Smart choices | The Globe tests

Straighten up and sit right

Better posture at work can keep back pain at bay. If that doesn't work, try a better chair

Left to right, Sealy Posturepedic High Back Executive Chair, Herman Miller Embody, Humanscale Freedom, and Staples Acadia Multifunction Mesh Task Chair. Left to right, Sealy Posturepedic High Back Executive Chair, Herman Miller Embody, Humanscale Freedom, and Staples Acadia Multifunction Mesh Task Chair.
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2009
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Didn't your mother ever tell you to sit up straight?

That advice is echoed by Karen Jacobs, a board certified ergonomist, occupational therapist, and clinical professor at Boston University who spends her time showing people how to avoid office injuries.

"When sitting, it is very easy to slump into a posture which significantly changes the shape of the spine and drastically increases the pressure on the intervertebral discs in the low back," according to Jacobs's research. "Slumping posture can result in low back pain and, over a prolonged period of time, can cause more serious back problems."

However, no matter how much you try to sit right, sometimes it's not how you sit but what you sit in that matters. So the Globe tested four office chairs designed with the utmost in comfort and ergonomics in mind. We tested the Humanscale Freedom at $1,300, the Herman Miller Embody at $1,600, the Sealy Posturepedic High Back Executive Chair at $269.99, and Staples Inc.'s Acadia Multifunction Mesh Task Chair at $159.99. The first two are generally available through direct order or at specialty stores.

"Many office chairs have traditional, padded, fixed-height lumbar supports that are unlikely to provide a comfortable or appropriate seat for people of various body types," Jacobs said. Translation: a good, healthy chair will be more adjustable and allow you to manipulate it to suit your needs.

Jacobs doesn't endorse a particular brand of product, and we really had a hard time deciding between Humanscale and Herman Miller, two companies that seem to compete like Coke and Pepsi. In the end, after sitting in the chairs in front of our ergonomic keyboards typing away, we went with the Humanscale and its supportive headrest as the best option.

Jacobs's research says you put more pressure on your joints and lower back when you're sitting for a long time, as opposed to standing. Sitting increases the risk of lower-back pain and compresses the discs in your spine. When you slump, the pressure on your spine is drastically increased and can cause serious problems down the road.

Most chairs you'll find in an office have traditional lower-back support, but one of the major problems is that people often fail to adjust even good ergonomic chairs to best fit their body type.

Adjust your chair so you're sitting up straight. A good chair should contour to your body and not put any excess pressure on your back, rear, thighs, or knees.

The two in-store chairs were decent. The Staples Acadia mesh chair was better than the cushy Sealy chair. The Acadia reminded us of the $1,000 Humanscale Liberty Chair we also tried out. Both chairs are mesh-backed and lean back easily and smoothly.

We did worry about the long-term viability of both cheap chairs being able to stand up to constant sitting. We feared they'd break eventually. The other chairs felt sturdier.

In response, Staples spokeswoman Amy Shanler said the company stands behind its branded products. "We put these chairs through intense testing so we can stand behind our brand and customers know they can count on our quality."

The Sealy chair is also a Staples exclusive, but is licensed by Sealy and built by Chairworks. "We go through strict testing programs with Staples to make sure product is completely up to their standards," said Peter Ravn, the vice president of sales and marketing for Chairworks.

Our choice
Pros: It's comfortable and makes the back feel good while you're typing away.
Cons: The chair pan (what you actually sit on) slides too easily, not locking into place. That was a pain.
The final word: Your body will thank you.

Pros: The Embody is comfortable, adjusts well, and looks built to last.
Cons: Price has to be a worry for some.
The final word: You can downgrade the fabric and save a little money, but, really, this is a fabulous chair that you wouldn't regret buying.

Pros: It's comfy like a pillow-top mattress.
Cons: The chair shook a bit. We were worried it wouldn't hold up under a lot of use.
The final word: The chair feels nice and was on sale for less than $200 when we stopped by our local Staples.

Pros: The mesh back is comfortable and reminds us of more expensive ergonomic chairs.
Cons: We're worried about its lifespan. Especially for heavier executives.
The final word: Even if it breaks in a few years, you simply can't beat the price.

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