Looking for something different? Try a round with an exercise ball

Millions of people have discovered they can have a ball and get in shape at the same time.

Exercise balls have bounced their way into homes and health clubs across the country. The pliable spheres were originally used in physical therapy to treat orthopedic and neurological disorders.

The plastic ball is usually about 26 inches in diameter and filled with enough air to offer both support and some give. The purpose of the ball is to strengthen the body core muscles, which are found in the abdomen and back.

However, the ball is versatile enough to work the arms, legs and glutes, as well. Also it forces users to stretch and get in touch with their sense of balance.

Recently I got on the ball at Studio Arts, a dance studio in West Knoxville, at its Theraball Stretch & Strengthen class.

During my session 14 people showed up for the hourlong workout the majority of them dancers. Talk about intimidation. Here I am a 195-pound, 6-foot-2-inch man who's had limited exposure to the ball (I've done some crunches a couple of times as part of a step- aerobics class), in a room dominated by some of the most graceful people around. Oh, the horror.

To get us warmed up, Studio Arts director and instructor Lisa Hall McKee directed us to sit on our balls. She emphasized to sit with our back straight, knees over ankles, shoulders down and arms slightly back, so that the lat muscles were engaged.

Then we did 16 quick bounces. Easy enough. The next time the bounces were cut in half and we moved around the ball. I didn't quite make it around in eight when we went right, but left was much better. The exercise became more intense as we bounced to a seated position that hovered just above the ball's surface, which burned the quadriceps.

Some abs work followed. Sitting slightly forward on the ball, we leaned all the way back, keeping the feet on the floor. With arms overhead, the upper body came up about half way. Later the motion increased, raising the torso a bit more. Pulses at the top also upped the difficulty.

To target the oblique muscles of the abdomen, we lay sideways on the ball, with fingers on the sides of the head and elbows wide, and feet pressed against the baseboards for support. Keeping the shoulders squared, we lifted our upper bodies. Later twists to both sides were added to really max out love-handle land.

The lower abs weren't forgotten. Situated on our backs, the ball was placed between the legs, which we lifted and lowered. The ball added just enough resistance to make it a chore.

The ball was also placed between the legs for a simple inner thigh workout. With our backs against the wall and knees bent, we squeezed it in quick pulses. I felt the small movement big time, more so a couple of days later.

A similar exercise was done with the arms and was just as effective.

Other maneuvers weren't as simple. Walkouts, in which the hands walk either forward or back with either the thighs or feet on the ball, proved quite daunting. When the instructor demonstrated the move, which was incorporated into one of the final combinations, I said, "Yeah, right."

Picture this. With the ball held overhead, we did four squat jumps, walked forward on our hands, feet on the ball, and did some push-ups, walked back into a pike position, making the body look like the legs of an A, walked forward to a flat plank position, then walked back again, rolling over the ball. Much to my surprise, I did it.

After the workout I felt relaxed and euphoric. I credit the relaxation to the yoga-like vibe, and the euphoria to the fact I didn't make a complete fool of myself.

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