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Don’t Buy a “Gaming Chair” Do they even help?

Do Gaming Chairs actually help? Are all Gaming Chairs a Scam?

Do gaming chairs actually benefit gamers? Gaming chairs are consistently compared to office chairs and have even changed drastically in design since they entered the market about two decades ago. But this is actually a question that has rarely been answered or considered from a health and performance perspective.

I’m Dr. Matthew Hwu an Esports Medicine and Performance professional who has been working in gaming for the past 8 years and am a Physical Therapist by practice. In this article I’m going to answer this question and help you understand a more nuanced perspective when it comes to gaming chairs.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAMING CHAIRS

To start it is important to understand a bit about the history of the gaming chair and why there are specific features that have become industry standard.

DX Racer was the pioneer of the gaming chair revolution in 2006 and they designed their chair based on research published by Nissan around their ergonomic car seats. This research was informed by NASA’s neutral body posture guidelines and human posture literature at the time which likely led to the pervasiveness of the concept of “neutral position”

The neutral position is the concept of the spine (and other joints in the body) being supported in its natural curvature which is believed to have a reduction of muscular load of the back, pelvis and torso. There have since been updates in our understanding of the neutral spine and its proposed impact on our physical health we might touch on later in this article.

The chairs were designed to include the features of ergonomic car seats in addition to “racing” style features such as the winged shoulder supports and bucketed seats. These racing seat features are intentional to support specific demands of motor sports as high g forces are present. It is necessary to increase surface area of contact to limit the muscular activity required to stabilize the body during turns.

They also look cool. Which is why these designs grew in popularity despite the limited function and benefit of some of these features.

From the biomechanical and medical perspective these chairs were not truly optimized for the ergonomics of sitting in front of a PC:

 

1. Lumbar and Cervical pillows were often too firm and oversized. This led to limited use of the back rests and discomfort from excessive pressure at the lower back.

 

2. Winged shoulder support angles promoted protraction at the shoulder (which was based on the NASA “neutral position” of astronauts in zero gravity) potentially leading to shoulder and neck discomfort

 

3. Bucketed seats with edges designed too high and at aggressive angles (closer to 90 degrees) leading to pressure and discomfort along the distal thigh

Evolution of features

 

These features have often stood the test of time and unfortunately are still present however many companies have realized the potential negative impact these features have on sitting comfort and prevention of pain. Over the years these features have evolved to better match the actual demands of static sitting and the minimal dynamic stabilization required with gaming (although arguable for some games).

 

How have these features evolved? Office chairs played a role in the evolution as office chairs themselves also changed over the years in response to ergonomic research and the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). With their designs being focused on static sitting and office work their features were often more aligned with the identified physical stressors.

 

Gaming chairs adopted these features with improved lumbar support designs, mesh-chair designs, tilt mechanisms, cushion changes and more. It is clear gaming chair companies began to truly evaluate how their chairs could support the function and tasks around gaming culture. Now there are mesh-based as well as hybrid chairs providing gamers more options to match their specific gaming lifestyle. As our society continues to move towards increased human machine interface, it is likely gaming chair companies will design unique features that will be beneficial not only for gamers but also office workers as gamers can be considered the olympians of desk work. The physical demands of a gamer far exceed that of office workers with competitive gamers performing up to 600 mouse and keyboard actions per minute (APM) on a typical training day.

 

So as chairs continue to evolve the question then becomes are current gaming chairs (which often include more advanced ergonomic features) beneficial for gamers?

 

Beneficial.. for what?

 

The answer is.. it depends. Why? because it depends on the context of the question. Is it beneficial for health? Is it beneficial for cognitive function and performance? I believe there are truly ways a chair can potentially lead to an increase in gaming performance HOWEVER this discussion can get quite complex (our definition of “performance” in gaming can affect potential benefits) and is not the scope of this article. Let’s focus on what I’m sure most are curious about: Health

 

Health & Ergonomic Adjustability

 

When most inquire about the health benefits of a chair often they are curious about the impact of the chair on injury prevention and individuals who are currently dealing with pain. Adjustability is by far the most important factor which has a potentially positive impact on our physical health when it comes to ergonomics and supporting the body while performing any seated task (gaming in this case).

 

Why? Adjustability of the chair allows the supporting device to ADAPT to the individual characteristics of our bodies and environmental constraints (the desk, placement in the room, desk organization, etc.).

 

  • Individuals who might have longer torso’s a lumbar support which has vertical adjustability can better support this individual to assume a neutral position
  • Shorter individuals or those with a shorter thigh may benefit from a shorter seat-depth or seat cushion density that will not place excessive pressure on the distal thigh. Or the seat pan can have adjustability to be closer to the back-rest.
  • Individuals who might have a lower than standard desk height (30”) and who prefer to utilize the desk for forearm support should be able to adjust the arm-rest to clear the table so they can sit at a comfortable distance from their setup.

 

There are many more individual differences in morphology and desk environments which require adjustability features of the chair to best support gaming. And of course we have to consider the different types of gaming as many game with a controller in front of their PC setup as well. The chair should also have adjustability to match this behavior.

 

Common Marketed Features of Gaming Chairs: Features here are representative of older generation which include excessively bulky lumbar and cervical supports

 

Understanding Specific Features and their Benefit

 

There are decades of research and literature supporting the benefit of certain features on our physical health. The purpose of this article is not to go into significant depth about each of these features. I will however review the some of the key features of the chair and why they can be beneficial for our physical health. There are also features which have limited benefit (aesthetic features) but what is important to recognize is also the context of questions. Certain features will have indirect benefits for our physical health and may not be associated directly with the task of gaming.

 

Lumbar Support

 

As mentioned above chair designs began to adopt the “neutral body posture” guidelines from NASA. While it is true that a neutral body position typically means less overall muscular activity, the neutral position alone does not always lead to prevention or reduction of lower back pain. This is because physical health is more than our posture and ergonomics. We will touch on this more in the next section. Let’s focus on the neutral spine for now.

 

Again, the neutral spine position alone has been shown to not DIRECTLY prevent lower back pain. When we sit for extended periods of time, adaptive changes in our muscles based on our posture. Certain muscles can adaptively shorten while others lengthen and can develop weakness.

 

When we sit in a neutral position however the adaptations are less harmful as muscles are generally positioned at a more optimal length. Based on these adaptations and what we do on a regular basis outside of gaming, we can be at different levels of risk for low back pain. So the neutral spine can INDIRECTLY benefit our physical health. Let me provide an example:

 

 Neutral Position, 8 hrsFlexed Position, 8 hrs
No Sports & dynamic activities5%5%
Sports & dynamic activities10%*15-20%

*how you perform these high-level activities have an impact on whether there is an increased risk.

 

A: If you sit in an neutral position for a long period of time (8 hrs), minimal breaks and don’t participate in high-level physical activities (sports & dynamic activities), there is a low overall risk of pain in the short to mid-term (5-10 years) Lets say its 5% (not truly representative of actual risk).

 

B: If you sit in a neutral position (8 hrs, minimal breaks) and participate in high-level physical activities, you might have a slightly higher risk of pain (depending on how you perform those activities), Lets say its 10%. There is more risk because you are sedentary and attempt to perform high-level physical activity your body might not be prepared for.

 

C: If you sit in a flexed position (8hrs, minimal breaks), which is most gamers, then the adaptations discussed above might occur. But if you do not participate in high-level physical activities. It will likely still be around the 5%. You are not exposing yourself to any high level movement and thus the risk is about the same as situation A.

 

D: If you sit in a flexed position (8 hrs, minimal breaks), and participate in high-level physical activities, then you will have a higher risk of developing an injury, let’s say around 15-20%. This is because you may have some weakness and tightness develop that may increase the risk of injury during the higher level activity. Your movement will be impaired with these adaptive changes.

 

This means with a chair with an adjustable lumbar support mechanism which can assist individuals of various body types to maintain a neutral body posture can have some health benefits. There are also some direct benefits if the lumbar support promotes more overall movement. Certain chairs on the market like the Razer Iskur have this feature as it can effectively shorten the seat depth and be used in a way to remind the user to change positions more frequently during the gaming session. Postural shifts and regular movement while sitting have been shown to directly reduce the risk of lower back pain.

 

Seat Cushion

 

How about the seat cushion? The cushion firmness can often affect how much individuals move while in their sitting position. As mentioned previously small postural shifts and movement while sitting can lead to prevention of lower back issues. When seat cushions are bit too soft, they can lead to sinking of the user into the cushion which makes it more difficult to change positions, effectively “locking” individuals into place. This can prevent movement and potentially lead to development of pain.

 

On the flip side if a seat cushion is too firm, this can lead to excessive pressure on the buttocks and thigh reducing circulation and creating discomfort and pain. So seat cushion firmness can actually play a role in minimizing discomfort and pain with gaming.

 

Chair Tilt

 

Chair tilt is a bit more straight forward as it promotes more movement during your sitting session with the ability to lean back while minimizing discomfort at your thigh. Advancement of tilt mechanisms have allowed this to benefit populations that sit for long periods of time. This is especially important for gamers as we often see gamers change positions frequently throughout a gaming session (often during built-in down-time with competitive or casual games).

 

There is a central theme with these features and physical health. Any features that promotes movement or allows the chair to adjust to support your unique posture or sitting position will be beneficial. Others like the cushion fabric, wings, bucket edges have marginal benefits and in some cases can lead to harmful adaptations.

 

Contributors to Physical Health: More than posture and ergonomics

 

It is important to recognize a chair can only do so much to prevent physical health issues. Physical health is more complicated than just our support surface and how we are sitting. It often involves analyzing our lifestyle, habits, physical conditioning, psychosocial factors and more. In our experience as well posture & ergonomics typically play a smaller role (~20%) in physical health. There are of course cases in which posture & ergonomics play a larger role however are less common based on what we have seen in our clinical experience (>2000 cases seen over 8 years). 20% however is still a fair amount and the chair can make a positive impact on that contribution.

 

The numbers here do not represent the actual contributions to physical health but are based on our experience treating gamers. The majority of injuries are a result of weakness or excessive play rather than primarily from their setup.

 

Gaming Health with Chairs: Answering the Right Question

 

It is important to recognize sitting for an extended period of time (in any posture) is not inherently a healthy action for our body. We have established what else might contribute to physical health in gaming but even more important than that is being able to answer the question:

 

What are we using the chair for?

 

If we can understand the specific tasks and demands associated with gaming (being able to control and move the mouse at certain velocities) we know the chair should be able to provide a comfort, stable experience to achieve those movements within the environment we are sitting in. As the types of peripherals and desk setups evolve, so should the features of the chair to ensure it is best supporting any movement or position we have to assume for extended periods of time.

 

This is how we can ensure any chair is beneficial for us, regardless of what we are doing at the PC.

 

What’s the verdict? Do gaming chairs benefit gamers?

 

I hope if you have made it here you can realize there is nuance to this question and the answer is dependent on several factors.

 

I do believe gaming chairs actually benefit the health of gamers (optimizing that 20% of the pie chart) for the reasons listed above.

 

Gaming chairs that have the adjustability and unique cushion features supporting the specific task of gaming (sitting for extended periods of time moving the mouse at high APMs). This speaks to the idea that one size never fits all and there is not one “BEST” chair. Why? Because everyone everyone has a different lifestyle, anatomy, habits, approach to gaming, environment which can affect which features will be beneficial for that specific person. If the chair has MORE adjustability, it can be beneficial for a larger distribution of gamers.

References

 

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  2. Distefano, J.J., Smith, D.M., & Ziegelmann, P.H. (2020). The relationship between gaming chair use and musculoskeletal pain in esports athletes. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 90(12), 804-812.

  3. Kripa, S., Kaur, H. Identifying relations between posture and pain in lower back pain patients: a narrative review. Bull Fac Phys Ther 26, 34 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s43161-021-00052-w

  4. Jung KS, Jung JH, In TS, Cho HY. Effects of Prolonged Sitting with Slumped Posture on Trunk Muscular Fatigue in Adolescents with and without Chronic Lower Back Pain. Medicina (Kaunas). 2020 Dec 23;57(1):3. doi: 10.3390/medicina57010003. PMID: 33374520; PMCID: PMC7822118.

  5. Saraceni N, Kent P, Ng L, Campbell A, Straker L, O’Sullivan P. To Flex or Not to Flex? Is There a Relationship Between Lumbar Spine Flexion During Lifting and Low Back Pain? A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2020 Mar;50(3):121-130. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2020.9218. Epub 2019 Nov 28. PMID: 31775556.

  6. Slater D, Korakakis V, O’Sullivan P, Nolan D, O’Sullivan K. “Sit Up Straight”: Time to Re-evaluate. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2019 Aug;49(8):562-564. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2019.0610. PMID: 31366294.

  7. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2013, June 25). Spinoff 2013. https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2013/t_4.html

  8. ChairsFX. (n.d.). A brief history of gaming chairs. https://chairsfx.com/gaming-chair-news/history-of-gaming-chairs/

  9. 1HP. (2022, December 30). 1HP 2022 year in review: Esports, medicine, and performance data. https://1-hp.org/blog/hpforgamers/1hp-2022-year-in-review-esports-medicine-and-performance-data/

  10. 1HP. (2021, December 17). 1HP 2021 year in review: Esports, medicine, and performance team. https://1-hp.org/blog/hpforgamers/1hp-2021-year-in-review-esports-medicine-performance-team/

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