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A fitness ball (also known as a stability ball) is an inflatable piece of exercise equipment usually constructed out of heavy gauge PVC vinyl or rubber. When inflated, a fitness ball looks much like an over sized beach ball with reinforced ribbing as an anti-burst feature. Exercisers use fitness balls to enhance their routines and isolate the core muscles of the abdomen, chest and back. A fitness ball creates instability, which forces the user to engage these core muscles to counteract a loss of balance. Many exercise programs emphasize daily abdominal work, so adding a stability or fitness ball may reduce the need for isolated abdominal routines.
The first health professionals to utilize fitness balls were physical therapists. Patients who needed to perform stretching and range-of-motion rehabilitation often found floors to be extremely uncomfortable. A group of physical therapists decided that it might be easier to bring the floor to a disabled patient rather than place the patient on the floor. They developed a rudimentary fitness ball which allowed patients to perform these stretches and isolation exercises without damaging their joints. As the popularity of stability ball therapy grew, other health and fitness experts sought ways to incorporate fitness balls into their own exercise regimens.
Today many fitness experts have developed exercise programs which emphasize the use of a fitness ball. Traditional sit-ups have been replaced with different forms of abdominal crunches. A fitness ball can allow users to assume different positions in order to isolate the obliques, upper and lower abdominal muscles. Strength training with free weights can be performed while seated on a stability ball, which adds the extra dimension of core strengthening. A fitness ball can also change the mechanics of traditional isometric exercises. Push-ups performed on a stability ball can add emphasis to the arms and shoulders by taking the legs out of the equation.
If you would like to pursue an exercise program featuring fitness balls, there are some important things to consider first. A fitness ball may take some of the weight off joints or bring the floor closer, but it does not make exercise easier. Fitness ball workouts can be every bit as intense as aerobics or Pilates, so make sure you're physically healthy enough to start an exercise regimen of this intensity. Secondly, only use quality equipment while exercising. Inferior quality fitness balls have been known to burst unexpectedly, so make sure you only purchase a ball rated for your height and weight. Never over-inflate a fitness ball--you'll want to feel some 'give' when you place your full weight on it and bounce in place. Finally, never overdo an exercise simply because it feels easier to perform on a fitness ball. Many exercises with a stability ball can be modified to accommodate beginners, so work at your own pace until you feel confident enough to keep up with the instructor.