We’ve had an exercise ball for a couple of years now–one of those large, inflatable balls strong enough to hold an adult’s weight, which can be used for lots of exercises. Daniel and I both love it. (Our five-year-old son loves it, too, but less for exercising than for rolling recklessly around the room and flying off it to crash-land on the bed!) Rolling around on it is a great way to soothe our suffering spines because leaning on the ball enables us to take our weight off the usual parts of the body and shift it in different directions so that clumped-up muscles can relax.
Just recently, though, Daniel discovered an exercise with the ball that’s very simple but has a huge effect on muscle tone! Here are the complete instructions:
Just sit on the ball, take your feet off the floor, and keep your balance.
Think that’s too easy? Try it! At first we could barely do it at all. But it took just a few weeks of brief daily practice (only 5-15 minutes a day) to improve our abilities. Part of this is learning the ways of the ball, where to put your arms relative to your legs and so on–you need to center your weight in a somewhat different place than you’d think. The other part of it is increasing strength.
This is a fabulous way to strengthen your abdominal, lower back, and thigh muscles almost without noticing you’re doing it! Unlike crunches or push-ups that feel like serious, strenuous exercise, balancing on the ball feels like playing. You don’t realize how much you’re working your muscles until they start aching the next day. Even so, the amount of aching didn’t prepare me for the vast improvement in strength.
You see, although I’m in basically good shape and toward the lighter end of healthy weight, my abs haven’t fully recovered from my pregnancy five years ago: There’s still a groove between the muscles on the two sides, and I’m a lot squishier on the tummy than I used to be. I had tried doing crunches, but that sometimes hurt my neck. Sideways crunches (lie on your side and lift your pelvis off the floor) tone the sides of my waist but don’t help the front. Swiveling my hips while sitting on the ball is fun but didn’t seem to make much of a difference to my muscles. Last year I saw the plank exercise in a magazine, and Daniel and I both tried it but found it too difficult to do for more than a few seconds.
Meanwhile, part of my seven-minute stretch routine is to reach down and put my hands on the floor, lean back stretching my hamstrings, walk my hands forward, and then drop my hips to the floor and arch my back, looking at the ceiling. After learning about the plank, I started pausing in that position for a moment before letting my hips go down.
Well! After just one week of balancing on the ball, I noticed that the plank had become much easier. Now it’s been about six weeks, and I can hold the plank position for at least a full minute without quivering. It’s amazing! I had thought that my difficulty was caused by weak shoulder muscles, but now that my abs are stronger they hold me up without dragging on my shoulders. As the playground season begins, I’m excited to find out whether pulling myself up on a bar will be easier, too. [UPDATE: Yes! Also, my ability to climb on all sorts of playground equipment has vastly improved because the middle part of my body has become something that helps hold me up, instead of weight dragging against my hands and feet!]
This quick and easy and fun exercise works for me! And I’m sure it ties into many profound analogies about finding balance in my hectic life and keeping on-the-ball and all that sort of thing. Visit the weight loss linkup at Mums Make Lists for more fitness and diet tips!
UPDATE: Our second child was born in 2014. During my maternity leave, I often sat on the exercise ball holding the baby and bounced. By the time she was 4 weeks old, I could balance on the ball with my feet off the floor (but not holding the baby–didn’t want to risk dropping her!) for a minute or longer. I went back to work after 12 weeks and started sitting on an exercise ball at my desk all day. By 16 weeks postpartum, I had regained the muscle tone and waist size I had before this pregnancy. And I am 41 years old! This really works!!