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How many calories does sitting on an exercise ball burn?

April 19th, 2010

In the comments section of an earlier post that mentioned the potential caloric benefits of standing as opposed to sitting, Peter asked how sitting on an exercise ball stacks up. The news is good. A 2008 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology by researchers at the University of Buffalo compared energy use during clerical tasks while sitting in an office chair, sitting on an exercise ball, or standing up. Subjects burned 4.1 calories more per hour (a 6% boost) when they were either standing or sitting on the exercise ball compared to sitting in the regular office chair. There was no difference between standing up and sitting on the exercise ball. The numbers are consistent with a 2006 study that found a 3.9 calorie per hour (5.6%) boost for exercise balls, with effects that persisted for at least a week.

Presumably, this enhanced calorie gain has the same benefits as standing — that it doesn’t trigger your appetite hormones to make you compensate. On the other hand, some back experts are still cautious about the effects of sitting on exercise balls all day. Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo, for instance, did a study in 2006 with the following conclusions:

The results of this study suggest that prolonged sitting on a dynamic, unstable seat surface does not significantly affect the magnitudes of muscle activation, spine posture, spine loads or overall spine stability. Sitting on a ball appears to spread out the contact area possibly resulting in uncomfortable soft tissue compression perhaps explaining the reported discomfort.

So, as long as your back doesn’t start bothering you, the exercise ball seems like a reasonable choice. And you don’t have to worry about your productivity, at least according to the University of Buffalo study: in 20 minutes, the men in the study typed 551.8 words on the exercise ball, 535.6 words while standing up, and 519.2 words while sitting in the office chair. (The women were much consistent, at 700.3, 697.8 and 702.5 respectively.)

  1. Jamie
    May 3rd, 2010 at 09:42 | #1

    Just curious, how do you reconcile this research with the promotion of people like Gary Taubes’ thinking about weight loss?
    http://sweatscience.com/?p=646
    They rely rather heavily on the calories in/out idea to the extent that a 15 or 30 kcal/DAY deficit/surplus is useful in weight loss or gain.

  2. alex
    May 3rd, 2010 at 11:51 | #2

    Interesting question, Jamie. I’m not sure I’d describe myself as “promoting” Gary Taubes — I once interviewed him for an article I wrote, and I found the ideas he presented in his book intriguing. As I said in the post you linked to: “As for Taubes, I certainly don’t know whether he’s right or wrong, but I found his book to be extremely carefully argued and impeccably sourced.”

    I don’t think there’s any doubt that (a) the more calories you burn, the more likely you are to lose weight, and (b) the body has feedback mechanisms that reduce its calorie burning if you subject it to a caloric deficit. I guess Taubes would argue that the latter effect is dominant.

    Personally, I have a very hard time believing that sitting on an exercise ball is going to lead to any significant weight loss. My bias is towards vigorous exercise. On the other hand, some of the recent research by Barry Braun and others seems to suggest that low-intensity calorie-burning has benefits because it doesn’t stimulate excessive hunger in response. The original question I was asked was: how many calories does sitting on an exercise ball burn. I can answer that: apparently about four per hour. Whether that’s meaningful, no one really knows the answer at this point.

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