Approximately 8 out of every 10 Americans will have back problems at some point during their lifetimes. And, the number of adults in America experiencing lower back pain seems to be on the rise too. So, what can we do to reduce some of the risks with long-term and degenerative back pain? Many sources are recommending a reclined sitting position as just one part of an overall health strategy. The good news is that for most desk chairs today you can do this by reclining the backrest with a simple adjustment to (usually) a side lever. The motivation behind this article is to shine a light on an ergonomically ‘friendly’ sitting position, as too often I see in the media that the most ‘ergonomic’ sitting posture is as straight as possible, or 90 degrees. In reality, this is far from what is considered to be optimal. Research going back almost 50 years has found evidence that reclined sitting is better for the health of the back. In this post we review the TOP 3 Reasons why you should consider reclining the backrest of your chair the next time you are in it.
3 Reasons Why A Reclined Chair Is Better For Your Health
1. Similar To Standing
A reclined sitting posture is more similar to a standing position. This is because when you sit with even a slight recline in your backrest, the sitting angle is closer to that of standing, as you can see in the graphic below. I know, this is obvious, but it’s an important point to make. Why? Well, because standing puts the least amount of load on the spine and its supportive musculature. Many consider standing kind of like a ‘gold standard’ for posture because when there is a good standing position, the inward (called lordosis) and outward (called kyphosis) curves of the spine are considered to be neutral in most situations. A neutral spine is not only easily maintained for the body, it is very good for back health. This is contrary to one of the most typical sitting positions that people tend to use in the office. In my experience, people tend to lean forward towards the the front edge of the chair instead of leaning back against the backrest during computer work. This is considered to be an unnatural posture and unnatural postures wear out the discs in the spine. Take a look at the graphic below to see the difference in disc pressure between standing, sitting slightly reclined, and leaned forward. The leaned forward position puts almost double the amount of strain on the spine’s discs. Adding to this, research has shown that the main reason for frequent back discomfort is degeneration of the discs that lie between the bony vertebrae. These act as a cushion between the vertebrae giving the spinal column its flexibility. To summarize, reclined sitting is beneficial to back health because it’s the most similar to standing. And, standing is so coveted because it places the least amount of strain on the spine.
2. Spine Muscles Are Less Fatigued
For quite some time there has been solid evidence to support a backrest angle between 95 and about 115 degrees reclined. Research (this one is just one of my favourite articles) and Ergonomic Standard Associations have found that an increase in backrest recline (as well as the chair’s lumbar support) is associated with a reduction in muscle activity when the the back is resting on the backrest. Less muscle activity means less fatigue and tiredness for the back muscles. That can mean less susceptibility for discomfort and injury for many people. As you can see in the graphic below, beginning at about 90 degrees, there starts to be a real reduction in the muscle activity level. The biggest reductions in muscle activity are found in chairs that have a backrest recline between 110 and 130 degrees (with suitable lumbar support of course!) because the measured muscle activity levels are the lowest. This means less exposure to ergonomic risk, long-term back specific risks, as well as back fatigue. One last word of advice: remember when you recline your backrest the rest of you workstation should also be adjusted to match your new (likely lower) working position. This is why sitting reclined beyond 115 degrees may not be the most conducive for most office set-ups because you’ll need to have a fairly adjustable workstation to not introduce any new ergonomically risky working postures.
3. Less Pressure On Spine
Prolonged sitting has often been identified as being associated with back pain and specifically disc herniations. You can see this in the graph below that with an increased backrest angle, the disc pressure decreases. These results are supported for backrests that are up to as high as 130 degrees reclined. Unsupported sitting postures will always put the most amount of strain on the discs, especially when you compare them to standing postures. Based on this, the backrest should at least be inclined to 100 degrees. It’s also a lot more comfortable to sit with your back resting on your backrest in a reclined position too. If you have never tried it even slightly reclining your backrest angle you should! This would likely give you some relief to any back discomfort in addition to being a preventative strategy at reducing the likelihood of discomfort starting in the first place.
Final Thoughts On Sitting
Have you ever heard of the ergonomic saying ‘the best posture is the next posture’? As cliche as that sounds, it makes sense when applied to sitting. Why? Well, because even when you are sitting in what is considered to be the most ‘optimal’ position (between 95 and 115 degrees reclined), sitting for prolonged periods of time is considered to be an ergonomic risk. You can mediate this risk by taking advantage of the functionality of the backrest to change-up the back angle to within this range. Even slight backrest angle changes within the recommended range is a good thing because it improves spinal movement and nourishes the muscles as well as takes waste products away. Lastly, don’t forget about the positive affect that breaks have on back health. You can check out this article all about useful tips about break taking strategies!