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New School Sitting: Exercise Balls in Classrooms and Offices

by: Douglas S. Brooks, MS, ACE, TSCC-Gold, Exercise Physiologist

What do schools, corporate workplaces and home offices all have in common? Each is experimenting with jettisoning an "old-school" concept to replace traditional chairs with exercise balls. Generically known as a stability ball, these pieces of exercise equipment have been popular in homes and clubs for more than two decades. It has been one of the most widely used pieces of exercise equipment by personal trainers throughout the world. A growing number of teachers and office workers are beginning to explore the ball's utility and its positive effects in offices and schools across the nation. Some have found the BOSU® Ballast® Ball to work particularly well, since it does not roll away.

New School Sitting

Why the Interest in Sitting on a Ball? 
When sitting on an exercise ball, the body is constantly making small adjustments with key postural muscles that include the abdominals, lower back muscles, gluteals and leg muscles. Sitting on a ball could be characterized as "active sitting." But, user beware! Similar to expensive ergonomic chairs, individuals can still have poor posture on the stability ball. The user needs to be engaged physically and mentally. Over time, proper alignment becomes more automatic and reflexive because the requisite strength, flexibility and body awareness has already been learned. Contrary to popular belief, the ball does not create correct posture or make the user sit taller, but its use can contribute to good posture, stronger core musculature and dynamic flexibility and movement capability. In addition, ball chair users report being more focused, alert and motivated when sitting on a ball.

Making the Switch…Trading Balls for Chairs 
Seriously taking all of the pros and cons into account, the following is a suggested approach to implement the "trading balls for chairs" concept. 
1) Provide the option to adopt a ball chair or retain the traditional classroom chair. 
2) Allow participants to switch from traditional chair to ball chair based on effect and personal need.
3) Build up duration sitting on the ball over time. Start with half hour progressions, evaluate each person's tolerance, and it won't be long before participants can sit on it throughout the school or work day.
4) Teach that posture is learned, not automatic and requires constant focus and awareness to achieve.
5) Inflate the ball so that thighs are parallel to the ground, or slope downwards slightly (a little above parallel). Hips should be level to or slightly higher than knees. Most importantly, be sure the ball height is appropriate to desk height and/or computer keyboard to be worked on. 
6) Re-energize the work or school day by integrating exercise breaks throughout the day. This helps to avoid fatigue resulting from poor posture habits over time, whether seated on a ball or chair.

  • Introduce "bounce" activity on the ball.
  • Teach seated balance exercises such as alternating single leg lifts.
  • Teach scapular retraction, strengthening and stabilizing exercises.
  • Include core strengthening and stabilizing for abdominals and back muscles.
  • Encourage a repeated stand and return to the ball, or squat. Remember, the BOSU Ballast Ball stays in place.
  • Teach key postural stretches for the lower back, abdominals, hip flexors and hamstrings.
  • Include integrated core, upper and lower body exercises.
New School Sitting Trading Balls for Chairs allows schools and corporate wellness programs to integrate key fitness elements into daily work life that could save on health costs, increase work productivity and improve quality of life for students and employees. Compliance to exercise mandates, health benefits and health savings outcomes are easily documented. If physical education and wellness programs are not in place, Trading Balls for Chairs could produce positive fitness results and support existing programs. Opportunity exists with implementation of a complete approach. New School Sitting

10 Benefits of "Ball Chairs"
1. Encourages proper spine alignment. Because an exercise ball is not stable, your body responds by attempting to find an optimal balance point. Guess what? Perfect spinal posture is coincidently the easiest to balance with, which means your body will automatically try to align itself into proper posture. 
2. Causes you to frequently change positions. This helps reduce damage caused by prolonged sitting in the same static position.
3. Fitness is at your fingertips. Stretches or mini-workouts can be done whenever you want and without leaving the work space. 
4. Improve balance. Sitting on an unstable surface all day will improve your sense of balance as well as muscle reactions. The result? Moving and feeling better! 
5. Get a six-pack. Okay, maybe not, but your body primarily uses core (abdominal and back) muscles to help compensate for changes in balance. You get an effective core stabilization workout when sitting on the ball. Consider the amount of time spent on the computer at home or in the office, or the amount of time at school, and you get the point. 
6. Improve circulation. Using an exercise ball keeps blood flowing to all parts of your body throughout the day. Static, unchanging posture and pressure points that inhibit circulation-think fixed chairs-can lead to discomfort and exacerbate back problems. 
7. Feel more energetic. It has been proven that staying in one position makes you more tired. Constantly fidgeting, remaining active and frequently changing body position provides more energy and focus. 
8. Burn more calories in a day. More movement during the day equals more calories expended. Combine sitting on the ball, a planned exercise program centered on posture, and exercise breaks throughout the day, and see a difference in fitness over time. 
9. Balls are affordable, especially when compared to purchasing an ergonomic chair, which may or may not provide a comfortable, effective, long-term solution. 
10. C'mon, it's fun! Who does not like the idea of bouncing around on an exercise ball all day? An exciting alternative to chairs, balls may just add that spark of fun to your day, keep you sharp and give a twinkle to your eyes. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Douglas S. Brooks is the head physiologist/strength & conditioning coach for Mammoth Power Sports and in 2007, was inducted into the National Fitness Hall of Fame. Coach Brooks is the author of six major texts and is a Twist Conditioning Senior Master Coach. To contact him, visit www.MovesIntFitness.com.


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