When Italian toymaker Aquilino Cosani developed a process for making colorful, air-filled balls for children in the early 1960s, he probably had no idea that these balls would provide so many benefits to so many people of all ages and conditions just decades later.
It wasn’t long before the balls were attracting the attention of physical therapists who were working to rehabilitate children with cerebral palsy, and also to encourage neurological development in physically handicapped youngsters.
The Swiss connection
The Swiss Ball, so called because its successful use in helping to restore physical function in children and adults was first observed in Switzerland, has now moved from the exclusive province of physical therapy into the realm of fitness in general. In fact, it has become part of standard equipment in most gyms, and you can also find it in many workplaces. It is appearing, as well, in an increasing number of homes and even in some maternity wards.
Swiss Ball aliases
Regardless of what it is called, the Swiss Ball has become a popular and respected exercise tool. Among its many names are exercise ball, stability ball, gym ball, resistance ball, Body Ball, Physio Ball, balance ball, Fitball, Flex Ball and fitness ball. It will, from now on, be referred to simply as the “ball.”
How it works
The effectiveness of the ball lies, surprisingly, in its instability. It challenges your muscles to be immediately ready to keep both you and the ball stable. To do so, more muscles have to be activated that would be the case if you were not working with the ball. But the process is subtle, and you may not even be aware of it as you exercise.
The first outstanding benefit derived from using the ball as an exercise partner is improved posture. Posture is the position of your body in space when you sit, stand, walk, kneel down or lie down. Because it determines how much stress is placed on body parts, such as bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and spinal discs, it greatly affects your health and wellbeing.
Good posture helps to keep stress to a minimum and distributes it among various body structures according to their ability to bear it. Faulty posture is, in fact, implicated in almost every painful health condition, including those that arise from overuse or injury.
Working with the ball is particularly beneficial to the postural muscles, which are chiefly those of the back, legs, and abdomen. As they become stronger and more efficient, you will notice an improvement in your posture and carriage and a lessening of the fatigue you experience during the day. You may also be less troubled by minor aches. And because you have to be constantly vigilant as you exercise with or otherwise use the ball so as to keep your balance, you become more focused. Your concentration and coordination improve, and this reduces the risk of inadvertent injury. The rapt attention you have to pay to what you’re doing also has a calming effect on the nervous system.
The ball has been found to be an almost indispensable tool in retraining pelvic floor muscles in cases of urinary incontinence (“leakage”). This condition affects millions of adults in the USA alone. In contrast with the Kegel exercises generally used for this purpose, pelvic exercises done with the ball utilize not only the muscles of the pelvic floor but also the diaphragm (the chief breathing muscle) and the back and abdominal muscles. They all work together to complement and enhance each other. In fact, just sitting on the ball for short periods each day, instead of a chair, will engage the muscles mentioned. And with regular practice, the benefits will be cumulative.
Another benefit of note is the preventing or easing of the symptoms of overuse syndromes (repetitive strain injury), such as those affecting the wrists, hands, and shoulders. People who spend hours every day at a computer keyboard, health-care workers who do a great deal of lifting and instrumental musicians who sometimes play up to thirty hours a week are among those most at risk of developing these conditions and experiencing the pain associated with them. Exercise using the ball is often effective in alleviating bothersome symptoms by improving bodily posture, flexibility and strength, and also concentration and heightened awareness, which is invaluable in helping to prevent potentially injurious movements.
When you’re ready to relax at the end of a hectic day that has left you feeling exhausted, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to sit on a chair or sofa and elevate your legs on a ball. It doesn’t have the rigidity of a conventional footstool and it brings relief more quickly, not only to the feet and legs but to the back also.
No form of exercise, however, will bring sustained results unless it is enjoyable enough to be practiced regularly. And this is where the ball has the advantage over several other exercise aids and why it has become so popular. It brings the essential element of fun to any exercise routine.
The ball is a handy traveling companion. Unlike many other types of exercise equipment, some of which are cumbersome, the ball is easy to carry. You simply deflate and pack it. When you’re ready to use it, you re-inflate it (some balls are sold along with a small, lightweight pump). In this way, there’s no need to disrupt your exercise schedule even when you’re on holiday. What’s more, you can use it even where space is limited.
The right ball
The ball you buy should be just right for your height. For example, if you’re 5 feet to 5 feet 7 inches tall, you should be using a ball measuring about 21½ inches (55 centimeters) in circumference. If you’re 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet 2 inches, the ball size increases to 25 inches (65 centimeters) around. These specifications will vary if, for example, you have longer than usual legs or carry extra weight. But generally, when you sit on a ball, your hips and knees should be bent at a right angle. The instructions sold with the ball usually guide you as to size, and salespersons are helpful as a rule.
No matter how busy you are, there’s no need to plead lack of time for regular exercise. Regular activity is an essential part of optimal health, your most precious possession. With a ball, you can exercise while you’re watching television, waiting for the stove timer to ring or during short breaks between chores. Even sitting on the ball periodically as you do your computer work will contribute to your staying fit. So what are you waiting for? Get on the ball!