5 Ergonomic Desk Chairs That Are Good for Your Body and the Planet

Photo: Herman Miller.

It’s a scenario that many of us have had the misfortune of experiencing: lower back pain, shoulder strain, a cramped neck and a general sense of malaise that stems from spending an average of 8.9 hours per day sitting in an office chair that offers little or no support to the parts of our body that need it most. No, it’s not necessarily those five doughnuts that you scarfed during that 9 a.m. staff meeting that will kill you (although they certainly don’t help) ... it’s that shoddy, ill-fitting office chair.

Although nothing quite beats regularly removing your bum from your chair to move around the office and stretch (you’ve got to catch up on the hottest water cooler goss somehow, right?) coupled with an outside-of-work exercise regimen, ergonomic desk chairs help keep you comfortable while preventing you from turning into an headache- and back spasm-prone office drone with bad posture and an even worse attitude.

Below, we’ve rounded up five exceptional ergonomic desk chairs that go above and beyond providing a comfortable place to sit for a few hours. Boasting various features that help support key areas of the body and boost productivity, these chairs not only support spine health but also keep you and those around you healthy by not emitting any indoor air quality-compromising toxins. Because really, what’s more nightmarish than squirming in a poorly designed chair that also stinks? And as a warning, you may notice that these chairs qualify as high-end when it comes to pricing, with some costing upwards of $1,000. An investment, yes, but wouldn’t you rather invest your hard earned money in a well-designed, long-lasting piece of furniture than countless trips to the chiropractor or physical therapist to correct the damage caused by a non-ergonomic chair?

Embody by Herman Miller

Although Michigan-based furniture maker Herman Miller is perhaps best known for producing iconic modernist pieces like the Noguchi accent table and the Eames rocker, the sustainability obsessed company is also a well-regarded player in the back-friendly work chair market. Sure, the granddaddy of ergonomic Herman Miller office chairs, the Aeron (1994), may be in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art and beloved by one Liz Lemon. And the breathtaking (and breathtakingly affordable by Herman Miller standards) Golden Gate-bridge inspired Sayl (2010) may be the creation by Yves Béhar, the hottest humanitarian-minded industrial designer out there. However, it’s Embody (2008) that’s the healthiest Herman Miller work chair of them all.

Dubbed as the world’s “First Health-Positive Chair,” designers Jeff Weber and Bill Stumpf created Embody specifically for creative types who spend loooong hours sitting in front of computers. With its spine-like back, four-layer seat and host of knobs and levers for optimum adjustment, Embody automatically conforms to its user's every movement to increase blood circulation, which, of course, keeps oxygen flowing to the brain and decreases heart rate. And because this is Herman Miller that we’re dealing with, Embody — hailed as “The Best Chair We’ve Ever Sat On” by the sedentary tech geeks at Gizmodo, by the way — is massively green. Starting at $1,199.

Life by Formway Design for Knoll

A sexy, streamlined alternative to heavy, “all eyes on me” ergonomic office chairs such as Embody from Herman Miller is Knoll’s award-winning Life task chair (2002) designed by New Zealand-based seating wizards, Formway Design. In addition to its sleek good looks, Life allows office drones of all shapes and sizes to sit comfortably — and healthily — for extended periods of time thanks to its ingenious seat and back designs that intuitively respond to shifts in body weight so that no manual adjustments are needed.

And in addition to providing superior pelvic, lumbar and shoulder support through several key features including an innovative 3D knit fabric back and waterfall front seat that allows for greater circulation while reducing pressure points, this minimalist mesh masterpiece boasts some serious green cred: With an impressive level of both recycled and recyclable components, Life is GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified and assembled at Knoll’s wind-powered, LEED Gold certified Lubin Manufacturing Facility in East Greenville, Penn. Additionally, Life has bragging rights of being the first product in the furnishings industry to achieve SMaRT (Sustainable Materials Rating Technology) certification. Starting at $1,281.

Diffrient World by Humanscale Healthcare

When you’re sitting in an office chair designed by Niels Diffrient, the man dubbed as the “granddaddy of the ergonomic revolution,” then you just know it has to be good for you. With only two adjustment knobs (one for seat depth and one for seat height) and eight major parts, Diffrient World (2009) from Humanscale is a pared-down, environmentally friendly ergonomic task seat that relies on Form-Sensing Mesh Technology to provide excellent lumbar support without the need for external components or controls. The mesh design extends from the tri-panel backrest to the seat where the frameless front edge eliminates contact stress behind the thighs. And then there’s the true show-stopping feature of Diffrient World: mechanism-free, self-adjusting recline technology that uses two frame components, the user’s body weight and the laws of physics.

On the green end of things, this award-winning lightweight beauty (only 25 pounds!) is made from 97 percent recyclable content. And, of course, its notable absence of extraneous bells and whistles means that less raw materials and energy went into the manufacture of Diffrient World. Starting at $820.

Leap by Steelcase

The Leap chair (1999) may not win awards in the wildly innovative appearances department (it looks, well, like your standard office chair) but beloved Michigan-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase invested a whole lot of time (four years to be exact) and effort into studying how the human body, specifically the back, is affected by extended sit sessions. Partnering with four universities and 27 scientists, Steelcase wrangled up over 700 participants to see how they moved — or squirmed — throughout the day while sitting. Based on four key discoveries that resulted from these studies,

  1. The spine doesn’t move as a single unit,
  2. Each individual’s spinal motion is unique,
  3. The upper and lower back require different amounts and types of support,
  4. Vision and reach impact your posture,

the wellness-focused Leap design team developed a slouch-reducing, productivity-boosting office chair that can actually be good for you. Imagine that!
And like other ergonomic office chairs, Leap sports impressive eco-specs (“The Leap chair was designed with your well-being in mind. It was also designed with the planet's well-being in mind,” reads the Steelcase website). Ninety-eight percent recyclable by weight and made from 30 percent recycled content, the non-off-gassing Leap is Cradle to Cradle Silver rated and is blanket wrapped for domestic delivery instead of boxed to reduce packaging waste. Starting at $879.

Zody by Haworth

Designed by Michael Welsh of Michigan-based (apparently, the Wolverine State is ground-zero for eco-friendly, ergonomic office furniture design) Haworth Design Studio and German firm ITO, the award-winning Zody (2005) is a chair of several impressive firsts: The first task chair to secure an endorsement from the American Physical Therapy Association; the first and only chair to feature PAL, a “patent pending user selected asymmetrical lumbar support system and a passive pelvic support” developed in collaboration with the Human Performance Institute at Western Michigan University; and, last but not least, it’s the first task chair to score Cradle to Cradle Gold certification due to its high levels of recyclable and recycled materials.

And did we mention the optional “4-D armrests that can be adjusted up/down, side to side, forward/rearward, and at an in/out rotation? Nifty. Not to publicly gush or anything but Zody, we think we love you. Starting at $803.

Photos provided by manufacturers.