man sitting at desk with visible back pain

How to Improve Posture While Sitting

This article was last updated on October 24, 2016.

If you sit at a desk all day, it’s likely that you may have experienced mild neck or back pain, and you might even suffer from poor posture. You may have also heard that sitting on an exercise ball at work can improve both – but is it true?

Rebecca Campbell, PT, DPT, SCS, from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services’ Moon Township location, answers this question and more related to the ideal position for sitting at your desk.

Q: Is sitting in a desk chair bad for your back?

A: Sitting in a chair with poor posture can put you at higher risk of developing back pain, posture-related problems or even more serious conditions like Trochanteric-bursitis. Many of us find ourselves sitting in a slouched position with our lower back not resting against the back of the chair and our shoulders forward and rounded.

This posture results in a forward head position and places undo pressure on the lumbar discs. Sitting in a chair with both feet flat on the floor and the body resting against the back of the chair will not put as much stress on your back, neck, and head, which requires less muscle energy and can alleviate or prevent pain.

Q: Are there any types of chairs that can prevent back pain or improve posture?

A: Ideally, a desk chair should be fitted for each individual person. Any lumbar support that your chair may have should allow for the natural curvature of the spine and prevent an increased arch in your low back. The depth and height of the seat should be positioned to allow your hips and knees to be bent 90° ensuring your feet remain flat on the floor. The back of the chair should be inclined at an angle where your back can rest against it, avoiding pressure on the lumbar spine. (For suggested measurements and proper setup of your computer workstation, please see the Ideal Position graphic).

Proper Desk Posture | UPMC HealthBeat

Q: Can an exercise ball used as a chair strengthen your core? Can it alleviate back pain?

A: There is little fact-based evidence on the positives and negatives specific to exercises balls for chairs, but the most important thing to remember while sitting is to maintain the ideal position. If you are sitting on an exercise ball your back remains unsupported for an extended period of time. This requires muscle endurance to maintain the correct body posture. When your postural muscles begin to fatigue you will begin to slouch; similarly to sitting poorly in a regular chair. Sitting on an exercise ball requires your arms to remain unsupported while you type or use a computer mouse. This unsupported arm position at a computer workstation for an extended period requires muscle endurance in the upper back. When the upper back muscles begin to fatigue, you compensate by assuming a position with either an increased arch or flexed position in the low back, which can lead to back pain.

Q: What else can I do while sitting in a desk chair to prevent back pain and improve my posture?

A: Make sure your computer desk and chair are adjusted to accommodate your height. Take breaks hourly, standing up and walking around to avoid tightness in your back, hips, and lower legs. You can also do seated stretches periodically, such as moving your shoulder blades toward each other, to promote back flexibility and improve posture. Performing pelvic tilt and lumbar exercises regularly at home or in the gym will help maintain postural strength and endurance.

If you are experiencing low back pain or would like more information about improving your posture, talk to your doctor or physical therapist for recommendations specific to your needs.

Want more from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services?

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive quarterly emails.