I do a lot of sitting.
Like, a lot. I sit in my home office for eight to nine hours every day doing TR-related work. Once I’m done, I go on sitting there doing other things—working on personal projects, playing Trackmania, wasting my time on Reddit, and so forth.
I take breaks, of course. Every now and then, I’ll walk to the kitchen, open the fridge door, decide that I’m not hungry, and walk back to my desk. If it’s not raining, I’ll go outside for a walk. Even if it is raining, I may venture out into the city to run errands.
But, yeah, I mostly sit. That’s why, nearly six years ago, I paid an almost outrageous sum of money for a fancy ergonomic chair.
The Herman Miller Mirra served me well. It encouraged me to sit properly, and even when I slouched, it was far more comfortable and supportive than the cheap office chairs I’d sat in before. I could get the lumbar support and seat depth just so, and I could make the chair lean forward when I needed. And, heck, the thing looked plain cool, like something out of Star Trek. I was delighted.
Well, at least at first. A couple of years ago, I started noticing some tingling in my right pinky and ring fingers. I blamed my mouse initially, and when changing mice didn’t help, I fiddled with the armrests and tried to use my left hand to mouse for a while. Some of those things helped. I got better, then worse, then better, then worse again. Finally, last winter, I got some x-rays done and went to see a physiotherapist. I was told that my upper back and neck were the problem. In short, it was a posture issue. I started going to the gym, doing stretches, and watching my posture more closely.
But it wasn’t just me showing signs of wear. Over the years, the curve of the Mirra’s back had flattened somewhat, and the lumbar support had lost much of its rigidity. The other day, I tried sitting in my girlfriend’s cheap Ikea chair for a few days. And guess what? The tingling in my fingers got better.
In the end, I decided to call my local Herman Miller distributor and get the Mirra serviced—then to sell it and buy another, better chair.
I settled on the Steelcase Leap. The Leap is a favorite among many, and some, like the folks at TheWireCutter, recommend it over the venerable Aeron as well as Herman Miller’s new flagship, the Embody. The Wall Street Journal called the original version of the Leap “Best Overall” in 2005. I ordered the V2 model, which has softer arm rests, a taller back, and other design tweaks. It set me back $755 before tax, which is a lot, but not that much for something in which I spend most of my waking hours.
On October 4, the Leap showed up at my door. Here’s what I typed in our staff IRC channel immediately after sitting in it and making the requisite adjustments:
wow, this steelcase chair… instant relief
The Leap looks pretty unimpressive next to its Herman Miller counterparts. It has padded cushions instead of fancy mesh materials, and there’s a lot of plastic covering things up. Steelcase has put an adjustment guide under each arm rest, too, and it has labeled the adjustment knobs with both printed text and Braille. Looking at this thing, you get the sense the Leap was designed to populate boring offices filled with normal people—not European design studios rife with iMacs and glass-top desks. If Herman Miller can be accused of favoring form over function, Steelcase is the polar opposite.
Yet, as boring as it looks, the Leap is just as adjustable as the Mirra—and, more importantly for my needs, its back has a much more pronounced curve with some much-needed padding. Adjusted properly, the Leap almost punishes me for not sitting up straight. Even brand new, the Mirra only ever encouraged good posture, and it never insisted too terribly much.
The Leap made my back better instantly, but it took me over a week to get really used to the thing. See, the Mirra has a flexible mesh seat, kind of like a hammock, that molds itself to the shape of your butt. The sides and front of the chair are rock-hard, but the part where your butt hangs is very soft. The Leap is the other way around. The front edge never cuts off circulation to your legs, and the sides are soft, but the part where your butt goes is quite firm. There’s a couple inches of padding and a hard surface underneath, and that’s it.
This is a deliberate design choice on Steelcase’s part. Here’s what the company says about it:
Does a thicker seat cushion mean a chair is more comfortable?
Not necessarily, some chairs have thicker foam that may feel softer initially, but will lead to user discomfort after an hour or two of sustained sitting since thicker foam typically provides little ergonomic support. This is not good for the life of the chair or the long-term comfort of the user. In essence, foam that feels great initially does not always translate into long-term seated comfort.
Steelcase also badmouths mesh seat designs like the Mirra’s. It claims they restrict user movement and cause discomfort when your body touches the hard frame supporting the mesh. “Moreover,” it adds, “the side forces that are felt when you push down on mesh will have a tendency to ‘squeeze’ you into the chair, resulting in uneven pressure distribution.”
I don’t know about that; the Mirra’s seat was pretty comfortable. The Leap, on the other hand, is literally a pain in the butt unless it’s adjusted just so. Seriously, it’s very unforgiving.
However, now that I’ve found the correct seat depth, lumbar height, and back tension to accommodate my flabby body, the butt soreness has given way to a feeling of firm support. The firmness keeps me alert and aware of my posture—and every now and then, it encourages me to change position or to get up and walk around, which is what you’re supposed to do. The back isn’t cold and hard like the Mirra’s, but it’s just as punishing as the seat if you slouch. When I get up at the end of the day, my back is still curved, and the whole middle third of my body is a little sore—but in a good way, like after a visit to the gym.
More to the point, the Leap helps to keep my ulnar nerve from getting pinched. Even after a long day of typing, benchmarking, and Excel jockeying, I feel little to no tingling in my fingers. And now, sitting in other chairs—even the Mirra—brings back the symptoms in a hurry.
So, yeah. Good job, Steelcase. You made me super uncomfortable for a week or so, but it was worth it.