It sometimes feels as if our desk chairs are trying to kill us.
Many of us fidget in a perpetual state of discomfort, trying to find that one ever-elusive position in which our back won’t eventually cry out in fury. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, as many as 80% of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives, and nearly a quarter of Americans experienced back pain within the past three weeks. Back pain from unhealthy sitting can even lead to disc degeneration, poor blood pressure, and pinched nerves.
Given that many American adults spend more than six hours a day on their butt, it’s reasonable to expect that buying a fancy chair will alleviate at least some of this misery. Gamers, who are particularly accustomed to sitting and its attendant problems, swear by gaming chairs, a new breed of throne, modeled after race car seats and theoretically designed with long-term sitting in mind. The famous (and problematic) gaming YouTuber PewDiePie even designed his own for the gaming chair brand Clutch Chairz.
Yet gaming chairs can be expensive, running sometimes into thousands of dollars, and their distinct style — with brightly colored stripes and a race car seat shape — may not appeal to everyone. Is it really worth shelling out several hundred dollars and making your desk look like an esports dungeon, all in the interest of less back pain?
The answer is yes, assuming you get the right one and factor in other healthy habits. Gaming chairs, in contrast to whatever cheap Staples junk your office might offer, may actually provide a healthy amount of support if you really must sit for hours on end.
The headrest and tall back are two defining features of gaming chairs, earning the commendations of Jeffrey Goldstein, an orthopedic surgeon at New York University
Matthew Gault, a freelance writer based in South Carolina, says he purchased the $500 Maxnomic Ergoceptor Pro chair after months of back pain so intense that merely sitting was intolerable. “After about a week of sitting in the gamer chair, the pain was gone. It hasn’t returned,” he says. “I’ll never not have a gamer chair from now on.”
In a piece for Motherboard, Gault wrote that he especially loves the chair’s adjustability. His chair has armrests that move up, down, and to the side, and the backrest can move from a 45 degree angle all the way flat, should the user decide to recline entirely while gaming or working.
Gault’s friend Tony Perez, a software developer based in South Carolina, also praised the chair’s adjustability, noting in particular the superior back and neck support the Maxnomic offers. “These chairs are designed to be comfortable for multi-hour gaming sessions,” he says. “I figured it would do just as well when working at the office.”
The head rest and tall back are two defining features of gaming chairs, earning the commendations of Jeffrey Goldstein, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health’s Spine Center. Gaming chairs “give you a lot more support for your shoulders,” he says. “They take some of the load off your back by helping support your shoulders more, and your upper back.”
That upper back and neck support can reduce the sitter’s tendency to slouch, which pushes the spine out of alignment and causes further back pain, as well as other surprising problems like incontinence, slowed digestion, constipation, and heartburn. Support for the lumbar region of the back — that area just above your butt — is equally important for maintaining good posture and avoiding back pain. This support often comes in the form of a gentle curve at the bottom of the backrest, or occasionally as a detachable pillow. Similar to the standard, crappy desk chair you find in most offices, many gaming chairs don’t offer much lumbar support at all, meaning that unless you buy a lumbar support pillow separately, you could have lower back pain down the line. Gaming chairs, like race car chairs, typically have backrests that curve in at the sides, which could force the sitter to hunch their shoulders inward, causing future back and shoulder pain further down the line.
The best way to avoid this is to ensure that the chair is built for the buyer’s body type. “The best thing to look for in a chair is finding the right size fit for you,” says Blaine Willits, a spokesperson for the gaming chair company Need For Seat. “Even a couple-thousand-dollar chair is worthless if it doesn’t fit you right.”
Jon Cinkay, a physical therapist and coordinator of body mechanics at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, agrees. “The best sitting configuration is sitting all the way back into the chair, straight, with your feet flat on the floor and your back supported,” he says. Your hips should be slightly higher than your knees, he says, unless you have sciatica, in which case your knees should be slightly higher than your hips. “The seat height should also place you in a position that your elbows are bent to 90 degrees to reach the keyboard.” Short people should get a step stool to ensure that their body is in the correct position, he says.
Still, even the best chair, with lumbar support, adjustable arms, and racing stripes, won’t change the fact that sitting, in and of itself, is really, really bad for you. When I asked Sam Cho, the chief of spine surgery at Mount Sinai West in New York, about the healthiest and safest sitting configurations, he caveated his response with, “if you have to sit,” before recommending tightening the core muscles and sitting up straight. Better, he says, to stand if you can.
While sitting can cause constipation, heartburn, and other immediate discomforts, it also has long-term, severe consequences. Sedentary sitting — that is, sitting still for long periods of time, without getting up and moving around even for a few moments — has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and metabolic syndrome.
“People who sit at a desk all day become fatigued, they don’t use the muscles in the back, and people go out and buy different chairs with different configurations. But staying in any single position is not good for your back, whether it’s laying down, whether it’s sitting, whether it’s standing,” says Goldstein. He says he has plenty of patients who benefit from standing desks; Cho and Cinkay also mentioned the appeal of standing desks, as well as the absolute importance of not just standing, but moving around, to maintain spine and overall health.
“The most important thing is that they keep moving and do not stay in one static position for too long,” says Cinkay. “They should sit for [approximately] 30 to 40 minutes, then stand for [approximately] 10 to 15 minutes.”
In other words, the best way to reduce or eliminate back pain from sitting is to just get up. Cinkay recommends getting up every hour and moving around, even if it’s just to talk to a coworker, use the restroom, or drink more water. When sitting or standing at your desk, Cho says, tuck your stomach and get a lumbar pillow for lower back support. A stool for shorties like myself is helpful, because sitting curled up in your chair can cause a temporary spike in blood pressure and lead to bad posture.
If you’ve incorporated hourly movement into your workday and are still miserable, an adjustable gaming chair — or any ergonomic chair, to be honest — might be the next best course of action, albeit a likely expensive one. Gault’s Maxnomic Ergoceptor Pro by Need for Seat is $429, though it comes in short, standard, and tall heights, has a heavy-duty base for people over 220 pounds, and includes removable neck and lumbar pillows. Gaming site IGN recommends the $399 SecretLab Titan 2020, which has adjustable lumbar support and is best for big and tall users.
Cinkay advises using the chair for two to three weeks to determine if it’s the right one for you, so a good return policy is crucial. If you ask me, though, I’d rather spend my money on a good yoga mat and alternate between sitting and standing at my desk instead. It’s much cheaper, and likely healthier in the long run.