Seven Benefits of Exercising on the Ball

  1. Increases flexibility, perhaps to a greater degree than performing similar stretches on a stable surface. The Ball allows you to find subtle nuances in every stretch, because by rolling it back and forth, you may stretch different fibers of the same muscle. In addition, many exercises combine both stretching and strengthening of the same muscle, which has been proven to be more effective than plain static stretching.
  1. Increases muscle strength. This includes muscle tone and definition as well as endurance. Your body weight will provide the resistance in most exercises as you work against gravity, although there are a few exercises where the Ball itself supplies the resistance.
  1. Improves balance and coordination on a neuromuscular level. The Ball is a unique exercise tool in that it is not a stable surface. To perform any strengthening or stretching exercise, you must not only use the muscles required to execute the movement, but another set of stabilizing muscles in your torso just to maintain balance. Because balancing on the Ball is a reflex response, it can help you to bypass habitual patterns that interfere with normal functioning. For example, if your body tends to lean to the right, merely sitting on the Ball will require your body to make adjustments to the left. This automatically strengthens the specific muscles necessary to correct the imbalance.
  1. Improves posture through strengthening the stabilizing muscles in your torso. As your core muscles become stronger, they will be better able to support your spine in an upright position. This may help to prevent or relieve back pain, because as your spine becomes more elongated, the stress is taken off both your back muscles and the intervertebral discs.
  1. Helps develop body awareness. As the exercises become more familiar, your focus will shift from an external intellectual process to an internal kinesthetic awareness. Your muscle memory will improve, and you will develop an intuitive sense of alignment and form. You will feel your body moving as a complete, interconnected mechanism.
  1. Evokes playfulness and allows you to connect with your inner child. The Ball has the unusual advantage of being fun as well as challenging, which stimulates laughter and creativity and will give you a greater sense of well-being.
  1. Provides limited cardiovascular conditioning. The Bouncing exercises may provide some degree of aerobic activity, but only if performed for an extended period of time (a minimum of 20 minutes is usually necessary to reach aerobic capacity). Depending on your current level of fitness, your heart rate may not reach your target heart rate zone* during this activity alone. Therefore, in most cases, Bouncing should be used as a warm-up and not as a substitute for cardiovascular activity. It is recommended that, in addition to the exercises in Balance on the Ball, you do some form of aerobic exercise such as walking, biking or jogging, for 20-60 minutes three times a week.

* To find your target heart rate zone, subtract your age from the number 220. Then, multiply that number by both 60% and 90% to find the range of beats per minute that you should stay within during any aerobic activity.

Choosing the Right Size Ball

When sitting on the Ball, your knees should be at a 90º angle or just slightly lower than the level of your hips. Following are some general guidelines based on your height; however, you may wish to choose a different size Ball depending on the proportion of your legs to your torso (i.e. longer legs may necessitate a larger Ball). If in doubt, choose a larger size Ball so that you may under-inflate it.

 

 

5’ to 5’6”                     55 cm

5’7” to 6’2”                 65 cm

over 6’2”                     75 cm

Note:  You may find it desirable to under-inflate your Ball in the beginning when it is the most firm. Over time your Ball will likely gain elasticity and become softer. When this happens, you may need to add more air to reach the preferred height while seated.

Core Strength on the Ball

Core strength is vital to everything we do, from sitting at the computer to carrying a load of heavy groceries, from playing competitive sports to playing with our kids. It helps improve our posture, protects the spine from injury, and gives us a strong center from which to move.

Our core muscles are the numerous stabilizing muscles that connect the bones of the rib cage, spine, and pelvis: primarily the abdominal and back muscles, and to some degree the iliopsoas and gluteals. These muscle groups work in opposing pairs. For example, the abdominals flex the spine, while the back muscles perform extension. Similarly, the various muscles of the iliopsoas and gluteal groups work in opposition to control the movement of the pelvis, which consequently affects the curvature of the spine.

While methods such as Pilates can be an excellent way of strengthening the core, exercising on an unstable surface has proven yet even more effective. The stability ball is arguably the most versatile of props, with exercises performed in multiple positions and working every part of the body. Its benefit lies in the fact that our core muscles are crucial to maintaining balance—and even more significantly, that these muscles will automatically be called into play anytime we are balancing on the ball.

This phenomenon is accomplished through what is often dubbed the “sixth sense.” Better known as the kinesthetic sense, or proprioception—our perception of the body’s position and movement—this sensory system is directly involved in our reflexes and muscle memory. Sensory organs of the visual and vestibular (inner ear) systems, as well as pressure and joint receptors throughout the entire body, provide information to the cerebellum (hind brain). The brain then instantly processes this information and sends a message to the muscles to respond—a sort of reflex response.

For example, merely sitting on the ball forces the core muscles to remain in a constant state of contraction—a state of equilibrium but also of constant flux. As we are balancing, our weight is continuously shifting. When there is a slight imbalance in our body, such as leaning to one side, the body will attempt to correct the imbalance by making subtle adjustments in the opposite direction. The weaker muscles are thereby strengthened, and our posture will gradually improve. An ideal state of balance is achieved when the body has found perfect alignment.

Clearly, the goal is to avoid falling off the ball; therefore, through frequent practice, our body instinctively learns which muscles to activate. By stabilizing ourselves on an unstable surface, new neural pathways are formed and ingrained into our muscle memory so deeply that the core muscles respond involuntarily to any shift in balance.

It is precisely because these reflex responses bypass the conscious brain that I believe the stability ball transcends many other methods of training. Whereas a technique like Pilates demands deep awareness and concentration in order to activate the proper core muscles, the primary focus on the ball is simply to perform the movement without falling off. It is unnecessary to visualize the specific muscles we intend to use, since the feedback is immediate and automatic: if we fail to work the right muscles, we will lose our balance. Bringing a sense of mindfulness to our workouts can certainly enhance the benefits; nevertheless, the advantage, ultimately, is that stability ball training requires relatively little mental effort, increasing our core strength quickly and effectively—and perhaps providing a bit of fun along the way as well.