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

260 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…

Posted on: January 27, 2009.

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

  1. Tim – Congrats on upgrading your office infrastructure.

    WIth your focus on efficiency and optimization, I’m suprised that you didn’t invest in a good chair sooner. This is a must for knowledge workers.

    As a fellow author I can’t allow back pain to distract me from the keyboard. So I personally rotate between an Aeron, a yoga ball, and a kneeling chair throughout the day.

    Next I’d recommend upgrading from a lap top track pad to a stationary trackball mouse. Does wonders for reducing forearm (and therefore neck) stress during long keyboard sessions.

    Like

  2. Pingback: alsanan.info
    • It doesn’t have to be a big burden on your wallet though! I found this awesome website called Beverly Hills Chairs and they sell refurbished Aeron Chairs at a fraction of the price which is great if you are someone like me who is strapped on cash.

      Like

  3. That chair looks like from a sci-fi movie… :)

    I use a comfortable chair but I never thought of buying something that specific. I spend quite a lot of time writing content for my website, but I have never had back pains.

    Congrats with your new purchase!

    Like

  4. Bless you! The research I always meant to do, all done. with pictures. Thanks a million for this. Desk’s very tidy too – did you clear it up just for the pictures?!

    Like

  5. Thanks Tim for another great indepth article. If you could start work on how to select a decent bed next, that would be most helpful!

    I work for a Swedish company and they recently bought the entire staff these chairs – http://www.kinnarpscomfortcontrol.com/en/movie.htm No idea how much they cost, I think they’re are quite expensive, but they are the most comfortable chair I’ve ever sat in. After 8 hours of sitting I still feel great, wish I could afford one for my home office…

    Like

  6. Hi Tim!

    Great post!

    Proper seated posture creates an even load and balance for the body, placing less strain on the muscles and joints. However, even when you practice correct posture, you should not sit for prolonged periods of time. Take regular breaks to walk, stretch and move your muscles.

    To recap, proper seated posture would look like:
    • The head is above the shoulder joints.
    • The shoulder joints are above the hip joints.
    • The knees are at a ninety degree angle with feet flat on the floor.

    With gratitude,
    Charlie

    Like

  7. I care about ergonomics a lot, but since having applied the advice in 4HWW, I’m enjoying my time traveling around the world and I don’t have a permanent place that I can equip with such chair.

    What do you do when you are traveling and want to sit for prolonged hours in front of the computer?

    Like

  8. Hi Tim,

    Great post … thanks for sharing your research!

    Just a quick one, which might help other people with similar problems.
    About 8 years ago I seriously suffered from lower back pains. I got out of bed every morning like a little old man (bent forward). After X-Rays, I was told I suffered from a discal hernia (L5-S1), that “radiated” outwards towards my lower legs, making the outside of my calves feel like numb quite often. I asked my karate teacher, Richard Prospero 7th Dan, for some advice because not only is he an expert in martial arts but he also knows quite a bit about health, bio-mechanics, etc. He forwarded me to an osteopath and a “chaîniste” (specialist in muscular chains). For a few months I had to do some daily exercises, use a special “wooden seat” to place on top of the seat in my car for lumbar support, and mainly use a “Yoga/Swiss ball” at the office. The “Yoga/Swiss ball” actually was hard work at first because this forces a dynamic seating position on you, instead of just slouching. The first few days it was hard to actually sit on that ball all day, but after a while my body got used to it. I continued using this ball for several months, but once my back improved I started to be fed up with the fact that sitting on this ball didn’t allow me to easily “swivel” around in order to pick up the phone etc.
    So, I returned to my previous office seat but noticed that I had created a completely different seating position at my desk in the meantime.
    I didn’t slouch back on my office chair but sat up straight like you mention: feet flat on the floor, hamstrings parallel to the floor, …

    Since then, I have been using whatever office chair I have been given and I am almost never using the back of the chair, except to hang my coat on.
    I’m still doing karate now, as if I was half my age, and only very rarely will suffer from lower back pains.

    No surgery was needed, nor medication, just some time, exercise and new habits.

    Kind regards,

    Greg

    Like

  9. Tim,

    Hola from Madrid! Took your advice for a break from the regular monotonous delayed enjoyment pace of life and now I’m studying abroad for the first time ever!

    I’m a 6’2″ student and for nearly 2 decades I’ve been too tall for chairs at schools and universities. I’ve suffered back pain that no one my age should have to suffer. I never thought that there would ever be chairs made for someone like me, tall and lanky. Though I don’t have tons of cash, making the switch is so important, like you said, not only for health but output as well.

    Thanks for your post.

    Like

  10. Tim,

    I ditched the chair altogether, with a standup desk. I had one made for me by the good folks at http://www.standupdesk.com. While most people who have standup desks have back problems, I like the added space in my study and the additional energy I get from being on my feet.

    The next step in my office evolution was the addition of a small treadmill underneath the standup desk. I chose a relatively inexpensive one from http://www.treaddesk.com. The treadmill desk idea originated with Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic.

    As a result, I have lost over 40 lbs. since last July.

    Like

  11. Great research. Don’t forget the thickness of the actual table. A thick table forces your legs down, I prefer a thin table so I can sit close to the table and rest my elbows on the table, sliding the laptop back a bit. A thick table prevents that, as it prevents your upper legs from sliding in under the table.

    Best regards, Nanok – also obsessive about working ergonomics (but I actually like lying down working in the bed or the sofa too)

    Like

  12. Hey Tim,

    Fantastic micro testing. With the amount of time I’m spending editing our travel shoots around the world this sounds like a well worth it investment. Just ordered the chair. I’ll let you know what I think.

    Best,
    Rob

    Like

  13. Great post!

    When putting on the final push to get an e-book out just before Christmas, my “ass-in-seat” time was way higher than normal and I could feel the creep of tension and over-compensation. I ended up switching to a physioball temporarily, but would love to get a good chair eventually.

    Thanks for doing the legwork Tim!

    Cheers,
    Adam

    Like

  14. After years of using the Aeron, I switched to the Steelcase Leap and found it much more comfortable over the long haul.

    I second the other comments about your laptop ergonomics. You’re probably raising your shoulders to get to arms your keyboard instead of keeping elbows down and muscles relaxed. And depending on how tall you are, you’re probably unconsciously ducking your head to see the screen, creating neck stress. When I’m not travelling, I dock my laptop and work with a real monitor raised to eye level. A Goldtouch split keyboard (once I got used to it) and Logitech Marble Mouse were the other keys to eliminating pain for me.

    Like

  15. Oh man! Can’t wait to invest in an Aeron! I never realized how important chairs were until I switched from using my childhood desk chair to a more grown up, executive chair but I never thought there were chairs out there that were ergonomically correct. I simply thought they were to just sit on and be somewhat comfy on while doing work. And being able to sit at a desk for more than 2 hours is a HUGE deal to me since I do QA testing where I have to be at the computer constantly during my shifts. Only upside to it is that I work from home!

    Like