Sunday, February 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, February 4, 2001

Popular fitness balls give added bounce to simple exercises

By Angela Wagner
Special to The Advertiser

Balls aren’t just for kids anymore, you know.

Have you been to the gym lately and seen those huge balls with folks rolling around on them? Yes, they are exercising. The balls are "stability balls" or "fitness balls" or, simply, "the ball," and, believe it or not, they provide for a great workout.

You might think fitness balls are new, but actually they have been used since the early 1900s. They became popular with European physical therapists in the early 1960s and later were adopted as a therapeutic tool in the United States.

Recently, however, the balls have gained in popularity as a fitness tool for healthy individuals seeking "core body strength" or, in layman’s terms, stronger backs and stomachs.

The real benefit from using the ball comes from its inherent instability. Simple exercises become more difficult with the ball because you must use core body musculature - your stomach muscles for instance - to maintain stability. Therefore, you end up working more muscles and different muscles when you perform an exercise on the ball. You are working harder simply to maintain your balance.

However, given the instability of the ball, it is important to avoid injury by doing all exercises using proper form and technique.

It is recommended that you try an organized class or seek instruction from someone familiar with appropriate technique before using the ball for exercises at home.

The down side of using the ball at home is that it is a difficult piece of equipment to hide away, and you’ll have to get used to it being a part of the living room decor. Of course, you can always utilize the ball as a chair, which actually forces you to sit with correct posture. You’ll also find out right away if your floor is level (most floors are not) and, if nothing else, you’ll get a good workout keeping the ball away from your dogs.

"Fitness balls are great for seniors and kids also," reports Arlene Schmid, an occupational therapist with a local company called Range of Motion. "Kids think the balls are toys, and they do not even know they are exercising. Seniors seem to enjoy using them also, and they are good tools for developing the muscles that assist with good posture and balance. Obviously this is important and valuable for our elderly population, who are prone to falls."

Kids, you will find, are naturally drawn to the ball, which makes it an ideal exercise tool for parents and children to do together. But remember, ample space is needed, and the sharp edged coffee table should not be close by when you are exercising, especially when you are just learning balance.

Schmid also emphasized that selecting the correct ball size is important. When purchasing a ball, you should review the height chart on the back of the package. As a rough guideline, you should be able to sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor and your knees in a 90-degree angle. If your knees are in less than a 90-degree angle, the ball is too small; if your knees are in an angle greater than 90 degrees, your ball is too large. Working with a ball that is an inappropriate size can lead to injury.

Inflating the ball with a manual pump is exercise in itself, and those of you who thought you would deflate the ball and store it in the closet after each use quickly will be brought back to reality after one inflation. If you are a beginner, you can leave the ball slightly under-inflated, which gives you better balance, or fill the ball entirely until it is very firm to give yourself a challenging workout.

Additional information is available on the Web if you search under the term "fitness ball."

A book entitled "The Great Body Ball Handbook" can be purchased from Power Systems for $8.95 by calling 1-800-321-6975. Many other books and resources are available through fitness stores and Web sites. However, avoid books that are available only by purchasing expensive equipment or subscribing to newsletters. You may end up spending more money or getting more mail than you wanted.

As for your exercise, do what the baseball sporting announcer says: "Let’s play ball!"

Angela Wagner is a free-lance writer who also works for The Queen’s Medical Center as a health educator specializing in diabetes and exercise, and for the state Department of Health as a program manager in the Health Promotion and Education Branch.

Hawaii experts in traditional medicine, naturopathic medicine, diet and exercise take turns writing the Prescriptions column. Send your questions to: Prescriptions, Ohana Section, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail; fax 535-8170. This column is not intended to provide medical advice; you should consult your doctor.

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