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bar news and views

448: Spin city
Too busy working to work out? Turn your commute into a toning opportunity with two-wheel transportation
444: On the ball
With plastic exercise balls of every size and color invading sports clubs across the globe, gyms look more like playgrounds than the territory of fitness fanatics
440: Health kick
As Tokyo goes Brazilian for the weekend, Nicholas Coldicott investigates capoeira, the combination dance-martial art that's pounding its way into the heart's fitness fanatics.
438: Chasing beauty
When celeb makeup artist Chase Aston signed on with The Body Shop to develop and launch their new line of cosmetics, he'd finally caught up with his dream
436: Green house effects
At the foot of Mt Fuji, Solar Café and Earth Embassy offer weary Tokyoites a taste of an eco-friendly lifestyle and a reprieve from the city frenzy
434: Finger tips
Bored with summer pastels? This season nail art brightens fingers and toes
432: Reverse charges
With an eye on Tokyo's latest health craze, Nick Coldicott asks what's so positive about negative ions?
430: Summer shade
Play up that cappuccino tan with the season's glistening beauty products
428: In pods we trust
Relaxation capsules offer all-in-one healing and freedom from stress
426: Scents of a season
Tama Miyake unveils the sweet smells of summer
424: On your toes
Ballet follows hot on the heels of yoga and Pilates as the latest graceful way to work out
422: Smooth operators
Dermatologists are smoothing foreheads from Beverly Hills to Tokyo with Botox
420: Body art
Want to achieve the symmetrical curves of a well-chiseled statue?
418: Hand to mouth
Sony Plazas around the city stock the best in cutting-edge cosmetics from Japan and abroad
416: House of spirit
Relax and rejuvenate at Ogikubo's new Museum
414: It's only natural
Plant-based products bloom in time for spring
412: Smooth moves
Let Rolfing put pep in your stride
410: Beauty for busy people
How to get glamour in a hurry
406: The big chill
saving face with the latest skin care products
404: Fitness
High energy holidays 
402: Beauty

Paint it red 
400: Fitness
Fitness to fall for 


On the ball

Azusa Toyoda tones up with two at a time

With plastic exercise balls of every size and color invading sports clubs across the globe, gyms look more like playgrounds than the territory of fitness fanatics. Cathy Frances reports.

In the last five years, core conditioning has made a comeback, with tried-and-true regimes like yoga, Pilates, tai chi and ballet becoming integral parts of fitness programs for everyone from star athletes to Joe Jogger. Today the flexibility, improved posture and strong abs that support the skeleton gained from such exercises not only boost sports performance but overall health. And health fanatics are having a ball with the latest way to get them.

Marketed under a plethora of names-the Swissball¨, Softgym¨, Overball¨, Gymnic Softball¨, the larger Balanceball¨, Fitball¨ or generically the physio, exercise or fitness ball-these soft, inflatable rubber balls are available in a range of sizes and colors. Originally designed as part of physical therapy to treat orthopedic and neurological disorders, the exercise ball, known as the balance ball in Japan, is currently rolling its way into Tokyo gyms as an adaptable and effective piece of training equipment.

"With one ball you can do more exercises than a whole gym full of machines," says Tokyo's resident exercise ball expert, Jeff Libengood of Jeff's Fitness. "The ball can be used for cardiovascular training, strength and resistance training, toning up and keeping supple. If you've ever suffered from injury, it's probably the best single piece of equipment you can use."


Under pressure

The ball draws from ancient methods of exercise-primarily yoga, Pilates and tai chi-combining the best of each and adding a modern twist. Conventional weight training generally works large muscle groups, but by using the sturdy vinyl support, it's possible to adapt movements to isolate and exercise smaller, specific muscle groups-anywhere from a finger or hand to the entire body. "By holding a real ball, class participants can clearly feel which muscles they are working, to more effectively isolate and exercise specific muscle groups," says Azusa Toyoda, an American and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) trainer and fitness ball expert. Specificity is one of the program's biggest pluses. "Students can strengthen or elongate any part of their body. One of my students is reshaping her calf muscles," says Toyoda.

Toyoda flexes against a sligthly deflated ball to build strength

In addition to muscle isolation, particularly important for those recovering from injuries, this simplistic piece of equipment enhances oft-neglected muscles elemental in posture, coordination and flexibility. When isometric or resistance exercises, usually performed on a hard surface such as a floor or a weight bench, are done on the soft sphere, an element of instability is introduced. The body responds automatically to this and keeps balanced by relying on new muscles. "Over time the muscles used to keep in balance become stronger," says Libengood. "Basically, you build strength in important back and abdominal muscles and tone up without even realizing it."

The balance ball may not look like much, but those who've converted claim it's fast, efficient and effective. "Until I injured my back while attempting to carry too many files in the office, I used to combine running for fitness with yoga and Pilates for toning and peace of mind," says Donna Murrey, a health and beauty writer. "My trainer told me I could get the benefits of all three from this one rubber ball. At first, I was like 'Yeah, right. How can I work up a sweat on that? And please tell me where the lotus comes into it?' But four months later, I'm in the best shape ever."

Unlike many other complicated or demanding regimes, ball exercises are suitable for almost everyone, easy to follow and versatile. "It's a lot of fun, but it can also be very tough depending on how hard you work yourself. I've used muscles I never knew I had," says Murrey. For example, according to Toyoda, a small, slightly deflated ball can be tossed in the air and caught in one hand to simultaneously increase flexibility, agility, strength, coordination and control. Alternatively, a number of balls can be used together to support and exercise a weak area, especially if it results from a knee or back injury. For example, a small ball is pressed or squeezed into position for three to five seconds, while breathing out, then slowly released while inhaling, and repeated 10 to 12 times. Larger balls upon which many exercises are performed vary according to body size-unlike, for example, a step. The average sizes range from 42cm (recommended for height of 125cm) to 85cm (for heights in excess of 182cm) and all are built to support up to 200kg. "If you're buying a large ball, your legs should be at 90 degrees when you sit on it, and your arms clear the ground in a lying position," Libengood recommends.

Prices range from ¥2,400 (55cm) up to ¥8,000 (65cm) and balls are available at most sporting goods stores, gyms and on the Internet. However, Libengood says potential purchasers should be choosy. "It's false economy to buy a cheap ball," he says. "They puncture easily, lose their shape under pressure and don't have grip-able surfaces."

While DYI videos flood the market, perhaps the best way to learn to use an exercise and adapt it to individual fitness needs is through classes at the gym or through a personal trainer, both available in Tokyo. "It isn't the be-all and end-all of exercising," says Libengood, "but properly used it will give you hundreds, perhaps thousands of options that will continually challenge you."


Where to play ball:

Jeff's Fitness
A range of classes start late September. Gym staff can provide one-to-one training. Non-members welcome. Mention Metropolis and get 10 percent discount on the visitor's fee. For more information go to

Trinity Sports
Classes on Fri 10:30am and Sat 11am. 3-11-9 Minami-Urawa, Saitama-shi. Tel: 048-865-0990.

Shibuya 21
Classes offered daily. 18-11 Shinsenjo, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5489-3621. Call for details, as the schedule changes monthly. Almost all other Konami Sports Clubs, including XAX, have ball classes.

Renaissance Sports Club, Sangenjaya
Two 30-minute classes for members only: Tue 4:20pm and Wed 4pm. 2-2-16 Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-5481-8500. For other branches check

Tokyo Capital Club
TCC has a conditioning class that includes exercise ball training on Fri at 1:30pm. 2-8-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3401-3691.

Photos by Cathy Frances