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."
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,"
|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
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,"
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
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:
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 http://www.jeffsfitness.com
Classes on Fri 10:30am and Sat 11am. 3-11-9 Minami-Urawa,
Saitama-shi. Tel: 048-865-0990.
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 http://www.s-renaissance.co.jp/index.html
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