Should You Buy an Active Chair? I Tested Some—and Talked to the Experts

Should You Buy an Active Chair? I Tested Some—and Talked to the Experts
Written by Techbot

You’ve probably come across the term “active chair” or “active seating” over the past few years. These seats are billed as a countermeasure to the sitting epidemic—numerous studies have shown that sitting for hours at a time worsens health, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases

Pandemic lockdowns increased the prevalence of remote work, which often translated to more time in front of screens and less daily activity. Since remote and hybrid work are here to stay, a slew of companies are introducing “active” chairs that promise to inject some movement into your day. So how exactly do they work? 

Active chairs come in various forms, but the most common is an adjustable stool with a seat base that can rock to varying degrees. You keep yourself balanced—with your feet on the ground—and as the seat tilts, you engage your core muscles to stay upright, all while writing that email or Slack message. Companies liken these adjustments to the kind of low-level physical activity that can alleviate the effects of prolonged sitting. 

I have tested several active chairs now, with mixed results. After I spoke to a few kinesiology experts—people who study the body’s movement—the consensus seems to be that active chairs may work for in short bursts, but there are better (and free) ways to counteract the effects of sitting for too long.

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Rocking Around

With all the active chairs I’ve tested, I’ve never been able to use one for a full workday. These stools are comfortable enough to sit on for an hour or two, but eventually I want to slump back and relax my muscles. You should think about them not as a replacement for your office chair, but as a way to switch things up. However, the balancing act these stools offer might not be meaningful enough to be considered “active.”

“Movement is important,” says Anne-Kristina Arnold, who has been in the kinesiology field for more than 30 years. She’s currently chair of the Ergonomics Stream and a senior lecturer at the Department of Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. “Any kind of static movements in our bodies, we can only withstand and maintain for short periods of time,” she says, adding that it “can cause discomfort and ultimately potential injury as well.”

The latter is no joke. Look at the product page for this active chair from QOR360 and you’ll notice it asks you to read a safety notice that says people who are older or anyone who finds it difficult to balance may have an increased risk of falling while sitting on the stool.  

Arnold doesn’t think using these chairs is inherently harmful (as long as you can balance yourself), but she suggests a simple alternative: Get up and walk around every so often. “You’re going to get more circulation throughout the whole body rather than just those static contractions in maintaining your balance on the chair. If you’re into burning calories, an active chair is not going to work for you any more than getting up and going to the water cooler a few times during the day.”

If you suffer from back pain, you may experience some benefit from an active chair. Arnold notes that the forward tilt helps bring the lumbar back into a neutral position, but this is still something you’ll only want to rely on for short periods of time. Otherwise, your upper body will be too static as it tries to maintain balance, and your stomach muscles are going to have more tension and fatigue, especially over the course of a full eight-hour workday. 

“What we really want to do is design jobs that don’t require static work for long periods of time,” Arnold says. “We want to be able to encourage people to get up regularly and change their posture.” This doesn’t mean using a standing desk for eight hours a day, which Arnold says is just as bad, or putting a cycling machine or walking treadmill under your desk. 

Instead, Arnold says people need to change their perception of work. If you’re going for a walk but drumming up ideas for a presentation, it should absolutely count as work. Technology can help here as well—you can use the voice dictation feature on a smartphone to take down notes as you walk, or take Zoom meetings on the go. Switch to a tablet and move to a different part of the home during the day to engage different muscle groups.  

“Move the printer away,” Arnold says. “Or move your phone to the other side of the room, which forces you to get up.”

Roman Kuster, who is a movement and data scientist at Roche (and was a postdoctoral researcher at Karolinska Institutet when I spoke to him), echoed many of Arnold’s sentiments. He says building some kind of physical activity into your workday, even if it’s just walking, will be more helpful than getting an active chair. And if you’re dealing with back pain after sitting all day, the first step is to try another desk chair. (Anecdotally, when I went from a cheap gaming chair to a proper office chair, my back pain disappeared after a few weeks.)

“It doesn’t really matter what chair you have,” Kuster says. “It matters much more what type of work you are doing. It’s nice to have activity during office hours, but we have jobs where there are inactive periods—you should collect exercise hours in your spare time.” 

Active Chairs I’ve Tried

I had to pair almost all of these active chairs with a standing desk. These chairs stand at various heights, and many of them put you in a sit/stand position that might not work with traditional desks. 

This is the only active chair I tried that made me feel like I really had to balance to stay on it. The company says the stool targets the sitz bones, much like riding a bicycle, and helps keep your posture upright. Out of all the active chairs I tested, I was the most upright on the Ariel, and I noticed my posture improving even when I wasn’t sitting down. You will need to ease into it over the course of a few weeks, as switching to it can otherwise leave you too sore or in pain. 

“Our rocking mechanism actually differs from our competitors greatly because the pivot point is right underneath your pelvis, which allows for movement in the spine and much more engagement in the core,” says Turner Osler, the CEO and cofounder of QOR360. He’s also an academic trauma surgeon and research professor at the University of Vermont. 

The seat offers a 360-degree rocking motion, and I could feel my stomach muscles working to stay balanced. At the end of the day, they felt sore almost exactly like after a workout at the gym. I did have to get up and move around often, as I couldn’t sit on it for long stretches of time—perhaps an unintended benefit. Osler says if you can take a walk, do that, but since we’re so passive in our chairs, an active chair could have a sizable impact on overall health.

QOR360 has since released the Ariel 2.0, which is even more expensive but has a seat that’s 20 percent larger, with more padding for “all-day” sitting at work. It’s also rated for heavier people at 300 pounds. It includes a few other options, like the new Tilt, which has a greater degree of movement to keep your core muscles even more engaged. I haven’t tried this model.

Branch’s Saddle Chair is billed as a “bold take on active sitting,” but it doesn’t actually wobble. A Branch representative told me the feedback the company received from customers that have used tilting chairs was that people didn’t want to feel as though they could slip off at any moment, creating a “sub-optimal active experience.” Instead, the Saddle Chair has a sloped seat to support your thighs, and it can be set to various heights, so your feet are always planted on the ground. 

The company says the Saddle is easy to move around and has a solid base and a supportive cushion that accommodates legs. It’s height is easily adjusted so you can work at a mid-way point between sitting and standing.  It certainly accommodates people at various heights—I’m 6’4″, and my 5’1″ wife was able to enjoy sitting on it as well.

I like how the Saddle Chair looks, and my wife and I found it one of the comfier stools to sit on, but we never felt any kind of active engagement with this chair, and I soon found myself slouching on it. As with most other active chairs, both of us had to get off of it and move around every so often because it was not comfortable for more than two hours.  

Humanscale Freedom Saddle/Active Pony

This pricey stool doesn’t get as tall as the Branch Saddle Chair, but you can upgrade it with adjustable cylinders if you need more height. It is billed as gently rocking seven degrees in all directions. Yes, it can rock around, but you can also sit completely still without ever taking advantage of the tilt. I think this is because the seat itself doesn’t tilt like the QOR360 Ariel does. Instead, this mechanism is baked into the cylindrical stem that runs to the base. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get encouragement to fix my posture—it was easy to fall back into a slouch. 

The casters do not move at all when I’m sitting on it, which might be to prevent the stool from rolling away when you’re trying to balance (or to encourage you to get up and move instead of rolling to the printer). It’s comfier than the Ariel, and I like that you can sit on it in any direction. Humanscale also has a 15-year warranty, and this is a net positive product, meaning it follows a stringent set of sustainability requirements. 

This is the only active chair I really didn’t like. Kneeling chairs like the Vilno are fine for the first 30 minutes to an hour, but after that length of time, my shins and knees resting on the pads started to ache. Its height is not adjustable, and while it’s easy to rock back and forth like you’re on a rocking horse, this motion shifts the chair from its initial position. I found myself constantly dragging it back in front of my keyboard. 

If you’re having issues with your current seating, I recommend trying an office chair first (I have many great recommendations here). Many of these companies have 30-day return policies, so you can try the chair for a few weeks to see whether it’s right for you. 

More importantly, I suggest getting up and moving around a little bit every hour. This is the easiest and cheapest way to counteract a sedentary lifestyle. If it helps, several smartwatches have baked-in movement reminders to encourage this behavior. An active chair may work for you, but they are not our go-to recommendation or a substitute for physical activity. The proof is in my gut reaction—every time I walked into my home office and found a stool waiting for me, my heart sank. Get a comfy chair with a backrest you enjoy sitting in. 

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