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Don't Turn Your Back on Chair Comfort

June 24, 1996|PAUL KARON

Few pieces of office furniture affect you as profoundly as your chair. A well-designed chair can help reduce strain on your back, neck, arms and derriere during those long hours at work.

"You should be able to leave your work because it's time to stop, not because you can't sit there anymore," says Sean Bernhart, manager of the Relax the Back Store, a West Hollywood shop that specializes in furnishings related to spinal well-being. "The chair is 80% of the office."

The best chairs really do cost more, but it is probably money well spent, particularly if you suffer from back problems. Many of the lower-end models look similar to the better ones, but the resemblance is often (painfully) superficial.

It's easy to spend $700 to $1,000 or more for a model with the best design features, but whatever your budget, attention to a few key features can help you get the best buy.

* Height and seat angle. Proper seating position is a ramrod 90-degree angle between lap and spine. In addition to height adjustability, better chair designs usually allow adjustment to the angle between the seat pan (under your bottom) and the chair back. Often, tilting the seat pan forward pulls the hips and spine into proper alignment; a contoured seat pan will hold you snugly and comfortably in place.

* Armrests. Armrests are deceptive. Your arms probably weigh between 5 and 15 pounds each. An armrest should support that weight, taking it off the collarbone and cervical vertebrae of the neck.

Armrests should be height-adjustable and should allow you to slide close to your desk. The most effective armrests should be close enough to your sides to support your arms in a natural position while you type.

It's difficult to find a chair with well-designed arms--especially for women, who have narrower bodies.

If the armrests don't fit these criteria, a chair without any armrests would be best.

* Lumbar support. The best chairs enable you to move the lumbar support into a position that matches your body. If you have a cheaper chair, you can buy a lumbar-support cushion.

* High-back chairs, headrests. Unless you commonly assume the sharply reclining astronaut-blastoff position, high backs and headrests are useless. In fact, they can interfere with proper curvature of your upper shoulders and spine.

* Footrests. Even the most expensive chairs are probably more comfortable with a footrest; the least expensive chairs need them. A proper footrest should be about 6 inches high and have an angled surface for the soles of your feet.

* Sitting on a tight budget. Mass-market office equipment chains and other stores sell inexpensive chairs. Be warned: One egregious design flaw common to these is the springy back that's held up by a bouncy steel bar. If the back of the chair doesn't lock in place, you're probably better off using a solid straight-backed chair, augmenting it with a lumbar cushion and seat pan wedge-shaped cushion.

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