I started working from home a little over a year ago, long before the coronavirus and shutting down the entire world were even fathomable. During that time, several distinctive seats from around my apartment have punched the clock as my esteemed home office chair. I had a cheap gray swivel chair in the beginning, but the seat promptly smudged, and I misplaced a couple of the wheels. Then, I tried out a wicker chair that I’d originally had at my kitchen table, but it was immensely uncomfortable and quickly went wobbly because of my constant fidgeting. Now, I use a wooden armchair, which despite still being vastly inadequate has won the “most comfortable office chair” contest simply by not falling apart. It does, at least, have comparatively comfortable black leather cushions on both the seat and the lower back.
In the back of my mind, I was always aware that, combined with my perpetual squirming, my imitation office chairs were ravaging my spine. There was even one point in time (well, it lasted for a few weeks) when I could barely sleep at night, because my lower back was invariably throbbing. I knew that real, adequate office chairs were extremely expensive, though — thousands of dollars, in some cases — so I pushed forward in my provisional chairs and did my best to sit up as straight as possible while I sit for eight (or more) straight hours each day.
The Worldwide Hunt for the Most Comfortable Home Office Chair
But then, when the coronavirus struck and office workers were required to work from home, many started complaining about working from their dining room chairs, bragging about buying fancy new ones and boasting about stealing the ergonomic seats from their workplaces. Only then, when I witnessed everyone else gripe about their suddenly uncomfortable working situations, did I truly realize that my setup was a complete failure, a disappointment to myself, my posture and my lifelong health.
Nonetheless, despite my sudden moment of enlightenment, times are tough right now, and most notable office chairs are far beyond my current budget. “You could blow a whole stimulus check (or two) on just one chair,” says Jon Cinkay, ergonomics expert and body mechanics coordinator for the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Some allege that these pricey, but comfortable chairs are worth every penny. Zach Tuch, a sound engineer who spends “16 hours a day” in his four-figure Herman Miller chair, says, “It’s helped my back so much. I can’t stress that enough.” Jackson Souza, a hardworking computer programmer, agrees (although he was able to find a similar Herman Miller model on Craigslist for only a few hundred bucks).
Besides a good, second-hand deal, though, what should I actually look for in an adequate office chair? Chiropractor Keith Overland says, well, the opposite of what I have now. “Many people are suffering from dining room table syndrome,” he explains. “Half of the phone calls I’m getting are from people who’ve been working from home for two, three or four weeks, and their backs and necks are in a lot of pain. We have to make sure that they’re picking a chair that’s not just a dining room or kitchen table chair.”
How to Hack Your Chair
That said, Overland and Cinkay agree that, as long as your chair is adjustable, it should suffice, no matter the price tag. Here’s what they say you want from a good office chair:
- Whether the chair has armrests or not, your elbows should be bent at 90 degrees when your hands touch your keyboard. But your monitor should be at eye level, which means you should probably get a second keyboard if you have a laptop, and especially if your laptop is on a riser.
- You should be sitting all the way back in your chair, rather than leaning forward, toward your computer, which means, ideally, your chair should support both your lower and upper back.
- Your hips should be just slightly higher than your knees, so that your lap is angled downward.
- Your feet should be in contact with the ground or a small stool.
As Overland explains, “Most of the time, people have their keypad much too high, so they’re reaching for it. You want that to be right in front of you when your arms are bent at 90 degrees. If you can adjust the height of the chair, that’s really important. If you can adjust the height of the table, that’s really important.”
“You want your keypad to be under your desk, so it pulls out,” Overland continues. “The main thing with ergonomics in the workspace is trying to bring the table or desk to you, not you to the desk. That’s how people get injured — when they try to move their body to fit the workspace, as opposed to having the workspace fit to them.”
But even if your chair is unadjustable, you might be able to make some small tweaks to make it work. For instance, if your chair is too low, Cinkay suggests putting a few pillows on the seat. If your chair is lacking lower back support, Overland recommends placing a rolled-up towel back there. If your feet aren’t touching the ground, Cinkay says you can stack a few books as a makeshift stool.
In other words, if you can even find a $50 adjustable chair, you could easily make it perfectly ergonomic. And even if you need to use something akin to a dining room chair, making a few small tweaks can improve your situation.
The Most Important Part Is Not Sitting in It for Too Long
But beyond fancy chairs, both Cinkay and Overland say that, no matter what kind of chair you have, standing up and stretching every half hour or so is an absolute necessity if you want to avoid becoming the Hunchback of Notre Dame. “If they remember to get up and move every hour, at least it gives them that opportunity to reset their posture,” Cinkay says. Overland adds, “You want to just move a little bit. You want to get the spiderwebs out of your body while you’re sitting there for a long period of time.”
So, there you go: You can buy an expensive, fancy chair; you can buy a cheap adjustable chair; or you can see how many throw pillows you can put to good use if you really want to make that dining chair work. Lastly, if you want even more tips on putting together your home office, check out our guide to doing so on a budget, which should come in handy, since it sounds like we’ll be stuck at home for quite some time.