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Is Your Workout on the Ball?

Do you like fitness balls as part of an exercise routine? What do they do, exactly?

Answer (Published 9/23/2004)

I referred your question to fitness expert, Dan Bornstein, who is enthusiastic about fitness balls, those large round vinyl balls you see in gyms. They're sometimes called Swiss balls (because they were developed in Switzerland), or physio balls (because they first were used in physical therapy clinics). Now that they've joined the fitness mainstream, you may also hear them referred to as fitness or exercise balls as well as "spine" balls or "thera" balls. Whatever you call them, Dan thinks that they are the single most versatile piece of fitness equipment you can own.

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Fitness balls add a component of balance to your workout that you don't get from strength training machines. The balls force you to utilize and work muscles that you don't ordinarily use in order to maintain your stability while exercising. Dan says that this is a metabolic "plus" because the more muscles you involve in your workout, the more calories you burn. He notes that the balls work from a functional standpoint too: "When we use strength in real life, we're not doing it with the support of a chair, bench or machine," he says. "We call on stabilizing muscles (in the pelvis, back and abdomen) to help us with lifting heavy bags (or performing other chores)." The fitness balls create an opportunity for more functional training. If you do abdominal crunches while sitting on a ball, you'll find that you're more aware of your back and abdominal muscles than you are when you do crunches lying on the floor

Before you try to exercise with a ball, get a lesson in its correct use from a certified trainer, exercise physiologist or physical therapist. A few basic rules to keep in mind:

  • Always use the ball on a soft floor.
  • Avoid exercise balls if you have any medical condition that can cause dizziness or light-headedness and might result in losing your balance while working with a ball.
  • Make sure that the ball you're using is appropriate for your size (a trainer can help you with this) and is properly inflated.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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