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Like so many people, the pandemic changed the way I work out.
Formerly a spin studio regular, I became one of those annoying people who purchased an indoor bike and would not shut up about it. But I also started to focus more on movement that helped me feel calmer and more aware of my body, which was especially useful as hovering over my laptop at home exacerbated longstanding neck and shoulder issues.
That led me to core-building workouts like the Pilates and yoga-inspired classes I now take regularly. And I do my own short self-directed sequences at home incorporating my favorite moves, too. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that, more than two years in, those have gotten a little stale.
That is, until this month, when I had the chance to try out a humble piece of workout equipment I'd never thought to include: a simple ball. Known as a Pilates ball or mini exercise ball, this inflatable ball has a circumference of about 10 inches or less. It's soft and a bit squishy, but sturdy enough to hold my weight and for me to get a good grip on it.
I had the opportunity to try out a ball in a Balacize Sculpt class taught by New York City-based Pilates instructor Ashley DeLeon.
DeLeon had us use the ball to prop up our middle backs during crunches, which helped isolate just some parts of the core, making the move a little easier in some ways and more excruciating in others. At another point, the instructor had us use it under our lower back in reverse plank, adding some challenging balance drills to the pose.
During both of those moves, I felt I needed to go slower than usual and concentrate just a little more on my pelvic tilt and breathing to get through them. It was difficult but almost meditative because I couldn't just be on autopilot anymore. And I felt like I was really engaging — both my muscles and my mind.
At home I also find myself using the ball as a prop in place of a foam yoga block between my thighs in bridge, holding it above my head with both hands during roll-ups or passing it from one hand to the other in between scissor kicks.
"What I think is really amazing about the ball is how it can both challenge an exercise or make it more manageable," said DeLeon, who runs a subscription-based online workout platform.
"It can completely change what is available to you in terms of your range of motion if you're just at home with a mat," she explained. "Just having this elevated round surface can open up a world of mobility."
The ball is just unstable enough that it takes work to keep yourself balanced, and that biofeedback allows you to connect with your body and correct your form without the need for external cues, DeLeon explained. "The ball will speak to you in every position you put it in a really organic way," she said. Even when you do the moves without the ball later, you'll likely be better connected to your body and feel more stable.
If you're healing from an injury or managing chronic pain, a Pilates ball can make some moves more accessible to you. Placing the ball under your lower back, for instance, puts you in a slight inversion and reduces pressure in the abdomen, DeLeon said. Those who notice discomfort in their lower back after a day of sitting at a desk can feel some relief almost immediately simply by elevating their hips on the ball's squishy surface, she added.
Plus, a ball is just inherently fun! DeLeon encourages people who are new to using a Pilates ball to start out by just playing around with it and exploring how it feels to put different parts of their body on the ball. When you start to get immersed because you're having fun, "you will find that you can do something longer, you have more stamina and you can get more from your practice so you kind of get stronger by accident," she said.
To start out, DeLeon recommends noticing whether the ball you're using has a pin (which might pop out and need to be put back) as well as taking note of any weight limit. You want to be able to put a significant amount of your body weight into the ball, she said.
The ball I use was a gift from Bala and is exceptionally soft and thick (it feels much sturdier than the ones I remember from P.E. classes), but still has plenty of grip. It also comes with its own pump that was easy to use. I was honestly shocked that, given the opportunity to play around with the weighted equipment the brand is known for, it was the ball that stuck with me!
But there are many alternatives out there as well. For instance, you might find that you prefer a ball with a little more give, like the one in DeLeon's OPTP Pilates Pack.
When it comes time to do actually use the ball, DeLeon's biggest safety tip is to keep your eyes on the ceiling when using a ball underneath you to avoid putting your neck in odd positions.
Because the ball is unstable, "make sure that you feel the ball with your hands before you bring it to other aspects of your body," she said, which will allow you to feel out just how unstable it is first. Also, make sure the area around your mat is clear so that you won’t fall on anything potentially dangerous, she advised. “But if you do fall over, you’re not falling far."
I firmly believe that you don’t need any expensive or complex equipment to get a good workout at home. But if you, like me, are finding that you’re ready for a little something extra, a Pilates ball may be a surprisingly useful and versatile tool to add to your home gym setup.
Sarah Jacoby is a health reporter at TODAY. She is a graduate of NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program and has a background in psychology and neuroscience.