Why I Still Use (and Love!) My Balance Ball
Photo from CC0 Public Domain
I still use my decades-old balance ball a couple of times a week.
Honestly, I forget when I bought it although I’m guessing I purchased it to go along with a fitness DVD that I never really caught on and has long been recycled. But the balance ball has stuck around and proven itself not only useful but also still the foundation for a number of great workouts.
I like it so much I am thinking about buying a balance ball chair to use at my desk but I’m wondering if I will miss having chair arms to rest on or the ability to sit in other positions rather than just straight up with my feet on the floor.
Roots of the balance ball
Originally known as a Swiss ball, the balance ball was the creation of an Italian plastics maker named Aquilino Cosani. He called his version a “Pezzi ball” and he made it specifically to be used for gymnastics.
Created in 1961, within 10 years the Pezzi ball’s use had expanded from gymnasiums to rehab settings in which physical therapists were employing it for a wide range of physical issues from cerebral palsy to spinal injuries to stroke rehabilitation.
A Swiss physical therapist, Dr. Susan Klein-Vogelbach, popularized the Pezzi ball’s use for posture and back rehabilitation and a group of visiting American physical therapists adopted her ball methods in their practices back home, renaming it the Swiss ball in memory of their trip.
Follow the bouncing ball
It wasn’t such a stretch for the Swiss ball to eventually make its way into the fitness industry in the early 1990s, coinciding with a greater focus on the importance of core strength and stability.
In addition to workout programs that are based entirely on the use of a balance ball, a number of other popular fitness regimens utilize the ball as well. Programs like Pilates, yoga, Barre, Weight Watchers, The Firm, and Beachbody all have incorporated the use of a balance ball in some of their programs.
Balance balls—also known as stability or physio balls—are touted for use by those exercising with back pain, Parkinson’s disease and recovering from breast cancer, among other issues. Additionally, exercise programs using balance balls are popular for the elderly and women who are pregnant.
Photo from CC0 Public Domain
How does a balance ball work?
Sitting or lying on a balance ball while doing any type of exercise ramps up your workout at least a bit.
Because you need to stabilize the ball so you don’t roll off, using it requires you to engage the core as well as the leg and arm muscles depending on what type of move you are doing.
For instance, I use my balance ball during strength workouts instead of a bench. When I lay on the ball to do something like chest flys, I have to engage my core to keep my shoulders, neck, and head in line with the rest of my body and I have to engage both my upper and lower leg muscles to stabilize the ball and keep it from rolling.
The same holds true if I am sitting upright on the ball to do something like shoulder presses. Again, I have to engage the core and leg muscles to maintain proper form and to stabilize the ball.
Photo from CC0 Public Domain
How much of a difference do balance balls make?
In the study, “Replacing a Swiss ball for an exercise bench causes variable changes in trunk muscle activity during upper limb strength exercises,” which was published in the June 2005 issue of Dynamic Medicine, researchers concluded that it made no appreciable difference in trunk muscle activity during arm strengthening exercises when you rested on a balance ball instead of an exercise bench.
Researchers writing in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine noted that any benefit of instability training depends on the unstable surface used, the type of exercise being done, the amount of weight lifted and the athlete’s training background, among other factors. The study is titled “Instability resistance training for health and performance,” and was published in April 2017.
But, the researchers did conclude that although there were few significant benefits to training on unstable surfaces for highly conditioned athletes, they did find benefits for those recovering from lower-limb injuries. They do encourage instability training for those athletes who are recovering from injury and intend to return to competition.
Others have a more positive view of instability training. Authors of “The use of instability to train the core musculature” believe that training programs should include a degree of instability training to prepare athletes for a wide variety “postures and external forces.” The study was published in the February 2010 issue of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.
I do feel like I engage my core to a greater degree when I’m using a balance ball versus a bench so maybe it is more about the degree to which an athlete responds to the unstable surface versus the unstable surface itself.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Now, about that balance ball chair…
In two scientific studies, the subjects sat on the balance balls for a relatively short period of time. I think it is safe to say that although most people get up from their desks at least periodically, we sit at our desks for more than 30 minutes to an hour at a time.
In both studies, subjects reported discomfort after sitting on stability balls for these relatively short periods of time. I’m guessing that even longer periods of sitting on the stability ball would mean even more discomfort.
During the study titled “Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting,” 14 participants sat on both a stability ball and an office chair for an hour each while performing office-type tasks at a desk. While they were sitting, lumbar spine posture and the activation level of eight muscles were measured.
Although there were small changes in muscle activation, the amount of discomfort reported while sitting on the stability ball led researchers to draw the conclusion that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of sitting on a stability ball for long periods of time. The study was published in the spring 2006 issue of the journal Human Factors.
A similar study also from 2006 and published in the journal Clinical Biomechanics, came to pretty much the same conclusion.
The study, “Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: various perspectives to guide decision making,” featured 8 participants sitting on a stability ball and a wooden stool each for only 30 minutes. Researchers measured the activation levels of 14 muscles and found no differences between the ball and the stool. They also noted that the seat contact area was greatest on the stability ball, which they surmised may cause soft tissue compression and might explain the discomfort experienced by the study participants.
That settles it. I’ll be on the ball…but only in the gym.
- A Brief History of the Swiss Ball, website ,
- Replacing a Swiss ball for an exercise bench causes variable changes in trunk muscle activity during upper limb strength exercises., online journal ,
- Instability resistance training for health and performance, online journal ,
- The use of instability to train the core musculature., online journal ,
- Stability ball versus office chair: comparison of muscle activation and lumbar spine posture during prolonged sitting, online journal ,
- Sitting on a chair or an exercise ball: various perspectives to guide decision making, online journale ,