A stability cushion is a sturdy air-filled rubber disc, about the size of a flattened beach ball, strong enough to sit or stand on. They are unstable, but they are called “stability” cushions because they are mostly intended to help you achieve stability, as in “core stability.” They challenge your stability … for whatever it’s worth. They are now a fixture in gyms, a basic functional training tool, like balance boards, but this article is focused on using them as an accessory for your office chair.
Is a wobble cushion therapeutic?
I started prescribing wobble cushions in the early 2000s to introduce some movement and stimulation into the stagnant postures of my many chair-bound clients. The idea was to keep their back muscles frisky and postural reflexes stimulated, and I hoped this would treat and prevent back pain. Of course it can also be used as an exercise tool during microbreaks — frequent but tiny breaks taken throughout the day — and exercise is generally good medicine.
Over the years, my enthusiasm for wobble cushions has wavered. Sitting a lot is actually not a risk factor for back pain, as I eventually learned (see Chen et al), and posture in general is an over-rated as a musculoskeletal demon. And while a lack of exercise may be unhealthy, a wobble cushion is not going to put much of a dent in that problem. See The Trouble with Chairs for more information about the risks of sitting and sedentariness.
Using wobble cushions still makes sense to me, but only in a precautionary variety-is-the-spice-of-life way. They’re nice. It’s cheap and easy and a bit whimsical. So … why the heck not? I still think it’s a good idea, just not a terribly important one. It’s just light exercise.
Choosing to use a wobble cushion requires some commitment to the idea of exercising while you sit. This article explains the proper use of a wobble cushion for sitting and some exercising.
When submarine sailors are released from duty after a long time at sea, they are not allowed to drive for several days: their long-distance vision has atrophied, because they haven’t looked at anything further away than a few meters for weeks.
Similarly, after decades of living on flat and stable surfaces, most people probably do not have good balance or healthy postural muscles. We are flatlanders. The reflexes that keep us upright can degenerate, and the core stability muscles gradually atrophy. Although there’s no evidence that this is connected to the kinds of consequences that seem obvious, like back pain, it’s surely not entirely healthy. The consequences are probably subtle. For instance, our corroded reflexes might, over time, make workouts more difficult and unpleasant, chipping away at our enthusiasm.
The perceived value of core strength has become big business. It has spawned new business and industries. CrossFit and Pilates and even yoga owe much of their popularity to the idea that we should exercise our core muscles more.
A wobble cushion is no CrossFit class. But it is, in principle, a mild provocation therapy — a mild challenge, forcing us to adapt. It’s not a strong stimulus, but it’s not nothing, and we can do it for “free.” We can use them while we work in our chairs, without putting anything new on the calendar.
How to sit on a wobble cushion
Intermittently. Not constantly.
At first, most people want to sit on their new wobble cushion all day long, but the proper usage of this tool is intermittent: use it for about half an hour at a time, put it aside for a while, and then put it back on the chair. Take it on and off at throughout the day.
Wobble cushions create variety in your sitting not only by providing an unstable surface to sit on, but by adding and removing them from your regular chair. It’s like having another chair! Or an additional feature on your skookum ergonomic chair.
It’s actually supposed to be uncomfortable, to a point. The purpose of the product is to make your sitting an active chore for your back muscles. A wobble cushion cannot compete with the comfort of slouching!
It is possible to slouch passively, even sitting on a wobble cushion. Bear in mind that you’re defeating the purpose if you allow yourself to simply fall off the back edge of your wobble cushion and rest on the back of your chair.
Concave or convex? Depends on how much instability you want. A convex wobble cushion is much more like sitting on a ball, which provides much more of the instability that is the point of the product. Others are concave, and therefore more stable … undermining the key feature of the product. On the other hand, you can probably sit for longer on a less wobbly wobble cushion. If you find a convex cushion too uncomfortable, a convex one might be an ideal compromise.
How to stand on a wobble cushion
Stand on it and see what happens. It’s a good, simple test of balance. If you find it difficult to maintain your balance for more than 20 seconds, then simply standing on a wobble cushion is a fine exercise for you.
If you need more of a challenge, stand on one foot. Wave your arms around.
There are many ways to use a wobble cushion as an exercise accessory. Imagine any exercise, and simply insert a wobble cushion under hands, feet, or bum: the unstable surface will make it more challenging, and recruit more musculature.
However, especially in a office context, I recommend just standing on it.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.
What’s new in this article?
2017 — Major revision. Modernized and simplified. In particular, I purged any hint that a wobble cushion can treat or prevent back pain.