosis but it seemed ok for the 15 to 20 minutes we tried it in the showroom. I wonder if they could apply the same principles to domestic seating ?

  17. Lower back pain is one of the most common physical problemstoday that occur in modern times. Due to our Because of ourway of life that has changed enormously since the last 200 years many of us suffer from lower back ache. The reason for this pain may vary but there are five steps you can take to minimize your pain or even may take away the back ache completely. Here are 5 steps you can and should take:

  18. Nice Chair! This is also recommended for persons with back pain since during sitting when most of us working in the office or home for hours, the cause of back pain came from poor sitting posture.

  19. Would definately recomend the Aeron chair, 5’9″ tall and 160 pounds prefer & most comfortable with the B sized chair, a totally worth while investment in your personal well being. 6 years of daily use for over 8 hours per day it still looks like new!

  20. Yup, aerons are definitely worth the investment. I’ve suffered from lower back pains from bad chairs in the past and got the aeron with the lumbar support. 2 weeks later and I feel an incredible difference.

  21. With all of the research I am surprised that you succumbed to impulse in buying an ill fitted chair without trying on others that were highly recommended. Your conclusions have to be somewhat discounted as you did not follow through on your research. It was a good start at least to give a list of candidates for others to research. I guess the compulsive side of your OCD got the better of you.

  22. Having a good chair for your desk is crucial – especially if you work long hours. I know people rave about the exercise ball chair, but it just looks so uncomfortable to me. Back support is key!

  23. Finding a comfortable office chair can be really tricky! I know it took me a few months to finally find the perfect chair. But I love it because it’s not only stylish but beyond comfy too, it’s the perfect relief for this old mans back :)

  24. Tim, using a dictation software choice compatible with your choice of operating system can greatly speed up your work as well as eliminate muscular soreness that comes from the unnatural positioning of arms and hands during typing on the keyboard. Also, using a standup desk can virtually eliminate all posture based problems and ensure better body alignment.

    Having a good chair is important but more importantly its important not to use that chair more than 1 to 2 hours a day. Sitting is a disease, and it’s costing us our health.

  25. I hade the top of the line Aeron, and found it seemed to be built for bodies larger than mine (5’6″ 135 lbs.), the seat area was just too big and I ended up having to sell it. Still looking for something that works :-)

  26. I’ve been looking into lots of office chair sites recently in a spurt of interest towards healthier office living. I’ve found that the highly recommended chairs that are sturdy, long-lived and provide good lumbar support seem to be the higher priced chairs and have been trying to find one that is both cost-friendly AND health-friendly!

    I think my solution so far has been to look into the refurbished desk chairs of some of the models you listed, and I really do love them!

    Thanks for the list!

  27. I had back pain with my old chair as well. Today I got used Aeron B (I’m 184cm tall) from eBay. Without lumbar support it doesn’t remove the pain but with it it’s a bit better now (we’ll see in a couple of days). I can’t say that it’s perfect chair though!

    It’s not bad and it is solid but my rating would be 5/10. Reasons:
    - doesn’t allow cross-legged sitting (that’s very, very important for me – it’s my favorite and the most comfortable posture and I’ll buy another chair that will allow me to do that – I’ll be just switching them when I want to)
    - arms are too low which is something I don’t understand becase missing 5-10cm to touch my arms is a lot
    - just 10 or 20cm more of its height would be advisable

    Parting words: test this chair before purchase. Test it well. Adjust and test. Maybe it will fit your needs but I personally wouldn’t call it a perfect chair (they should have forgotten design part and focus fully on usability! Then it would be the greatest chair of all time and right now it’s only a good chair).

  28. I’m actually a fan of the ball. I used one at my last office. I used one about 5 years. I laughed at my secretary when she introduced the idea. But she won me over to her side in a few weeks.

  29. Great read! I too went through testing of many options. Luckily there is a store in my neighborhood here in NY (Manhattan Home Design) that has an amazing collection of office chairs. Most are replica’s of Herman Miller and Eames. I chose the softpad management chair and it is the best chair I have ever had.

  30. Tim – your desk area is terrible. If you start to get problems after the chair purchase, you need to look at a desk.

    I got the Herman Miller desk, but anything that lines up your elbows with your hands will do. For me, shoulders and back issues improved when i lined up my keyboard to my elbows so i was forced to sit back when typing.

    I have the Embody chair, but i had the same Aeron chair that you have now. Aeron down side is the seat support. Your sitting on a hammock. It’s comfy though.

    The best advice is to have an egg timer to remind you to get up every hour and stretch/walk etc.

  31. I’ve been an Aeron Chair enthusiast over the years, but there are areas that could use some added support. The Saddle Collection offers comfortable and stylish lumbar pillows and leg cushions that make a major difference.

  32. Thanks for the chair advice I’m shopping for something new.

    My advice would be next to buy and docking station, dual screen monitor and ease of use and much more real estate than you’re working with. Also looking at your lighting I’m surprising you don’t suffer from eye strain too. Lighting should be balanced and no light sitting next to monitor

    My setup consists of a; Ball, Chair, and stand-up workstation. I alternate between them but mostly i find the ball works best as I can do crunches during some tasks.

    12th Man