My Love Affair with the Swiss Ball
As an 18-year old, I had the pleasure of spending a summer in the Swiss Alps, mostly rock climbing, hiking, and a bit of skinny dipping in remote mountain lakes. It was one of those idyllic times when there didn’t seem to be any cares in the world. I felt close to heaven, that there was nowhere higher to go – because there really wasn’t.
Fast forward 31 years and I still have a love affair with all things Swiss. Everything just seems to work – from the intricate cleverness of the Swiss Army Knife, the perfection of Swiss Chocolate, and the sublime delicacies of Swiss Cheese. Emmenthal and Gruyere…yum.
And as a Physio, I’ve had an ongoing relationship with that most Swiss of inventions – the Swiss Ball. Originally designed for stroke patients recovering in efficiently run Swiss neurological rehab units, it became used for mainstream Physio in the mid 1990’s.
As a student at the University of East London, I asked this question:
“If this can help stroke patients with loss of balance issues, why can’t it help our low back pain patients with a loss of balance, proprioception, and core stability?”
I wasn’t the only one who asked this question. And as the 90’s turned into roaring 00’s (at least for me) the lovable Swiss Ball was suddenly everywhere – in gyms, balconies, and bedrooms. It was even featured in sitcoms like Absolutely Fabulous where it was burst with a cigarette and our very own Kath and Kim. The ball was used for toning abs, stretching tight muscles, engaging the core, and, well, for just plain showing off.
But there was a problem. Unlike the Swiss Army Knife, the Swiss Ball was obtrusive and most people, after a while, got tired of them and found them downright ugly. You couldn’t stash them away anywhere. And then at the kind of parties I went to on Saturday nights they’d be routinely abused and pulverised to within an inch of their lives.
After its moment in the sun, the poor old Swiss Ball has been relegated again to the gyms and rehab studios, like ours at Excel, we have a little and a large. They look old hat next to the BOSU balls, training ropes, and jump cushions. But I love mine, still. Not only do I use if for my patients in their recovery programmes –for a variety of conditions– but I also use it myself, when I’m at the gym three times a week.
So what are its specific lovable characteristics?
Well, its cheerful colour for one thing. And it is great for engaging the tiny proprioceptive muscles of the back. These are muscles you don’t hear many personal trainers talking about – like intertransversaii and interspinales, hardly with any movement focus at all, but packed with tons of proprioceptors – nerve endings that literally tell us where we are in space and conk out with too much sitting. They also help us to stretch muscles in the lower back and hip that we just couldn’t stretch otherwise without potentially causing an injury. They also help us to engage our more global muscles, like our six pack abs, our glutes, and our paraspinal muscles.
That’s why I love the Swiss Ball. Not just because it’s Swiss (which makes me think that it will inherently work) or because it takes me go back to those heady days when I was truly skinny and thought the world was just waiting for me, but because using it for exercise gives great outcomes.
I know not everyone can have one in their homes, but everyone should incorporate using the lovable Swiss Ball in their gym exercise programme. After all, there’s just so much it can do for you, if you just give it a chance!
~ Tim Ellis