Striking a balance with the ballPicture half a dozen people stretching on mats. Nearby, even more are jogging on treadmills while others lift weights. A trainer walks by, stopping to give suggestions or wipe down the equipment. Another woman walks up to the mats, takes her shoes off, pushes a large plastic ball out of her way and starts stretching. The ball rolls into a corner, where it will stay until someone else pushes it away.
It’s a typical day for the exercise ball ― ignored as always. The ball usually has prime corner real estate at the gym ― tucked away so no one falls over it. It is the one item at the fitness center I had never tried. I have watched a few people stretch or do abdominal curls using the ball, but they always looked awkward. It just sounds funny: “I did 50 stomach curls with the ball.” Now try saying “I bench-pressed 220 pounds today,” or “I went running for an hour.” Sounds a lot more athletic, does it not?
But on the suggestion of an acquaintance, I bought the Gymnastik ball, otherwise known as the original Pezzi ball, from Seongdong Sports, a small fitness shop in southern Seoul. The owner, Lee Seong-dong, sells two brands, one made in Italy and one made in China. The biggest difference between the two, according to Mr. Lee, is that the Chinese models pop if you make a little hole in them, while the Italian ones slowly deflate.
The most popular size of Gymnastik balls for Koreans is 64 centimeters (25 inches). Oblong shapes and bumpy spheres are available, too, in a variety of sizes.
Mr. Lee logs on to his Web site to show me a video demonstration. Afterwards, he says, “Try sitting on the ball and bouncing up and down while watching television. I do it every night.”
I took the ball home, and inflated it using the pump that was included. The booklet lists some simple stretches, which are more fun than floor stretches, and balancing exercises. Sitting on the ball while lifting and rotating one leg is harder than it looks.
The balls were originally designed for physical therapy, but expanded to the fitness realm. Now many hospitals, obstetricians and health clubs have started using the balls, from manufacturers all over the world, and with names like Gymnastik ball, Balance Ball, Resist-A-Ball and Fit-Ball. Pregnant women can use the ball for safe stretching.
Joe Jung, a former Mr. Seoul and trainer at the fitness center at the Marriott hotel in Seoul, remembers seven years ago when a friend returning from Australia, gave him a ball, saying, “You have got to try this.”
Mr. Jung eventually went to Hong Kong to participate in the Asia Fit Conference. He trained in ball exercises, in addition to pilates and aqua exercising. At the conference, an Australian fitness guru stood on top of the ball, perfectly balanced. He did dumbbell curls and shoulder presses while sitting on the ball. Mr. Jung knew the ball was good for fitness, but he was still blown away. “Try sitting on the ball and lifting both legs,” Mr. Jung says. “Most people will fall over because they do not have a sense of balance.”
And that is the ball’s greatest strength ― developing balance. In order to have good balance, one must have a strong core area ― stomach and back muscles. But the ball can also be used to train the legs, chest, shoulders, arms, back, hips and buttocks.
“Any exercises you can do with free weights, you can do with the ball,” Mr. Jung says. Some of these exercises require lifting the ball, others require balancing on the ball while lifting weights.
Weight loss, weight gain and muscle development are possible when you use the ball in conjunction with dumbbells or other resistance-training equipment. Usually, the exercises are anaerobic, but with sets of repetitions of 20 or more, you can also get an aerobic workout.
The problem is, most people do not know how to use the ball, according to Mr. Jung. Mr. Lee agrees, adding that his clients who buy the ball for home use are about half men and half women, but men tend to shy away from using the ball at a gym. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can feel especially goofy trying the ball in public.”
For home use, you can buy exercise videos like “Balance Ball Fitness with Suzanne Deason” on the Amazon Web site. Mr. Jung says he is trying to change misconceptions about the ball and bring in a wider audience.
The way he sees it, one of the major obstacles here is a lack of expertise. “Most trainers just do not know how to use it,” he says. As for personal use, he says, “People look at the ball, and think, ‘How will that balloon make me into a model?’ or ‘That thing is for weaklings.’”
Meanwhile, at my home, the ball has become a conversation piece. It is an attractive blue color, and doubles as something akin to a beanbag chair. Visitors are instantly drawn to it.
Excercise equipment or cushioning, the ball has definitely found a place to roll in my home.
by Joe Yong-hee