Physical therapists have used them for years, but fitness experts now acknowledge they’re one of the best ways to strengthen the abs and back, and increase stability. For years, a staple of old-school fitness was tossing the ol’ medicine ball around the gym.
Today, a new method of getting on the ball is all the rage to shape the body and help improve overall quality of life: exercising with fitness balls. Also known as a Swiss ball, physioball, or exercise ball, the fitness ball has its roots in rehabilitation, and for good reason. Like the much heavier medicine ball, a fitness ball is a multipurpose exercise tool, particularly beneficial to strengthening muscles, as well as improving balance and even incorporating a cardio workout into the routine.
One of the earliest noted uses of an exercise ball was 1965 in Switzerland, where physical therapists used it in work with children challenged with cerebral palsy. Hence, the term Swiss ball was coined.
Today, fitness balls can play an important part in anyone’s exercise program. Children can use them to improve balance and to add fun to physical fitness. Seniors can use the balls to firm and tone buttocks, thighs and abdominal muscles.
And professional athletes have adopted the fitness ball as a playing partner critical to their success. Take Atlanta Falcons running back T.J. Duckett, for example. At six feet and 250 pounds, Duckett pushes himself to the limit with physioball push-ups. He uses two balls, assuming the push-up stance, hands on the outside of the top half of the ball, with a spotter assisting in stabilizing the rear ball. Doing two sets of 50 pushups, Duckett exercises his entire core, which must work to keep the balls from rolling. This exercise trains both the upper and lower body to stay aligned when hit by 275-pound giants on the NFL playing fields. Duckett’s exercise regime is an extreme example. “I almost always throw up (which) means you’re pushing your body to the limit,” he says of his program, which includes the fitness balls.
But don’t think you have to throw up to see results from working out with a ball. Quite the opposite. There’s an exercise for everyone when using balls, which deliver myriad results. Physical therapists have used them for years, but fitness experts now acknowledge they’re one of the best ways to strengthen the abs and back, and increase stability.
Calgary’s Lisa “Longball” Vlooswyk, golf’s reigning and five-time Canadian long drive champion, is a proponent of the fitness ball, calling it a “stability ball,” and for good reason. ” (It) has quickly become an indispensable fitness tool for those looking to improve their balance and core strength,” she says. “The popularity stems from the fact they are affordable, safe, need minimal equipment, target several muscle groups at once, and there seems to be limitless possibilities to the number of exercises.”
Michigan-based golf fitness expert Ingrid Saffert, who coaches pro golfers in Canada and the U.S., is a big proponent of the Swiss ball. She holds a Master’s degree in exercise science, and has certifications in both STOTT Pilates and personal training. Saffert further completed the Golf Biomechanic certification and Level 1 of Corrective High Performance Exercise Kinesiology at the world-renowned CHEK Institute in California. She says Swiss balls can benefit everyone, whether “an elite athlete or just someone who wants to maintain an efficient body and stay out of the doctor’s office.”
Saffert explains: “It is vitally important for all the muscles to communicate effectively with the brain. As one muscle group is working, other muscles are counterbalancing.” The Swiss ball helps provide stability in this area, she says. “I like to compare it to having a solid basement. Who would build a building on a shaky basement? And the taller the building, the more solid the basement must be. Same with your body.”
Indeed, a fitness ball offers enhanced balance and co-ordination of core muscle groups used to stabilize the spine and control proper posture, while promoting increased tendency to maintain a neutral spine position during exercise. Saffert calls CHEK founder Paul Chek “the Swiss ball guru.” A prominent expert in the field of holistic health and corrective and high-performance exercise, Chek promotes use of the ball as a staple of healthy body and mind. CHEK — the Corrective Holistic Exercise Kinesiology Institute — educates about Swiss balls via its website, chekinstitute.com. “Exercising on a Swiss ball is achievable for a lot of people,” writes Nigel Brooke for CHEK. “Ball exercises are very easy to graduate, i.e. you can make them very easy or very difficult, with a wide range in between. They will increase your flexibility but do not demand it at the outset. Because a ball is naturally unstable, it encourages use of the core stabilizer musculature, which is underused and/or weak in most patients we see. It encourages awareness, a getting-to-know-your-body again feeling and, last but not least, it is fun.”
Choosing an exercise ball requires you to sit on the ball, making sure your knees are bent at about 90 degrees. Common fitness balls are sized from 55 cm to 75 cm. They’re inexpensive (prices vary) and available everywhere from department stores to online retailers, and through local gyms. Ask your fitness trainer for advice on purchasing an exercise ball that’s right for you. And remember: it’s important to ensure you are in good physical health before engaging in any form of exercise. Consult your doctor if you have any health-related questions. When you’re ready, get on the ball — and have fun!
Jeffrey Reed is a London, Ont. based freelance writer.