Keeping the meaning of ‘ergonomics’ obscure is good business for office chair peddlers. That makes it easier to hype extraneous features. To be fair, nobody’s lying — a universal definition of ‘good ergonomics’ doesn’t exist! Even so, most institutional guidelines and comprehensive reviews reach the same physiological conclusions. Most also share a consensus on what ‘ergonomic’ actually means! ChairsFX has verified those principles in practice. All of that info combined yields the ultimate ergonomic seating definition — by 2023 standards.
The broad seating definition of ‘ergonomic’ = any chair with adjustable lumbar + arms + tilt-lock reclining backrest. In 2023, more people are figuring out that proper usage is more important than the type of chair being used.
You can see for yourself. With planted feet, a supported lumbar spine, supported arms, and a customizable recline (100° is ideal), the type of chair being used doesn’t matter.
These are manifestations of ergonomic guidelines carved out in the 1990s. The gist boils down to a proper technical application of neutral sitting positions:
Tuck your hips, plant your feet, and support your lower back with a backrest set to 100°. Beyond a good ergo chair, that’s all you need to lock down healthy long-term sitting habits. Learn more:
Neutral Posture Technical Quickstart: For Gaming AND Office Chairs
Neutral Sitting Postures
The healthiest way to sit for long periods is using neutral sitting postures. These align the spine into a healthy standing position. That includes a 0° neck tilt and 25-45° lower back curve.
This technology landed from outer space in 1973. Then, NASA scientists observed astronauts aboard the Skylab Space Station. They noticed that when relaxed, astronauts always fell into neutral body postures (NBP).
In 1994, the Herman Miller Aeron debuted as the world’s first mainstream ergonomic chair for the computing era. By the late 1990s, a famous review of ergonomic literature(1) boiled healthy sitting mechanics down to three parts:
- The healthiest way to sit for long periods is with a neutral posture. This aligns the spine into a healthy standing posture (25-45° lower back curve and 0° neck tilt).
- To support neutral postures, an ‘ergonomic’ chair needs an adjustable lumbar, adjustable arms, and a reclining backrest.
- Fixed neutral postures strain muscles and clog circulation. As a result, users should strive for dynamic neutral postures with frequent movement.
Based on these guidelines, ergonomic seating is easy to define:
Ergonomic Seating Definition
A chair qualifies as ‘ergonomic’ by having three key adjustable components. Adjustable lumbar support aligns the spine. Adjustable arms provide extra bracing to hold the spine upright. A reclining backrest lets a seated body move.
Combined, these features support the spine into a healthy standing alignment. That includes a 25-45° lower back curve and a 0° neck tilt. Then, users can sit for long periods without muscle strain.
Without muscle strain, the brain gains more power. As a result, esports and desk working professionals enjoy long periods of comfortable, energized computing with razor-sharp focus.
Institutional Ergonomic Guidelines
This section summarizes ergonomic definitions from institutional ergonomic leaders. All share the same recommendations:
- Neutral postures are the healthiest while working at a desk.
- To support dynamic neutral postures, an ergonomic chair needs an adjustable lumbar, adjustable arms, and a reclining backrest.
OSHA Computing Chair Guidelines
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration documents safety standards for American workers.
Its ergonomic seating guidelines(2) rehash the need for three essential adjustable features:
- Backrest: should recline at least 15 degrees from a vertical position.
- Lumbar support: should be height-adjustable to fit the lower back.
- Armrests: should be adjustable so that the arms fall freely from the shoulders.
OSHA guidelines also advise: “adjust your chair along with appropriately placing your monitor, keyboard, and desk.”
BIFMA ergonomic guidelines
The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) was founded in 1973. It serves North American furniture manufacturers by providing furniture safety standards. Manufacturers can then test their products to determine if they meet BIFMA standards.
In 2002, the BIFMA organization first released ergonomic guidelines for office furniture. Its latest 2019 seating guidelines(3) contain these seating points:
- Height of seat: should allow the user’s feet to plant onto the floor or a footrest.
- Depth of seat: should be deep enough so that the back of the knees do not touch the front of the seat.
- Seat width: should be wide enough to accommodate the user’s hips.
- Backrest: should conform to the shape of the user’s spine. It should also have lumbar support that maintains the lordotic curvature of the lumbar spine.
- Armrests: should be adjustable up and down, plus in and out. This helps to relieve neck, shoulder, and back stress.
BIFMA also recommends that an ergonomic chair provide a healthy range of motion. The seat and backrest should allow varied postures.
Specifically, the backrest should recline from 90° to at least 115°. The only guideline for seat tilt is to ensure the torso-to-thigh angle is not less than 90°.
This is important to keep in mind when peddlers try to upsell people on synchro tilt. That feature tilts the seat in proportion to the backrest as the user reclines. Based on BIFMA Guidelines, it’s a luxury, not a necessity!
Human Factors and Ergonomics Handbook
The Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics documents the latest standards in workplace design. Its fourth edition came out in 2012.
The fifth edition came out with a major update in 2021. Even so, it retains most back support fundamentals of the legacy edition:
Legacy Seating Essentials
Both the 4th and 5th edition Handbooks share the same ideas about ergonomic seating:
The purpose of good seating is to provide stable body support and a dynamic posture. It should be comfortable over long periods and physiologically sound. It should also be appropriate to the task being performed.
The user’s workstation should support good posture with a few basics. First, they should be able to see the screen without moving their head. As well, the keyboard, mouse, or document they are working on should be within easy reach.
The Handbook cites five key features that all ergonomic chairs should have:
- Chair adjustment controls should be easy to operate from a seated position.
- The chair and adjustment mechanisms should be rugged.
- Chairs should have adjustable armrests.
- The seat should be padded to ensure comfort.
- The chair should allow alterations in posture and freedom of movement.
Ergonomic Functionality Requirements
The handbook also adds brief standards that ergonomic seating should meet:
- Seat Height: should be adjustable by the user so that the feet rest flat on the floor. If the operator is too short to rest feet on the floor, they should use a footrest.
- Seat depth: the seat should be deep enough so the user can sit far enough back to use the backrest without putting pressure on the knees.
- Backrest height: the backrest provides back support in various postures. For full support, the top of the backrest should be at least 18” higher than the compressed seat height.
- Lumbar support: this helps to maintain the natural curvature of the lower spine. The lumbar support area of the backrest should be between 6” to 10” above the compressed seat height.
- Backrest angle: studies have shown that recline angles reduce fatigue. If adjustable, a backrest should recline to at least 115◦.
- Armrest height: armrests at the right height support the neck and shoulders. Armrests should be height adjustable with a range of at least 4″.
Updated Ergonomic Standards
The biggest difference from the (2012) fourth edition is a shift in priorities. The previous edition focused on back support that mitigates musculoskeletal problems.
The fifth edition cites multi-device computing as a greater priority. As people immerse in near-virtual worlds, physical and mental technostress issues have arisen.
In sum, beyond good back support, a modern ergonomic workstation must also do two things. First, provide multi-device support for the back and neck while desktop or mobile computing.
Second, provide more opportunities to move. At present, an ergonomic chair plus a sit-to-stand desk best supports these new standards:
Cornell Ergonomic Guidelines
Alan Hedge is a Professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University. His 2013 paper on ergonomic seating(4) compiled the findings of several leading studies.
Sitting With Lumbar Lordosis Is Ideal
A key point in his paper is that healthy sitting requires a pelvic rotation that creates lumbar lordosis. When the angle between the thighs and the body is too small, the lumbar curve flattens or bends outward.
That is called lumbar kyphosis. Kyphosis occurs because of the restrained rotation of the hip joint. That forces the pelvis to rotate backward, placing pressure on the spinal discs.
One trick to inducing lumbar lordosis is by using a lumbar support. Another method to reverse kyphosis is by using a reclining backrest.
Ergonomic sitting essentials
There are five key findings that lead to ergonomic chair recommendations:
- Proper sitting requires a pelvic rotation that creates lumbar lordosis.
- Lumbar, thoracic, and cervical muscle activity decreases with a backrest incline to 110°.
- Lumbar disc pressure and back muscle activity are lowest with a supported recline angle of 110° – 130°.
- A high proportion of chair users make height adjustments to their lumbar support.
- After 1 hour, there is spinal shrinkage with static sitting. In contrast, the spine expands with dynamic sitting where the seat pan swivels.
Movement Breaks Are Necessary
Beyond Dr. Hedge’s suggestions, ergo.human.cornell.edu(5) adds these recommendations:
Every 20 minutes, stand for eight minutes — while moving for at least two minutes. The absolute time isn’t critical — use these as rough guidelines. The important thing is to take a posture break to stand and move for a few minutes. Only standing is insufficient. You need movement to get blood circulation through the muscles.
OSHA, BIFMA, Dr. Hedge, and the 5th-edition Human Factors Handbook all agree that ‘ergonomic’ means adjustable. To support dynamic neutral postures, a chair needs adjustable lumbar support, adjustable arms, and a reclining backrest. Here’s how those features apply to a full-back gaming chair:
Below is a closer look at what leading scholars advise for each adjustable part:
This is the most important component in any ergonomic chair. Mild pressure applied to the lower back reflexively triggers the upper back to straighten.
This comprehensive 2009 peer review(6) summarizes the key technical factors:
- When standing, the optimal lordotic angle is between 20-45 degrees.
- Unsupported sitting reduces lumbar lordosis by 50%. It also increases intradiscal pressure at the third lumbar vertebra by 40%.
- When sitting with a back angle of 110° and a lumbar support 4 cm deep, lumbar lordosis averages a healthy 47° angle.
- The depth of the lumbar support depends on the individual. If lumbar support causes discomfort, it means it is set too high, too low, or too deep.
- A sustained lordotic sitting position decreases disc pressure and thereby disc degeneration.
For best results, it’s important to combine these factors with physiological realities. The average adult spine is around 30″ long for men and 24″ long for women.
The average man should position his lumbar support around 7.5″ above the seat. An average-sized woman should aim for support set to around 5.5″ higher than the seat.
Lumbar Support Biomechanics For Healthy Sitting
Related: Best Lumbar Support Types – Good Ergonomics Vs Gimmicks
The point of an ergonomic chair is to reduce pressure on your back. With a backrest recline of 110°, lumbar, thoracic, and cervical muscle activity decreases.
With a supported recline between 110° and 130°, back muscle activity is the lowest.
A human arm weighs around 6% of one’s total body weight. A 170-pound person’s arms weigh around 10 pounds each. Without armrest support, your spine bears the load of holding your arms up against gravity.
While computing, that places unnecessary strain on the spine, shoulders, and neck. As muscles tire, the weight of the arms forces the head to tilt forward.
In a neutral position with a 0° neck tilt, an adult head places around a 10-pound load on the spine(7). As the head tilts forward by 15 degrees, the spinal load increases to 27 pounds.
At a 30-degree forward tilt, the load increases to 40 pounds. That’s where adjustable armrests come in. With planted feet and arms synced with a desk, sitting up straight becomes much easier.
Ergonomic Goal: Musculoskeletal Relief
Humans are not designed to sit for long periods. We know this because the lumbar spine falls out of alignment when in a sitting position. When standing, a healthy lumbar spine curves inward at a 20-45° angle. Sitting without lumbar support cuts that angle in half(8).
Then, back muscles must work harder to hold the spine upright. Once muscles tire, the upper back bends. That flattens the lumbar curve to less than 10°. Long periods in that position shortens hips flexors, pulling the whole body out of alignment.
The lower back tightens, while core stomach muscles get longer and weaker. At the same time, quad muscles tighten the front of the leg, while hamstrings elongate and weaken from the rear.
Misaligned bodies caused by poor sitting habits are endemic. In America, some studies estimate that 80% of adults suffer from anterior pelvic tilt(9). In that state, misaligned muscle pairs work against each other. That twists the pelvis from a neutral position to a tilted one.
Common Musculoskeletal Disorders
A tilted posture places excess stress on tall body parts. As that builds up, myriad musculoskeletal disorders emerge. These include:
- Low back disorders: the leading cause of disability in 160 countries.
- Chronic fatigue: misalignments overwork muscles, leaving users perpetually exhausted.
- Migraines: forward head posture strains neck muscles until pain arises.
- Wrist pain: 4 million Americans suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Neck pain: the fourth-leading cause of disability in America.
Long-term, MSDs can lead to serious chronic health problems.
- Obesity: waist circumference increases by 3.1 cm with a 10% increase in sedentary time. As they gain weight, patients feel less compelled to move.
- Diabetes: excess sedentary time increases type 2 diabetes risks. Regular exercise only slightly offsets this risk. Symptoms include tingling extremities, dry skin, and excessive urination.
- Cancer: prolonged sitting increases colorectal, endometrial, ovarian, and prostate cancer risks. It also increases cancer mortality (mainly in women).
- Hypertension: sedentary behaviors reduce blood pressure. That alters cardiac output and total peripheral vascular resistance.
- Osteoporosis: slothful living lowers bone mineral density in the femur and hip sub-regions. That makes bones brittle and easy to break.
Learn more: Common Desk Worker Musculoskeletal Disorders In 2022
IoT Ergonomic Wild Cards
The Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics summarizes institutional trends from the world’s leading ergonomists. Ergonomic equipment exists to help users perform tasks with comfort and efficiency.
The 2012 (4th edition) Handbook focused on providing good back support for desktop computer users. However, in 2022, mobile computing is a huge part of the equation.
In response, the 5th edition Handbook (released in late 2021) makes back support a secondary concern. In its place, two other ergonomic priorities take precedence:
- Multi-device support for the back and neck: this demand comes from the very top.
- Sedentary computing solutions: more time spent computing drops activity levels to unhealthy levels. Modern ergonomic setups or strategies must address this.
Notably, the second priority is aggressively being addressed by the highest levels of pro esports. With millions in prize money on the line, most of the world’s top teams invest heavily in optimizing player performance.
As a result, esports performance technology has taken ergonomic development out of the lab and onto the world’s stage. This gives hundreds of millions of esports fans around the world a clear performance blueprint to emulate.
4th Industrial Revolution: Multidevice IoT
These days, the average person uses a mobile device for 3 hours every day. This is by design — a planned shift to a full-blown state of near-virtual reality.
The World Economic Forum describes what’s coming as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. An Internet of Things (IoT) will see “billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge…”
A major hurdle to this plan: humans will need physical and mental support to fit within this vision. This is why the 5th Edition Human Factors and Ergonomics Handbook cites technostress as the greatest ergonomic challenge of our time.
At present, three types of technostress from excessive computing have been documented. More are likely to emerge:
- Physical technostress: extended use of laptops, tablets, and smartphones increases the risks for musculoskeletal disorders.
- Mental technostress: cognitive overload comes from using too many applications at once.
- Techno-addiction: inability to disconnect. Techno-addicts compulsively perform work-related tasks outside of business hours.
Significance: in the modern multi-device ergonomic landscape, the importance of a good chair becomes a smaller part of the equation.
Esports Health: Beyond Ergonomics
Professional esports is one of the most intense, demanding desk jobs. Many first-person shooters demand up to 400 actions per minute. To succeed, players need elite speed, precision, hand-eye-coordination — and endurance.
Teams that win tournaments earn millions in prize money — and more via sponsorships. As a result, most elite teams invest heavily in optimizing player performance. For instance, Dr. Jordan Tsai manages the Physical Therapy program for Evil Geniuses.
Dr. Tsai also serves on Secretlab’s Ergonomic Advisory Board. Even so, he doesn’t hype the importance of chairs. In fact, he advised ChairsFX that a good chair is the least important part of a healthy setup!
His view is consistent with the 5th edition Human Factors Handbook: movement and fitness take precedence. Good back support remains relevant as a secondary priority. “Rest/nutrition/exercises > breaks > good posture > good chair.”
Another esports doctor that ChairsFX spoke to concurred. According to Dr. William Duncan, performance-oriented gamers should “work on strength & endurance and use a good chair.”
From an esports physical therapy perspective, here are the priorities for healthy deskwork (in order of importance):
- Healthy lifestyle: regular exercise, good nutrition, sound sleep.
- Good posture: try to sit straight in whichever type of chair you use.
- Frequent breaks: walking breaks reset the brain, boosts blood flow, and activates sedentary muscles.
- Good ergonomic chair: choose whichever type aligns with your preferences.
Gaming Vs Ergonomic Office Chairs
Gaming chairs emerged in 2006 as niche items. Against a multi-billion-dollar ergonomic office furniture industry, they thrived. In response, many office chair industry players tried to stem the tide.
“Gaming chairs are not ergonomic” is the most common defense. But according to OSHA, BIFMA, and the Human Factors Handbook, this is misinformation.
In fact, any chair with adjustable arms, an adjustable lumbar, and a reclining backrest qualifies as ergonomic. These features on any type of chair are meant to support healthy neutral sitting postures.
Both full-back gaming and mid-back ergo office chairs use the same support techniques. Adjustable lumbar support, armrests, and a reclining backrest give users the tools they need to sit straight – with movement.
The biggest difference between the two styles is the backrest. Ergonomic office chairs come with mid-back support; gaming chairs are full-back. Mid-back chairs provide more accurate sitting support; full-back styles provide better WFH versatility.
Full-Back Chairs Are More Versatile
Psychological comfort is not a factor in office ergonomics. There, businesses prefer their staff alert — not relaxed. But when working from home, strict office chairs that force you to sit upright may feel confining.
A holistic physiological comfort assessment considers psychological, physical, and environmental factors. Psychologically, a full-back chair incites a greater expectation for comfort.
Physically, it fills that expectation with more flexible posture support techniques. For instance, stiff mid-back chair headrests only hit flush on parts of the neck. In contrast, a full-back headrest adapts to the user by cradling the entire cervical spine.
Further, most mid-back office chairs have limited recline ranges that force users to sit upright at all times. In contrast, gaming chairs have deep recline functionality.
In a work-from-home context, a mid-back chair will limit your options to preserve postural integrity.
In contrast, a gaming chair provides better versatility for all-day sitting support. Learn more:
Conclusion: Ergonomic = Adjustable
If you thought that ‘ergonomic’ meant super-engineered magic, now you know better. ‘Ergonomic’ simply means ‘adjustable’. We can see the effect of adjustable lumbar + adjustable arms + a reclining backrest in various seating styles:
The above picture tells the story. Any chair qualifies as ‘ergonomic’ by having three adjustable features:
- Adjustable lumbar support: maintains a healthy lower back curve.
- Adjustable armrests: these support elbows and forearms while positioning hands close to the mouse and keyboard.
- Reclining backrest: a recline range of 90° to 130° (with lumbar support) reduces spinal pressure.
From a back support perspective, gaming chairs and office chairs with the necessary components do the same thing. So how to decide on one type or the other?
Surprisingly, the best answer we’ve come up with has nothing to do with good back support. Many studies have shown that when a chair looks more comfortable, users will find it more physically comfortable.
In other words, subjective psychological preferences are a major comfort factor. So are user-powered habits. With proper usage, whichever type of fully-ergonomic chair appeals to you has potential to be ‘the best’. Learn more:
2023 Seated Comfort Factors: Physical Vs Psychological Vs Usage
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- Secretlab Blog. ‘Secretlab EAB X Evil Geniuses: Ergonomic Wellness Seminar’. September 15, 2022. https://blog.secretlab.co/stories/secretlab-eab-evil-geniuses-ergonomic-wellness-seminar/ (accessed 4 October, 2022).
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