Commonly referred to as task chairs, the computer chair is a workhorse. Unlike a kitchen or lounge chair that you may sit on for 1 – 2 hours a day, the task chair needs to support the user in a comfortable and functional position for around 7-8 hours per day. Selecting and buying a computer chair is a challenging proposition. There are many products on the market and most claim to have “ergonomic” features. However, not all chairs are designed well for the purpose they are being used. Below is a description of what you should look for when selecting a task chair and a list of the features you should get and ones you should avoid.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING A TASK CHAIR
Before deciding on a chair we need to identify what the chair is being used for. In the case of a computer task chair we are looking for a chair that will support you in a comfortable and functional position for multiple hours of working at a computer workstation. To achieve this we want a chair that will perform two essential functions; 1) enable you to place most of the weight of your trunk and upper body on the load bearing structures of your spine (bones and discs) as well as some weight on the backrest of the chair; 2) position your wrists and shoulders in what we refer to as a neutral position (open and relaxed). By following these two fundamental principles we will be able to greatly reduce unnecessary strain on the muscles, tendons and joints of your body. This will reduce the risk of you injuring yourself at work and will most likely provide you with more energy. Now because we all come in different shapes and sizes, we need a chair that has sufficient adjustability that allows us all to work from the best possible position.
Function 1: Place the weight of your trunk and upper body on the load bearing structures of your spine: To achieve this we need a chair that has a backrest that will support the natural “S” curve that runs through your spine. When the “S” curve is achieved the muscles on your body will be freed up from having to hold your body erect and can focus on the job of moving your body. The hours upon hours of supporting slouching heads, backs and shoulders is what causes most of the discomfort people experience when working at a computer.
Function 2: Position your wrists and shoulders in a neutral position: To achieve this we need a chair that will enable you to operate the keyboard and mouse while keeping your shoulders relaxed at your side and your wrists flat.
TRIAL BEFORE YOU BUY
Some vendors have showrooms where you can go and try out the chair before you buy it. This is nice, however, probably not very helpful. Sitting in a chair for 5 minutes may not provide you with enough information for you to make a wise choice about its long term comfort and suitability for your workstation back in the office. Most vendors will have demo models that they will bring to your office, go over the adjustments with you and pick up a few days. This is a better option.
SELECTING CHAIR FEATURES & ADJUSTMENTS
SEAT HEIGHT ADJUSTMENT – Essential
This is an essential chair feature for anyone spending multiple hours sitting at a desk. The feature raises and lowers the height of the seat and is needed to ensure that you can position your arms at a good height for the keyboard and your legs are comfortable.
ARMRESTS – Not Recommended
Surprising to many, your arms should not contact the chairs armrests when you are using the keyboard and mouse. Resting your arms on the armrests between periods of computer work is fine, but resting your arms on the armrests prevents movement of the shoulders which can lead to pain and tightening of the shoulders. Additionally, armrests can prevent you from positioning your chair close enough to the computer so as to avoid reaching and difficulty moving around your workstation. Unless you have painful knees or hips and experience difficulty getting up from a chair, save yourself some money and purchase a chair without arms. Armrests add an additional $ to the cost of a task chair.
SEAT SLIDE ADJUSTMENT – Conditionally Recommended
This feature slides the seat pan forward and backwards to address differences in the length of a person’s legs. If you are the sole user of the chair and you are between 5 ft 4 and 6 ft 4, you probably won’t need this feature. However, if you are looking for an office chair that will be used by multiple employees over the course of its life span, then I would recommend getting this feature.
MESH BACKED CHAIRS – Conditionally Recommended
The main concern with most mesh backed chairs is that they “give/sag” more than a regular fabric backed chair. Too much give in the backrest will prevent you from being able to maintain the natural curves in your spine when seated. Some manufacturers are now making a double weave mesh, which provides better support. These are more expensive, but worth the investment if you want a mesh backed chair and intend spending more than 4 hours a day sitting.
SEAT TILT/RECLINE – Conditionally Recommended
This feature tilts the seat forward of backwards. Being able to tilt the seat forward may provide some relief for those who experience low back pain when seated. By tilting the seat forward, some of the weight of your trunk and upper body will be shifted forward onto your feet thereby reducing the load being supported by your low back. However, it is very rare that I find anybody that uses this feature. Reclining the seat back is only suitable for times when you are not using the computer. If your job involves primarily computer work, you will want to maintain a level pelvis and keep your back in a fairly upright position. This is one feature most people can opt out of.
BACK REST RECLINE – Recommended
This feature reclines the back rest. If your job involves periods of time where you are not using the computer either talking on the phone, in meetings or reading hard copy, then the recline option is a good choice. Reclining the backrest allows the chair to support more of your body weight. However, for those who spend the vast majority of your day using the computer you may not use this feature a great deal. However, I would still recommend it as some people like to have a small degree of recline while others are more comfortable with a very erect backrest. When using the computer, generally speaking positioning the backrest in an upright, or close to upright position is ideal as it reduces the strain on the neck and shoulder by reducing the need to move your head forward and reach with the arms. However those people who experience low back pain will find that reclining the backrest may provide some relief as the backrest of the chair is supporting more of the weight of their trunk. Essentially, it’s a trade off. It all depends on where you are experiencing discomfort, the neck and shoulder or the low back.
BACK REST HEIGHT ADJUSTEMENT – Essential
Raising and lowering the backrest is an important feature as it enables you to position the contours of the backrest with the natural curves of your back.
HIGH BACK CHAIRS – Not Recommended
Unless you recline your chair a lot at work, I would recommend staying with a low or mid back chair and avoiding the high back variety. The concern with high back chair is that they can push your upper back and shoulders forward forcing the muscles of your back to have to support the weight of your upper body. When you have 3 curves in the backrest, such as is the case of the high back chair it is difficult to find a model that will line up with the 3 curves in your spine. Often the situation arises where the lumbar support is positioned where it needs to be, but the thoracic and cervical supports are not.
CONTOURED BACKREST – Essential
Having a backrest where the contour of the backrest fits the natural curves in your spine will prevent a great deal of discomfort from developing from long hours of computer work.