Woman sitting in office chair and rubbing her shoulders and back in response to pain.
Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com

We already spend too much time sitting in front of a computer, but if you also have a bad chair, you’re in real trouble. There are so many “ergonomic” chairs that it’s hard to know what matters when buying one.

What It Means to Be Ergonomic

Ergonomics is a field of study and design that looks at how the things we interact with can be made to work well with how our bodies are evolved. A chair designed for an octopus would look very different from one made for a human being after all!

Of course, all office chairs are designed for human beings, so what does it mean for a chair to be “ergonomic”. The way the term is used these days generally refers to chairs that have features and design considerations that make them comfortable for long periods of time without doing long-term damage to the user. What types of damage? This could include chronic back pain, poor posture, or general discomfort. There are a few typical ergonomic chair aspects worth highlighting:

  • A high degree of adjustability to match the unique body proportions of every user.
  • Additional support structures and cushions for common trouble areas such as the lower back and neck.
  • High-quality padding in targeting areas, with the correct amount of cushioning.

Within this broad set of features, there’s a seemingly infinite variety of designs and quality levels, so you’ll need to be a little more granular in your approach.

Chair Upholstery

Office chair with black leather upholstery.
Aleksandr Kurganov/Shutterstock.com

Just as with any furniture, you have various options when it comes to what the outer skin of your chair will be made of. This might not seem like an ergonomic issue at first glance, but the upholstery is an important part of comfort.

For example, leather is a high-quality, durable material. However, it may not breathe as well as a synthetic material or allow moisture from your skin to escape. Perforated leather offers a good balance between breathability and the benefits of leather, but adds cost.

Consider whether you’ll be using your chair in a climate-controlled room or if your bare skin will be in contact with it or not. This should guide you towards the most comfortable upholstery choice for your needs.

Cushioning

One of the biggest differences between a cheap chair with poor ergonomics and a more expensive chair with good ergonomics is hidden under its skin. Cushioning is an all-important factor. An ergonomic chair should have reinforced cushioning in areas where the body requires support. Not only that, but the cushioning material should provide the right balance of firmness and conformity to your body.

Inexpensive chairs use uniform cushion materials that compress and become thin over time. So although the chair may feel reasonably comfortable for the first few weeks or months, it becomes increasingly less pleasant to sit on as time goes by.

The gold standard today is a laminated cushion design using different types of materials, such as varying grades of memory foam. This allows the cushions to offer breathability through a more porous top layer while providing support thanks to high-density base layers.

Frame Materials

An ergonomic chair should be stable and retain its shape over time. If not, this can affect how well it does its job of maintaining your posture and supporting your body.

Like all office chairs, an ergonomic chair’s frame is mainly a mix of metal and plastics. However, if structural elements such as the chair base or castors are plastic, this may introduce deformation or instability over time. One of the things to look for in an ergonomic chair (and really office chairs in general) is an all-metal frame or at least one that uses metal components where load and rigidity are most affected.

Adjustability

Illustration of a person sitting at a desk with correct posture, annotated with degree markers.
solar22/Shutterstock.com

Adjustability is a key feature of any ergonomic chair and at a minimum, your chair should offer height adjustments that allow you to sit with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, with your feet flat on the floor.

The backrest should offer adjustable lumbar support and a neck rest that offers support to your neck and head when you sit upright.

Height-adjustable armrests are also important and should let you maintain a 90-degree bend in your elbows while working on your desk. Adequate padding on the armrests is also worth considering since hard armrests can make the chances of developing carpal tunnel syndrome higher.

RELATED: Can Keyboard Wrist Rests Prevent Carpal Tunnel? Are They Worth Using?

Price Isn’t Everything

Chairs that are marketed as “ergonomic” can attract high prices, but just because a chair isn’t marketed or labeled with the word “ergonomic” doesn’t mean that it’s not. It’s not a given that you need to spend thousands of dollars on a chair to take care of your health and comfort. Whether a chair is ergonomic depends on whether it’s comfortable and good for your body. That can mean any chair is ergonomic if it fulfills those two criteria for you.

What’s perhaps more important is to try out a chair before you buy it or at least order it from an online retailer that allows for easy returns if your new chair ends up being a pain in the backside.

The 5 Best Ergonomic Office Chairs

Best Overall
Steelcase Series 2
Another Great Option
ErgoChair Pro+
Best Budget
Ticova Ergonomic Office Chair
Best Premium
Steelcase Leap
Best Ultra-Premium
Herman Miller Aeron Chair
Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
Read Full Bio »