By Lisa Yates The Swiss Ball or Fit Ball was first used in the 1960’s by physiotherapists in Switzerland as a rehabilitation tool –hence the commonly used name Swiss ball. Since its humble beginnings it has earned its place as a mainstay piece of equipment used in gymnasiums, rehabilitation units and households worldwide. Unlike many fad fitness devices, which end up under the bed gathering dust, the Swiss ball is here to stay. Posing challenges to both the beginner and elite athlete, the Swiss ball is a versatile, value for money exercise tool. As an exercise tool it can be used to:
- enhance posture, balance and coordination;
- improve muscle tone and endurance, core muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness;
- assist in stretching and relaxation.
As a seating tool:
- the ball encourages lovely spinal alignment,
- it can enhance spinal strength by encouraging activation of the central “core” muscles, and
- pregnant women often report sitting on a ball to be more comfortable than a chair, as the ball encourages regular movement and allows for easy postural adjustment.
As a birthing tool (a Swiss ball makes a wonderful addition to any birthing kit):
- With a smooth and supportive surface, it can be more comfortable to sit on, rock on, lean on and labour on!
- The regular gentle movement of the ball encourages mobility, further facilitating active birth.
So what qualities make the Swiss ball so versatile?
- As it is essentially a very large ball, it is inherently unstable. So whilst sitting on it, you have to actively engage your core muscles to maintain good spinal alignment. If you slouch you will roll off the ball! The mere action of sitting on the ball facilitates correct spinal alignment and improved posture.
- Due to this “instability” your muscles work in a much more functional manner, allowing more than one muscle to work at a time. It also encourages increased awareness of movement patterns and balance mechanisms. This provides a more transferable and complete workout.
- It is a safe, alternative low-impact way to exercise: great for pregnancy, post-natally and for those requiring less impact on their lower-limbs.
- It is great fun and can add some interest to an otherwise straightforward workout.
- The ball is easily transportable so you can take it on holiday if you wish!
So what size/type of ball should I get? The quality of your ball is something you should consider as this does vary considerably. Always look for an anti-burst ball (this means that if it is punctured it won’t “pop”, but will deflate more slowly, lessening the chances of injury). Most balls are now designed to take up to 300kg weight and come in a variety of sizes. The size of the ball required, again, varies depending on the intended use, your height and weight and also with slight size variations between different brands. Generally, when sitting on the centre of your ball your thighs should be parallel to the floor or with your hips slightly higher that your knees. Most people of average height (5’3 to 5’8) using the ball for exercise will find that a 55-65 cm ball is adequate, but ideally you need to sit on the ball to ensure the best size. Safety with balls Always follow the manufacturers’ guidelines for inflation, and don’t store your ball near a heater. In addition ensure you have a non-slip surface and plenty of space in which to exercise. If possible have a professional such as a physiotherapist teach you the most suitable exercises. If this is not possible then try following a DVD/book especially designed for Swiss ball use – Ensuring you start with the basics first and then build from there. Professional recommendation: As a physiotherapist, I cannot recommend the Swiss ball highly enough. It is the primary piece of equipment I use with my patients and find the ball is so versatile that almost anyone will find it fits in well with their specific exercise goals and budget! If you are interested in receiving information about a soon to be released postnatal education and exercise DVD, filmed in NZ, covering the ball basics that can be safely commenced as early as 6 weeks post birth and can be continued indefinitely, please email us here at H2 Oh Baby! and we will let you know as soon as it is available. Lisa Yates is a physiotherapist interested in personalised women’s fitness, and is based in New Plymouth. She can be contacted at www.filifit.com.