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You can roll with it or grasp it with your hands as you focus your mind on it.
The small, inflatable exercise ball is a humble and inexpensive gadget that can be used for many purposes, say small-ball proponents. It can knead hard knots in your back, target tight muscles to coax them into flexibility, or add a twist to some tai chi or yoga movements.
Ranging from 6-10 inches in diameter, this ball is like the Mini-Me of the popular inflatable balls used for core training. Although the small ball has been around for several years, it has been gaining more attention recently with the release of new books and availability of ball-based classes.
In many cases, you use the ball like a therapy or massage device by rolling on top of it so that it presses and rubs against rigid or sore areas. Proponents such as Elaine Petrone, a former ballet dancer turned ball therapist in Stamford, Conn., say the ball can be used by people with conditions such as chronic back pain, arthritis and fibromyalgia. Petrone describes her techniques extensively in her book, "Miracle Ball Method" (Workman).
You also can use the ball to improve flexibility, relax and lengthen muscles, according to Yamuna Zake, a yoga teacher. "Every part of your body needs proper space to function at its best," Zake wrote in her book, "The Ultimate Body Rolling Workout," (Broadway). Pain or discomfort, she added, is the result of compression or lack of space.
Monica Linford calls her East/West technique the "Chi Ball Method." Her book, "Awaken your body, Balance your mind," (Thorsons) is one of the older ones on the subject. The Adelaide, Australia-based fitness instructor suggests holding the ball in yoga asanas such as the tree pose and during tai chi movements such as "push the wind."
The premise of these techniques sounds promising enough. What's lacking is the body of research to back it up. Ball advocates offer the occasional testimonial from doctors and anecdotes of people living with pain who have been able to reduce their suffering or from athletes who have boosted their flexibility.
Let's hope that exercise researchers at U.S. universities seize the opportunity to do studies on safety and effectiveness.
I once tried one of the ball exercises to work on tight hamstrings, to see how it felt. Following Zake's instructions on her workout video, I placed a 10-inch beginner's ball under my pelvis with my legs straight in front of me and fingers on the floor for support. Once I felt comfortable, I bent my right knee and rolled a few inches so the ball was under my left thigh. Then I sank into the ball. Immediately, I could feel tension, with the ball pressing against my hamstrings, the big muscles on the back of the thighs. I repeated the movements, reversing the leg positions. The flexibility of those muscles obviously won't radically change in one session, but trying the exercise gave me insight into how the muscles respond to the pressure of the ball.
If you're dealing with chronic pain or have a medical condition, it's best to get clearance from your doctor before beginning any small-ball exercises. Go to ball Web sites; print some explanatory information for your physician to see. Check with your physical or occupational therapist, too, if you have one.
And if you're trying the exercises, make sure to inflate the ball to a firmness that's comfortable for you. If it feels too hard against your body, chances are that you need to let some air out.
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(Lisa Liddane is a health and fitness writer for The Orange County Register and an American Council on Exercise-certified group fitness instructor. Write to her at the Register, P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, Calif. 92711 or send e-mail to email@example.com.)
(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.