Marietta Mehanni

That big ball of air – The Swiss Ball

You see some interesting trends and fads come and go when you’ve been a group fitness instructor for over 33 years. I remember seeing the step in 1991 and thinking, ‘What’s this rubbish? You cannot make this interesting enough for a whole class.’ But here I am in 2022, still teaching step classes and loving it.

Enter The Swiss Ball

I had similar misgivings when the Swiss Ball came into clubs in the late 1990s. How much can you do with an inflatable ball unless you’re bobbing about in a sunny pool on holiday? Again, I was proven wrong.

It happened again a few years ago when I heard about group fitness instructors delivering virtual classes. ‘Who’d want to exercise like that?’ I thought…, and here I am, providing daily workouts via Zoom.

At least I learnt a helpful lesson from these episodes. Nowadays, I try to keep my mind much more open.

But back to the Swiss Ball. What exactly is it about this big bouncy ball of air that dashed my scepticism and has kept me interested in coming up with new exercises and delivering fresh workouts for the past decades or so?

It could be the simplicity. I love a simple tool. Something that no one thinks you can do very much with, but which then proves them wrong (just as I was). This big ball of air is one of the most versatile pieces of fitness equipment out there. Deceptively effective, it can improve strength, endurance, balance, proprioception and coordination – sometimes simultaneously!

So how did the Swiss Ball come about?

Time for a quick history lesson. Physiotherapists first used it in 1960s Switzerland (hence its name) to treat orthopaedic and neurological disorders. In particular, it was beneficial to children with cerebral palsy as it helped them develop balance skills and maintain reflex responses.

Dr Klein Vogelbach was the first therapist to use the ball in clinical applications and on adult orthopaedic patients through the 1970s and 1980s. It was also employed extensively around this time in treating spinal injuries. Physiotherapists have found that the ball’s size and mobility call on deeper layers of muscles needed for overall joint stability, balance and posture. This encourages those using it to improve their body and movement awareness.

Gradually the ball moved out of the exclusive realm of therapy circles and into sports medicine and fitness clubs. I first encountered it in 1997 when I was asked if I would be part of a demonstration for a national fitness event with the amazing Lisa Westlake. I was so flattered, of course, I said yes. Shortly afterwards, I started educating myself about how to use the ball for various fitness purposes.

Cardiovascular training

One of my favourite ways to use the ball is for cardiovascular training. Just something about rolling and bouncing on it feels so good. How could anyone not like exercise that you can do sitting down?! In addition to improving balance and coordination and increasing the heart rate, the fact that it’s a seated workout means that it has a low impact on the joints.

You can choose the level you want to work at regarding strength training on the ball.

Reducing the points of contact with a surface (the floor, wall or the ball), or bringing the points of contact closer together, will increase the intensity of the exercise. Shifting where the centre of gravity is in relation to the ball’s location will change the length of the moving lever, which also impacts the exercise intensity.

So, without adding an external load like dumbbells or medicine balls, the body can effectively create resistance.

Not quite the ‘fad.’

So, 27 years after discovering the Swiss Ball, I still enjoy using it to challenge my body (and the bodies in my classes!) in ways I can’t do with other equipment. It’s a fantastic way to challenge your nervous system, core, cardiovascular system and, of course, your muscles. So, not quite the ‘fad’ I first took it for…

If you want to learn how to use the Swiss Ball for cardio and endurance, or reignite your passion for using it in classes, check out the FREE 1-hour Swiss Ball Cardio Master Class on January 28th 2024. It covers all the basics and much more.

I hope you’ll join me; it’ll be great fun!

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