Chances are you are sitting while you read this. And it’s killing you. Sitting is linked to an encyclopedia of ill health, including diabetes, heart disease, circulatory problems, muscle degeneration, varicose veins, blood clots, a slow metabolic rate, every kind of neck and spine ailment imaginable, and the topper—premature death. The more you sit, the faster your cells die. So for god’s sake, get up and do a few jumping jacks before you read the next paragraph.
For the record, I did not write and research this piece at a standing desk, à la Winston Churchill. Nor did I shed pounds as I ambled in place at a treadmill desk. I wrote this sitting, hunched at all the wrong angles in an ergonomically unsound chair in my home office. I clock a lot of hours in said chair, so you would think I would invest in a sitting device that supports my spine and my life as a freelance writer. A practical person would do that.
But I’m not practical when it comes to chairs, or most things. While I have invested time and energy in researching a wide variety of office chairs, or “task chairs” as they are more commonly known in office supply parlance, I have yet to buy one. Why? Two reasons: good ergonomic chairs are ugly, and they are also very expensive.
A sidebar here: I think I should weigh in on what an ideal desk chair looks like in my universe. I feel like a workspace should be a creative hub, part mad professor’s office and part postmodern courtesan’s boudoir.
I like cozy and eclectic spaces with a mix of modern and vintage pieces. I am drawn to pattern and color. Ideally, my desk area should be fun and a little frivolous, so when I sit in that dreaded chair I might actually enjoy myself and even laugh while I spin around in circles. This has never happened to me, but a writer with four jobs can dream.
I am a huge fan of PB Teen. So, when it comes to desk chairs, I guess I have teenage girl taste. This is a Bohemian option:
Here is a more modern option. The pink one is oddly appealing to me. Let the record show, I like pink as an accent color. I’m not advocating for a completely pink room—my inner tween has better taste than that.
(For what it’s worth, I have a Pinterest board filled with delightful and charming office chair options.)
While the chairs I love are beautiful and fill me with a strange and giddy hope of what I could concoct whilst sitting in them, most of them would leave me in need of another kind of chair altogether—a wheelchair. Very few of those delightful chairs are in the least bit ergonomic.
A little bit about “ergonomic”: it’s a word that is used and abused, particularly in the world of office chairs. I spoke at length on the subject with Devon Taylor, who works with Professional Physical Therapy in New York, where he specializes in ergonomic workplace evaluations. He gave me the 411 on what constitutes a real ergonomic task chair.
1. The chair should be able to move up and down. This seems like a no-brainer, but you want to be able to adjust your chair to perfectly match your desk height.
2. The chair seat, or “pan,” should also be able to move back and forth. Not everyone has the same-sized butt. More petite people should be able to pull their seats closer to their desks, if need be.
3. The chair should have arms and those arms should be adjustable and preferably move back and forth and also rotate inward and outward. Proper arm support is key to preventing a wide array of conditions, from neck and shoulder pain to carpal tunnel syndrome. If your neck or wrists hurt, adjust your armrests. If you don’t have armrests, get some.
4. The chair should have lumbar support. Support at the base of the spine helps you sit up straighter. And no one wants lower back pain. Lumbago sounds like a madcap dance, but it’s just another word for “ouch.”
Ideally, you want to look like this when you are at your desk, with your elbows and knees bent at 90-degree angles. If you are shorter, footstools are a good idea:
I also asked Devon about lying down and writing. Could being supine possibly be better for you than sitting? He answered, “Yeah…I worked with a blogger who wanted to write in bed. I basically told her you can’t do that too much, really at all.” Damn.
So here are a few chairs that fit most of Devon’s requirements and some of my aesthetic ones. It’s hard for me to choose health over beauty, but as I write my neck is achy and one of my wrists feels sore and may be a tad swollen, though that could be related to the MSG in the Chinese food I had for lunch.
Herman Miller’s Mirra is one of the most beloved of the ergonomic task chairs:
It also comes in black, and adding colored seats costs you $30 more. It’s still not beautiful, even if you squint. If you buy it with the adjustable seat and lumbar support (and you should) it adds an additional $290 onto the base price, for a grand total of $969 with free shipping. I’m told this is a steal for anything from Herman Miller. It’s more like rent to me.
I like this Diffrient World chair (that is the correct spelling, not a typo) from Humanscale much more.
It’s sleeker and a little more cheerful. Devon recommended this company to me. I found the chair at a couple of chair retailers for anywhere from $700 to $849. As is the norm, adding adjustable features will cost you more.
My favorite of the bunch is this one from Haworth. Again, it’s not cheap. But this color combo almost made my heart sing:
The cheapest I could find the Zody Task Chair for was $829. There were a few office chair outlets that had it for significantly less, if you don’t mind it in basic black, with fixed arms.
Haworth also has the Lively Task Home Office chair in this bright yellow color, as well as some pretty standard office chair colors. It’s significantly cheaper at $349.
So what to do? I think I can compromise on aesthetics, which is huge for me. An ergonomic chair is a little bit like a pair of comfortable shoes: they’re not sexy or beautiful, but you grow to love and trust them out of necessity. If I can do it with shoes, I can do it with a chair. I could ask extended family to pitch in and give me the gift of a chair for Christmas and my birthday combined. Or I could bite the bullet and put it on a low-interest credit card. What about an Indiegogo campaign for my spine? Bad joke.
Or I could struggle on, as is, and nobly suffer the consequences. After all, other writers have managed under much worse circumstances. Did Edgar Allen Poe even have a chair? Did Shakespeare write at a desk? What was Emily Dickinson’s workstation like? FYI, none of those three lived past 55.
What is a chair, really, but a form of support, a foundation of sorts, particularly if your job is to tell stories? And shouldn’t we invest in the things that hold us up and keep us healthy?
My New Year’s resolution is to buy one of the chairs featured here for myself as a radical act of self-care. And I challenge you to investigate the things that are necessary and vital to your life and see if you can perhaps improve them. By the way, I have a hard time uttering words like “self-care”—it chafes against my half-Puritan roots. But we could all care for ourselves a little more and feel less guilty about it. Who knows? It could make the world a gentler place.
And when and if you join me and invest in a cheerful, life-changing ergonomic chair, please, please try not to sit in it too much.
Now get up and give me three downward dogs like you mean it.