Contrary to what many believe about us spine surgeons, our most important goal as physicians is to keep your spine healthy and in proper working order so that you never require surgery. One great way to do that, especially for beginners, is to incorporate the use of an exercise ball into your lifestyle.
An exercise ball, sometimes called a Swiss ball, fitness ball, stability ball or physio ball, can be seen in the gym, in living rooms, and sometimes at the office. Whether you’re working out or just sitting on it, being on the ball creates an element of instability, causing the body to respond naturally and automatically in order to stay balanced. The muscles used to accomplish this are also the muscles that protect the spine and help keep it strong. When the exercise ball is used over time, the muscles it engages can become even stronger.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate an exercise ball into your daily routine is to practice sitting on it for short periods of time while working or even while watching television. Using an exercise ball is considered “active sitting” because you must be engaged with the ball in a way you aren't while seated in a regular chair. If you are having trouble balancing, try deflating the ball a bit for added stability. Some users report that sitting on the ball encourages slight bouncing, which keeps legs moving; an added benefit to stimulate circulation and reduce fatigue.
Aside from simply sitting, many exercises with a ball are designed to stretch and move the spine in a controlled manner. Moving the vertebrae in this way can help nourish discs in the spine by increasing blood flow and lubrication to them. Additionally, using an exercise ball in conjunction with core strengthening exercises will work the abdominal muscles and help to stabilize the spine. If your core muscles are weak, your back muscles must work overtime to support the spine which can often lead to instability, unnecessary back pain and injuries.
Sitting, stretching or balancing on an exercise ball can have many benefits, including:
• Improved muscle strength.
• Greater flexibility and range of spinal motion.
• Enhanced balance and coordination of core muscles, which support spine stability.
• Increased ability and tendency to maintain a neutral spine position.
• A simple way to start moving again after a back pain episode.
• Reduced stress on the spine.
Stability balls are a great exercise option to improve core strength, posture and overall spine health, but understanding their limitations is important. Without the support of a chair back with lumbar support or arm rests, sitting on a ball for an extended period of time may trigger poor posture and slumping, and can become very uncomfortable. A quality ergonomic chair provides the best postural support for long-term sitting and whether you're in a chair or on a ball, having good posture rests squarely on your shoulders. Trust me, your back will thank you for it. Remember to take periodic breaks from sitting in order to stretch and walk around.
While there are many possible benefits of using an exercise ball, as with any new form of exercise, it is highly recommended that you talk to your doctor or see an appropriately trained and licensed spine specialist before use, especially if you are experiencing back pain or are recovering from an injury or surgery.
P.S. If you are sitting for long periods of time at work, you may want to ask your Human Resources or Employee Services department if there are any safety or ergonomic assessments available. An evaluation of your work space can help to identify risk factors related to your furnishings, tools, and job duties, and will provide recommendations on how to eliminate those risk factors to prevent or treat spine injuries.