Why Are School Chairs So Uncomfortable? (Opinion)

   This post has been quality checked in line with our Editorial and Research Policy.

If you’ve ever sat in a school chair, you know that they’re not exceptionally comfortable. They’re often downright uncomfortable. But why are school chairs so poorly designed? Why can’t schools get it right regarding seating for all students?

Well, the answer isn’t simple. Many factors contribute to why school chairs are so uncomfortable, and it’s not just one thing to blame. Let’s take a closer look at why school chairs are so uncomfortable and what schools can do to improve things.

As a general rule, school chairs are uncomfortable due to poor design and hard surfaces that do not accommodate different body types, causing pressure points and alignment issues. This could lead to attention problems and postural changes that may cause long-term chronic pain or other health problems.

For almost 30 years, I have witnessed the effects of poor posture on our children’s spines at my chiropractic and physiotherapy center. I have seen firsthand how slouching can cause long-term damage to the spine and the pain that poor posture can cause. Poor posture is now an epidemic problem among school children.

As a result, (without being too preachy), I have made it my mission to advocate for children’s spinal health and welfare. I believe every child has the right to grow up with a healthy spine, and I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure they do.  Through my work, I hope to raise awareness of the importance of good posture and help children prevent lifelong problems caused by poor posture.

I have lectured and conducted studies at elementary and secondary schools, published a book on this topic, appeared on national TV, and ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of posture correcting devices for children at school.  As parents and educators, we should try to implement some simple changes for our children to prevent them from developing bad habits.

rethinking posture in the modern world

School seating ergonomics play an essential role in the long-term health of students. Children may spend their entire academic careers sitting in less than ideal chairs. A student’s school chair’s lack of movement and support can lead to their spine becoming bent and deformed. Additionally, a new study suggests that sitting for too long periods may lead to various health consequences similar, if not identical, to those found in adults.

Without being too preachy, perhaps we should consider our children’s health care needs before extracurricular activities if we are just trying to get by with what little money is available each year?

What’s Wrong With School Chairs?

Many parents ask me, ‘are school chairs bad for your back?‘  Generally speaking, most school chairs are not ideal for children’s posture for various reasons. First, many school chairs have hard surfaces, which means they don’t provide adequate pressure support for the hips or back. Second, sedentary positions can contribute to poor posture. Third, poor sitting mechanics can strain the back and shoulders. These factors can lead to back problems for adolescents.

Sitting All Day on a Hard Surface

Sitting for long periods on a hard surface (out of alignment) can have several adverse health effects, including poor circulation, pinched nerves, and muscle deterioration. Poor circulation can cause a buildup of toxins in the blood, leading to tingling or numbness in the extremities. Pinched nerves can be painful and cause tingling, numbness, or weakness in the affected area. Muscle deterioration can lead to muscle loss and weakness and contribute to nerve pain.

Sedentary Positions

With over ten thousand studies (and counting!) on how sedentary behavior can affect our children’s health, it is hard to ignore the message that too much sitting is bad for us. Even if we exercise regularly, research has shown that being inactive for long periods can increase our risk of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.  

how to make students chair more comfortable

Nowadays, with the introduction of technology into classrooms, children spend more time sitting than ever before. It is estimated that children spend at least 9 hours per day sitting. This sedentary behavior causes many to believe that uncomfortable or cheaply made school furniture is to blame for the child’s lack of activity. However, recent studies have shown that this is not the only cause. Children are just as inactive or complacent when sitting down as when standing up.

The much more significant issue is the amount of time spent not moving. Too much time in a sedentary posture can lead to circulation, posture, and back pain problems. Even short periods of inactivity can impact a child’s energy levels and mood. That’s why it’s so crucial for children to move around regularly throughout the day.

A new study has suggested that prolonged periods of sitting or inactivity can negatively impact children’s health. The study, conducted on children aged 9-12, found that those who spent significant amounts of time sitting or being inactive showed changes in their blood flow and arteries.

This is concerning as it indicates that these children may risk developing adult-type health problems such as cardiovascular disease. The findings of this study highlight the importance of ensuring that children are active throughout the day and not sedentary for long periods.

There are several ways to encourage children to be more active at home and school. Simple things like timers to remind students to move every 20 minutes and having playgrounds or walking paths nearby can make a big difference. Making physical activity a part of the daily routine, whether through sports, games or even just getting up every 20 minutes, can make a real difference in the child’s development.

Poor Mechanics

It’s a little-known fact that people (children) with back pain shouldn’t sit upright. Whenever this angle is changed as far as 110 degrees, their spinal disc pressure is reduced by up to 35%. *  This is particularly important for students with chronic back pain.

Students looking down at their computers or books all day is another problem.  For example, as the child’s head tilts forward into poor posture, the vertebrae in the cervical spine suffer from an incremental increase in pressure. A study by Dr Hansraj’s mathematical analysis shows that for every inch the head moves forward from its natural balance point, the neck experiences an additional 10 pounds of pressure. *

Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by PostureTo put this above chart into perspective, imagine wearing a 10-pound weight around your child’s neck while trying to balance a beach ball on top of your head… and then imagine doing that all day long. No wonder so many students today suffer from neck pain! 

The modern world is all about being connected. Students read and write with their heads tilted forward, mechanically looking at screens only inches from each of them – sometimes even closer than their own eyes! The strain on the neck can be intense; on average, students spend 2-4 hours per day staring down at their smartphones or tablets (depending on how old they are). By age 20+, this number could exceed 5k extra minutes spent in poor posture every year!

the correct way to sit

In the following image, you can see how the mechanics of hunching forward and slouching can cause severe back problems. If the student suffers from back pain, he or she should avoid stooping and slouching forward. As a result of this posture, the spinal cord is compressed, and the back is put under substantial stress.

If you are into super easy and inexpensive alternatives to chairs, I wrote a fantastic article on how and why you should consider these options for back pain, and I encourage you to read it!

chart of spine disc pressure seated at different angles

Potential Consequences of Uncomfortable School Chairs

Cognitive Problems

A poorly designed classroom can significantly impact a student’s ability to learn. Uncomfortable furniture can make students restless and unable to focus, resulting in cognitive problems such as poor concentration and memory. Poorly designed classrooms can also negatively impact students’ ability to learn and achieve their full potential because they will feel anxious and stressed. Classroom furniture must be well-designed and comfortable to create a positive learning environment.

chidrens poor posture leads to adult chronic pain

Physical Complications

Improper classroom furniture can cause physical symptoms. Most standard school chairs have a hard seat that slopes backwards, which can cause complications such as issues with blood circulation and digestion and tension in the shoulders, neck, and back. Additionally, this chair can compress the spine, leading to discomfort. If the student is also required to sit for long periods without a break can exacerbate these problems.

I’ve also written a complete hands-on review about the best sitting position for sciatica, and here is what I tested best with my sciatica patients.

good vs bad posture in students

Anatomical Issues

While it is true that every child is different, there are some general trends regarding child development. Most children reach their full height by the time they turn eighteen, with girls tending to be shorter than boys on average. Additionally, many children begin to experience puberty around thirteen, though there is substantial variation from individual to individual.

Typically, desks and chairs that are not adjustable to fit various sizes are the best options for accommodating all students. Adaptable school furniture can be expensive, but it is a worthwhile investment that ensures all children have the support they need to succeed in school.

Poor Posture Habits

A child’s spine begins to form posture patterns at approximately the age of seven. If a child is seated in a hard-backed chair during this phase, they are prone to muscle exertion, which can impact the compression/ pressure of their thorax.

These complacent poor posture habits can result in many problems later in life, including difficulty breathing, heart disease, obesity, cancer, etc. To avoid these issues, children must be taught proper posture from a young age and encouraged to sit in ergonomic chairs supporting the spine’s natural curve.

How Do You Sit Comfortably on a School Desk?

A school desk shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all piece of furniture. Depending on a child’s height, weight, and body type, a comfortable desk for one student may be uncomfortable for another. It would be great if schools provided various desks to accommodate all students’ needs. 

Adjustable chairs and desks are a good option, as they can be easily adjusted to fit each child’s body type. In addition, schools should make sure that all desk chairs are ergonomically designed to provide proper support for the back and spine. 

children trying to sit comfortably at school

As any parent knows, the health and well-being of their children are always a top priority. Considering the financial implications of a decision is essential, but sometimes you just have to follow your gut. I believe that saving a few dollars now is less important than the long-term health of our children. Future medical care and treatment can be very costly, and no parent wants their child to be in poor health.

Recommendations to Help Your Child Sit Comfortably:

Seat Angle

When finding a comfortable position for seated work, students often have many restrictions. According to research, reclining at 135 degrees can reduce disc pressure when seated.

However, this position isn’t possible for students to work in. Additionally, I found that most students felt more comfortable when their hip height was approximately 3-4 inches higher than their knees.

When I tested students (at a primary school in Dublin, Ireland) with sEMG scans at different seating angles and had them sit on ergonomic seat cushions and adjustable chairs (with a forward tilt), they were able to find a position that was both comfortable and supported their back.

As a result, the students could work for extended periods without experiencing any discomfort. Ultimately, these findings suggest that there are ways to improve seating comfort for students, even if they can’t recline at 135 degrees.

A well-designed ergonomic seat cushion is the easiest way to achieve this, as per the picture below in my study. 1,2,3,4,5,6

 

posture wedge for child

I was surprised how similar cheap memory foam seat cushions were on Aliexpress from the listing on Amazon!

Seat Height

Getting the child’s seat height correct is essential for proper ergonomics. The best way to ensure that a seat is a proper height is to test it out with the person using it. With the person standing, align the seat with the top of their knees. If they can comfortably sit down with their feet on the floor, the seat is likely at the right height. However, if they have to scrunch their legs up or stretch them out too far, the seat is too high or too low.

correct seat height for students

Desk Height

Again, desks need to accommodate every child’s needs. The best way to measure desk height is with your student’s shoulders relaxed and your elbows at a 90-degree angle. This will ensure that your wrists are in a neutral position and that you are not putting undue strain on your neck or shoulders. If your child’s desk is too high or too low, you can adjust it accordingly. Some modern school desks have adjustable legs that allow you to raise or lower the surface to suit your child’s body type.

correct desk height for students

To maintain a healthy environment, it is vital to be aware of the ergonomic guidelines established by the BIFMA (circa 2002). The BIFMA, or the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, is a trade association that sets standards for the furniture industry.

According to their guidelines, eight key measurements should be considered when assessing environmental posture: sitting and standing height, eye height, reach, angle, knee height, seat depth, and distance. By taking these measurements into account, workers can be sure that they are positioned in a way that minimizes strain on their bodies and helps them to stay productive. With the help of these guidelines, schools can create a healthy environment that helps students stay comfortable and safe. *

Standing Desks

Another possible consideration may be using standing desks.  Moving around within the boundaries of your standing desk is an excellent way for your child to burn energy and keep classroom behavior under control. It also helps maintain concentration, which would otherwise be lost due to poor posture throughout the day sitting down in one position.  Ideally, a combination of sitting, standing, and moving would be the best-case scenario.  The best posture for your child is always a moving posture!

Here are some advantages of standing over sitting:

  • Children burn more calories (up to 35% more for obese children)
  • Reduced incidence of osteoarthritis and dysfunction
  • Creates a ‘movement’ environment

This point is echoed by research at Texas A&M University found that standing desks are a great way to improve attention, on-task behavior, and classroom engagement in elementary school students. Teachers who worried about disrupted learning noticed more minor problem-solving or conduct issues too!

How Do You Sit on a School Chair?

You might not think there is a correct way to sit on a school chair, but there is. How you sit can affect your posture, breathing, and concentration. Here are the proper instructions for sitting on a school chair: 

  • First, sit towards the front of the chair so your back is straight and your feet are flat on the ground. 
  • Next, rest your arms on the armrests or the front desk. 
  • If possible, have your child use an ergonomic seat cushion for comfort and alignment.
  • Lastly, ensure you are not slouching or leaning to one side. These simple instructions can help you improve your posture and focus in class.

Do School Chairs Cause Back Pain?

Approximately 90 per cent of back pain among adults is caused by poor sitting in school, according to an expert Richard Brennan in an Irish Times article. “Most children leave school with terrible posture due to a combination of lack of movement due to sitting for long periods, bad furniture, and carrying heavy school bags,” said Mr Brennan.

Takeaway

Although the evidence may seem convincing, it can be hard to change something that has been used for so long. Hopefully, with enough pressure from parents and teachers, schools may see the importance of making these simple changes to help our children maintain their spinal health now and into the future. Have you spoken up about this issue in your school or community? What was the response? Let me know if I can support you in your efforts.

 

 

Sources:

  1. Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and
    Position of the Head
    Neuro and Spine Surgery
    Surgical Technology International
    November 2014; Vol. 25; pp. 277-279
  2. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/health/school-furniture-major-cause-of-adult-back-pain-says-expert-1.999892#:~:text=Postural%20problems%3A%20Badly%20designed%20school,are%20a%20major%20cause%20of%E2%80%A6&text=According%20to%20Mr%20Brennan%2C%20up,by%20poor%20seating%20in%20school.
  3. https://www.bifma.org/news/119419/Updated-BIFMA-Ergonomics-Guideline-Now-Available.htm
  4. Dockrell, S., O’Grady, E., Bennett, K., Mullarkey, C., Mc Connell, R., Ruddy, R., Twomey, S. and Flannery, C., 2012. An investigation of the reliability of Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA) as a method of assessment of children’s computing posture. Applied ergonomics43(3), pp.632-636.
  5. Dockrell, S., Earle, D. and Galvin, R., 2010. Computer-related posture and discomfort in primary school children: The effects of a school-based ergonomic intervention. Computers & Education55(1), pp.276-284.
  6. Breen, R., Pyper, S., Rusk, Y. and Dockrell, S., 2007. An investigation of children’s posture and discomfort during computer use. Ergonomics50(10), pp.1582-1592.
  7. McEvoy, M.P. and Grimmer, K., 2005. Reliability of upright posture measurements in primary school children. BMC musculoskeletal disorders6(1), pp.1-10.
  8. Harrison, D.D., Harrison, S.O., Croft, A.C., Harrison, D.E. and Troyanovich, S.J., 1999. Sitting biomechanics part I: review of the literature. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics22(9), pp.594-609.
  9. Magnusson, M.L. and Pope, M.H., 1998. A review of the biomechanics and epidemiology of working postures (it isn’t always vibration which is to blame!). Journal of sound and vibration215(4), pp.965-976.
  10. Niosi, C.A. and Oxland, T.R., 2004. Degenerative mechanics of the lumbar spine. The Spine Journal4(6), pp.S202-S208.
  11. Gupta, S., 2011. Ergonomic applications to dental practice. Indian journal of dental research22(6), p.816.
  12. Grandjean, E. and Hünting, W., 1977. Ergonomics of posture—review of various problems of standing and sitting posture. Applied ergonomics8(3), pp.135-140.
  13. Andersson, B.G., Örtengren, R., Nachemson, A.L., Elfström, G. and Broman, H., 1975. The sitting posture: an electromyographic and discometric study. Orthopedic Clinics of North America6(1), pp.105-120.
  14. Nachemson, A.L.F., 1975. Towards a better understanding of low-back pain: a review of the mechanics of the lumbar disc. Rheumatology14(3), pp.129-143.
**As a service to our readers, Axial Chairs provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of the last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.

Medical Disclaimer: This website is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Product Disclaimer: The seat cushion is designed by a chiropractor, but results may vary and are not guaranteed. The product is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition.

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Dr Lawrence Woods DC

Dr Lawrence Woods DC

Founder

My goal is to create the highest quality ergonomic office chairs and accessories for unmatched comfort.

With 30 years of spinal healthcare experience in Ireland as a chiropractor, I learned the value of high-quality sitting for living a happy and healthy life.

I have a Chiropractic Degree from Life Chiropractic College West and I am NBCE Physiotherapy certified.

 

Dr Lawrence Woods

My goal is to create the highest quality ergonomic office chairs and accessories for unmatched comfort. With 30 years of spinal healthcare experience as a chiropractor, I learned the value of high-quality sleep for living a happy and healthy life. I have a Chiropractic Degree from Life Chiropractic College West and am NBCE Physiotherapy certified.

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