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Resource Spotlight: Exercise Balls

Exercise balls, also known as fit balls, therapy balls, stability balls, or Swiss balls, are commonly used in therapy programs. They are a valuable tool in occupational therapy due to their ability to address multiple physical, sensory, and cognitive goals. Here are some ways that exercise balls are integrated into occupational therapy and reasons why :

1. Enhancing Core Strengthening and Postural Control

Using a gym ball requires engaging the core muscles Gym balls help improve posture by encouraging proper spinal alignment and engaging postural muscles to maintain stability. Common exercises we incorporate OT include:

  • Sitting Posture Training: Encouraging children to sit on the ball with a straight back and neutral spine. This becomes fatiguing over time, so be aware that posture will worsen and this is the reason sitting on a fitball, wobble stool, or similar seat with unstable base at school or work is only recommended for shorter durations - not as a full chair replacement. Also - care must be taken the ball is apropriate height to enable this posture, without rolling away.

  • Seated Balance: Sitting on the ball and maintaining balance to strengthen the core whilst doing tabletop activities, or work at upright surfaces.

  • Specific exercises such as Leg Lifts or Planks: Leg lifts (shown below), or planks - Placing the forearms or hands on the ball while performing a plank to engage the core muscles more intensely -Generally in OT, we would use this sort of exercise during a cognitive task or game, or movement break as a means of challenging themselves.

2. Improving Balance and Coordination

Gym balls can provide an unstable surface, challenging our kids to use their balance and coordination skills. Activities include:

  • Dynamic Sitting: Performing small movements like bouncing or shifting weight while sitting to enhance coordination, generally when doing tabletop activities as a less challenging option, or to add challenge when doing activities such as catching a ball

  • Standing Balance: Placing one foot on the ball while standing to challenge balance and proprioception, Again, this can be done during other upright tasks, or as a standalone timed task to challenge themselves.

3. Sensory Integration

For individuals with sensory processing disorders, gym balls can provide valuable sensory input to work on:

  • Vestibular processing: Gentle bouncing or rocking on the ball to stimulate the vestibular system, but in an organising way (Unlike big bouncing on trampolines, why can be dysregulating or cause issues for certain individuals).

  • Proprioceptive Input: We can gain a lot of deep pressure inputs through weight-bearing activities on the ball. In OT this is generally done in two ways:

    • Prone over the ball, with support to begin with, that is slowly removed so that the child is exerting more control of their own postural muscles (see picture above).

    • Alternatively, being 'squashed' under the ball when lying prone on the mats is a lovely way of receiving soothing proprioceptive input all over the body.

  • Another way of getting deep pressure input is through pushing a

4. Motor Planning and Coordination

Using gym balls helps develop motor planning and coordination skills. In OT this will include:

  • Reaching and Grasping: Placing objects at various heights and distances around the child, and have them reach and grasp while maintaining balance on the ball can help with planning and executing reaching movements.

  • Transitioning Positions: Practice transitioning from sitting to standing or lying to sitting on the gym ball. This helps with motor planning for daily functional movements.

  • Obstacles Course: Creating an obstacle course where the child has to follow a path and maneuver around objects while sitting on or pushing the gym ball enhances spatial awareness and motor planning.

  • Ball Rolls: Having the child pass a smaller ball or toy from one hand to the other while seated or lying on the gym ball works on. We vary the challenge of this activity by passing the ball overhead, under the legs, or in different patterns.

  • Rolling Games: Where the child lies on their stomach on the gym ball and roll themselves forward to reach for an object on the floor. In OT the activities we might do include puzzles, or arranging sequences of objects such as numbers of alphabet pieces. This helps with motor planning and upper body strength.

  • Catching and Throwing: Whilst seated on the ball, using balloons (Easier), Beanbags, Larger balls, through to small balls (Hardest), to practice dynamic balancing alongside visual motor integration skills.

5. Engagement and Motivation

Gym balls are often seen as fun and engaging, increasing a child's motivation and participation in core-muscle work. Some games we love:

  • Simon Says: Incorporate the gym ball into a game of Simon Says, where the child has to perform specific movements (e.g., bounce on the ball, roll forward, touch the ball with their elbow) when directed.

  • Imaginary Play: Use the gym ball in imaginative play scenarios, such as pretending it is a horse to ride, a spaceship to navigate, or a wave to surf on. This encourages creativity and motor planning.

We hope this series helps you understand how the use of certain resources in occupational therapy!

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