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Rethinking sitting height


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More about the ergonomics of sitting postures and seating design

From the Nov. 1986 Human Factors Society Bulletin

Although this article was written two decades ago, its conclusions are still valid.

Seat Height Revisited

Rani Lueder, CPE

I would like to initiate a dialogue about seat height. For the moment, let’s leave aside the issue of Mandal’s (1984) forward sloping seats (which need to adjust higher), and assume that the seat pan is permanently fixed in a horizontal position.

Virtually all recommendations on seat pan adjustability have been based on people’s range of popliteal heights, and assume that the optimum seat height is achieved when the user sits with a 90° knee angle. U.S. (ANSI), Canadian (CSA), and international (ISO) preliminary seat guidelines are based on this posture. The large majority of videos, books, magazines and training manuals direct people to sit in this manner.

The funny thing is, a considerable number of people don’t want to sit in this manner, and this has not only been my experience with various end user groups. Sauter and Arndt (1984) found that of a group of 35 VDT operators working at an adjustable station, the seats of 23 of them were adjusted an average of 3 cm (1.2 inches) higher than their popliteal height; of these operators, 22 reported no leg discomfort.

DeGroot and Vellinga (1984) found that their subjects, while using a fully adjustable VDT work station, sat at an average of 4.9 cm (2 inches) higher than their popliteal height after accounting for shoe height and (in a few cases) footrests. Burandt and Grandjean (1963) found no correlation between popliteal height and preferred seat height; although this was primarily a function of the fixed height work surface, it is interesting to note that there was no relationship between thigh discomfort and excessively high seats.

Seat height revisited From Corlett & Eklund (1984) How does a backrest work
From Corlett & Eklund (1984)
How does a backrest work?
Graphic with permission

Sauter (1986) found that out of 40 VDT operators typing at a work surface fixed at the standard typing height (approximately 26 inches) over 75 percent of them sat significantly higher than their popliteal height. Of these operators, there was no apparent statistical relationship between leg and thigh discomfort and seat height. (Note: in these examples, although subjects sit higher, their feet are still supported by the floor.)

Where is the evidence for the 90° knee angle? I haven’t seen it, and suspect it doesn’t exist. Near as I can figure, it is based on the recommendations of Akerblom (1954), although prior recommendations of a similar nature were made by Staffel (1884) and Hooton (1945). It was supposed that this posture would help to prevent leg swelling. Since that time, these recommendations seem to have been accepted without question.

Leg edema is a genuine problem. Widmer (1978) interviewed 4,529 workers, and found that that 44 percent of men and 70 percent of women experienced discomfort from leg swelling. It is also problematic because local pooling of the blood increases the hydrostatic (venous) pressures to the heart, and thereby increases the blood pressure and heart rate. It likely predisposes the users to a number of peripheral venous disorders such as varicose veins and reduces the temperature of the lower legs, a strong predictor of cold discomfort.

However, leg edema appears to be a function of being sedentary, rather than excessive seat heights. During movement, the associated muscle groups extend and contract, and thereby promote circulation. Pottier, Dubreuil, and Monod (1969) placed wood slats 8 cm high at the front, at the front of the thighs of a group of 32 subjects and found that, even in this worst case condition, a maximum of 25 percent of the lower leg edema could be attributed to thigh compression. Winkel (1981) found that when subjects performed intermittent exercise, most of their leg swelling disappeared within a short time. Winkel and Jorgensen (1986) found that during inactive sitting foot swelling averaged 4.8 percent and muscle temperature of the lower legs (hallucis longus) decreased considerably, but when the seated subjects moved about at regular intervals, leg swelling only reached .8 percent and muscle temperature remained virtually unchanged.

Other solutions to alleviate this problem include pulsating (Circutone) seat cushions that stimulate circulation (Shvartz, Gaume, White, and Reibold, 1980) and "dynamic" footrests that allow the user to exercise during work (Stranden, Aaras, Anderson, Myhre, and Martinsen, 1983).

However, leg swelling is not the only consideration in determining the optimum seat height. It is widely acknowledged that one of the primary problems of the seated posture is that the lower (lumbar) spine is excessively flattened. Bendix (1984) found that lumbar lordosis was improved when the seat height was increased, although these results were also related to the seat pan angle. Although there is no available research on the subject, I suspect that people like to sit higher than their popliteal height because it opens up the thigh-trunk angle and thereby alleviates stresses on the lumbar spine.

In the process of working on occasion with a consortium of colleges of chiropractic I have learned that there is a tremendous variability in the contours of the spine within the general population, even when torso length is accounted for. It seems plausible that the biomechanics of assuming the seated position is to some extent specific to the individual and the task. If so, we need to better formulate what the user needs to know to decide for themselves how to sit.

Nonetheless, it might be asked, in the absence of unequivocal information regarding the optimum seat pan height, what is the harm in recommending that the seat adjust to the popliteal height? Well, at least two reasons come to mind.

First, it is expensive to comply with this lower level both because of retooling costs and frequently from problems in maintaining the structural integrity of castored seats. Increasing the cost for the seat serves as a disincentive for client organizations to buy "ergonomic" seating.

Second, and more importantly, seat mechanisms typically afford a fixed range of adjustability. When the minimum level of seat height is lowered, the maximum is correspondingly reduced. As a result, a number of furniture manufacturers have independently volunteered to me that in order to comply with the minimum seat height stipulated in impending ANSI guidelines, they had to lop off the top end of the range of their seats.

There are three issues that should be considered when evaluating the adequacy of the upper range of seat pan adjustability. The most obvious one is that large users should be accommodated. Second, in order to benefit from the forward sloping seat pans recommended by Mandal (1984), they need to adjust considerably higher.

Third, users consistently adjust their seat height to allow a comfortable working arm posture. As a result, when the work surface height is fixed, small females sit higher than large males (Burandt and Grandjean,1963; Floyd and Roberts, 1958; Floyd and Ward, 1964; Langdon, 1965). Langdon (19.65, p.66) notes "in consequence, although the chair is raised to the point where the limbs cannot be accommodated beneath the desk and the feet cannot reach the floor, the operator is well above the keyboard and sits on the edge of the chair, gripping the curved feet of the chair frame with her shoes".

Ironically, pending seat height recommendations that attempt to address the difficulties of the small female inadvertently increase the potential for the worst case situation, in which her seat is fully jacked up, legs unsupported, yet she must still maintain excessively elevated arms.

Hopefully, in the coming years, mechanisms will be developed and used in seating that provides greater ranges of adjustment. If so, these problems may be short term. However, the HFS community has placed such a great emphasis on the lower end of the spectrum that the importance of the upper range of Seat heights is not well understood by industry. (Sidebar:This article was written in 1986, before the extended cylinders came out. The current research on the topic continues to support the main points of this article, however.)

It might be argued that much of the problem is really a function of work surfaces that are typically fixed at 29 inches; I could not agree more. In order to accommodate a spectrum of user sizes and seat pan angles, non-adjustable work surfaces are becoming increasingly problematic, particularly when postures are constrained such as during VDT operation.

It may also be argued that existing recommendations for popliteal heights are primarily based on the U.S. military population, and that we should consider the fact that immigrants may have popliteal heights as low as 35.5 cm (14 inches) at the fifth percentile (Webb Associates, 1978); I have no answer to this problem.

But I don’t think that the prevailing directives address the underlying problems either. My feeling is that we need to fundamentally rethink our recommendations and conduct more research that asks intelligent questions before we should feel confident in telling manufacturers how to design their seats and users how to sit.

Rani Lueder has consulted in occupational ergonomics and product design research since 1982.  Her activities in sitting and seating include co-organizing the Second International Symposium on Seating, held in Tokyo.  Her second edited book, on sitting postures (Taylor & Francis), is sold worldwide.  Since 1988, she continues to consult on sitting posture on extended retainer for a range of organizations in Japan.  She served on the seating subcommittee for the American National Standard Institute guideline ANSI HFES 100-2007. She has consulted in the design of more than 250 lines of seat design and other products that support posture.  She edited the book Ergonomics for Children;  Designing products & places for toddlers to teens (2008, Taylor & Francis)


Akerblom, B. Chairs and sitting. (1954) In: Floyd, W. F. and Welford, A.T, (Eds.) In Symposium on Human Factors in Equipment Design. Proceedings of the Ergonomics Research Society, (pp. 29-35) V. 2.

Bendix, T. (1984). Seated trunk posture at various seat inclinations, seat heights and table heights, Human Factors, 6(6), 695-703.

Burandt, U., and Grandjean, E. (1963). Sitting habits of office employees, Ergonomics, 6, 217-228.

De Groot, J. P. and Vellinga, R. (1984). Practical usage of adjustable features in terminal furniture. In Proceedings of the 1984 International Conference on Occupational Ergonomics, Toronto, 308-312.

Floyd, W. F. and Roberts, D.F, (1958). Anatomical and physiological principles in chair and table design, Ergonomics, 2 (1), 1-16.

Floyd, W.F., and Ward, J.S. (1964). Posture of school children and office workers. In: Proceedings of the 2nd International Congress on Ergonomics, Dortmund, (pp. 351-360).

Hooton, E.A. (1945). A survey in seating, 101 PS., Gardner, Mass. (Cited in Akerblom 1985, above).

Langdon, F. S. (1965) The design of card punches and the seating of operators. Ergonomics, 8, 61-68.

Mandal, A.C. (l984) What is the correct height of furniture? In Grandjean, E. (ed.) Ergonomics and health in modern offices. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis, 465-470.

Pottier, M., Dubreuil, A., and Monod, H. (1969). The effects of sitting postures on the volume of the foot. Ergonomics. 12(5), 753-758.

Sauter, S. L. and Arndt, R. (19.84). Ergonomics in the automated office; gaps in knowledge and practice. In Salvendy, G. (ed.) Human-Computer Interaction. The Netherlands: Elsevier Science Publishers, 411-414.

Shvartz, E., Gaume, J.G., White, R.T., and Reibold, R.C. (1980) Effect of the Circutone seat on hemodynamic, subjective, and thermal responses during prolonged sitting. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society’s 24th Annual. Meeting, (pp. 639-642) Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society.

Staffel, F. Zur Hygiene des Sitzens, Zbl f. allg. Gesundheitspflege, 3, 403-421. (Cited in Akerblom, 1985 above).

Stranden, E., Aaras, A., Anderson, D.M., Myhre, H.0. and Martinsen, K. (1983). The effects of working posture on muscular-skeletal load and circulatory condition. In K. Coombes (ed.), Proceedings of the Ergonomics Society’s Conference. London: Taylor & Francis.

Webb Associates (Ed.) (1978). Anthropometric Source Book Volume II: a handbook of anthropometric data. NASA Reference Publication 1024, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Scientific and Information Office.

Widmer, L.K. (1984). Per4pheral venous disorders. Prevalence and socio-medical importance. Observations in 4,529 apparently healthy persons. Basle Study III, H, Huber, Bern. (Cited in Winkel, 1981 op cit).

Winkel, J. (1981) Swelling of the lower leg in sedentary work – a pilot study. Journal of Human Ergology, 10, 189-149.

Winkel, J. and Jorgensen, K. (1986) Evaluation of foot swelling and lower-limb temperatures in relation to leg activity during long-term seated office work. Ergonomics, 29 (2) 313-328.


More ergonomics research on sitting postures & seating design

Rethinking sitting & seating    htm   pdf

Case against movement for its own sake

Chair armrests & arm support:
Review of the Ergonomics research

Ergonomics of sitting & seating  ErgoExpo

Sit/stand seat Univ. Nottingham

Sit-stand seating E.N. Corlett

Lumbar Spine in Sitting
by Prof. E. Nigel Corlett


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