Those bright, squishy balls little kids love to play with are for grown-ups, too! In fact, there’s a way to “play” with these soft, tactile toys that can help you calm down…stand straighter…and breathe better.
It’s inexpensive and easy to do, and it really works. You just have to get down on the floor, lie down with your ball under your abs…and roll around.
A NEW KIND OF ROLL PLAY
Fitness-therapy expert Jill Miller, creator of Yoga Tune Up, author of The Roll Model and regular contributor to Bottom Line, is so convinced that this exercise is effective that she’s created an exercise program called Coregeous—rhymes with “gorgeous.” The program uses soft balls to relieve stress and tension, improve posture and breathing, and even to break up deep internal abdominal scars from surgery.
Here’s the theory behind it: By lying on a soft ball pushed up against your abdomen, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which is deep inside and runs from your brain stem through your heart and lungs. In medical studies, stimulating the vagus nerve (through an electrical implant) has been shown to help relieve mood disorders such as depression and even help control epileptic seizures.
There’s no research—and no such claims—for ball-rolling moves, but Miller has found that they can relieve stress. When you’re anxious, she explains, and trying to breathe from deep in your belly—a good way to calm yourself—tense, tight abdominal muscles get in the way. They make it hard to inhale and exhale deeply and fully. But “when you lie face down on the floor with a ball positioned strategically under your abdominals, the pressure will make you aware of tension there that inhibits the full range of motion in your breathing muscles,” she explains.
The muscle-and-tension-releasing effects of rolling on a ball also can improve posture. “The pressure of a ball under your belly puts you in touch with any unconscious tension you might be holding in your core,” she says. Release that tension, and it’s easier to reverse poor posture.
Belly rolling can also create an abdominal massage that mobilizes the fascia, the connective tissues of the body, letting them move the way that they they should. Tightness in these tissues can lead to aches and pains in almost everyone, says Miller.
She’s also found that these moves can help break up adhesions—including deep, abdominal scar tissue from surgery, such as a C-section, gall bladder surgery or appendectomy. Since such internal scarring “creates compensation within muscles of the core that impact breathing, posture and stress,” says Miller, “when you work on your scars, the muscles in your core are freer to get stronger—which in turn improves posture and breathing.”
Ready to roll? Here are Miller’s beginner tips—plus two moves to start you off. To better visualize the moves, see the video below.
GET ON THE (RIGHT) BALL
Miller’s Coregeous ball (available on her website) is specially designed for the exercises she has developed, but you also can use any very soft and squishy ball, such as a kids’ Gertie (which costs about $8 at toy stores and online). “You even can use a small pillow or a rolled-up towel,” Miller says. Her tips…
Caution: Check with your doctor before doing these moves, especially if you’ve recently had surgery. It’s best to wait until you’re cleared for exercise.
Take a load off. If rolling on a hard floor is too uncomfortable, try rolling on a bed or even against a wall. Both will reduce the pressure of your body weight on your stomach.
Go slow. “At first, just the pressure of lying on a ball may be enough to unbind postural and emotional stress,” says Miller. “Pay attention to your emotional reactions. Some people who have very negative feelings about their abs or feel ashamed of their bodies can feel vulnerable and even find the position unpleasant in the beginning.”
Don’t bounce back up too quickly. When you finish with your rolling routine, stay on the floor for a few moments before standing, advises Miller. Jumping upright too quickly can make you dizzy.
Now here are the moves…
This helps you ease into the sensation of pressure on your abdominals, brings awareness of your diaphragm and breathing, and provides a gentle belly massage that will soothe your nervous system and help you relax.
- Place the ball on the floor. Lie face down on top of it, positioning it in the center of your abdomen. Extend your legs behind you with toes pointed. Bend your arms at the elbow, and let them rest on the floor on either side of your head.
- Inhale…hold your breath…and then tighten your abs. Hold for three to five seconds, and then exhale. Repeat five to eight times.
- Keeping your weight on the ball, slowly shift your weight from side to side while breathing deeply. Do this for two minutes.
PIN, SPIN, MOBILIZE
This exercise brings more movement to the fascia, which are tight and restricted in their movement in just about everyone. It’s also a great exercise if you need to release scar tissue deep in the belly that can restrict breathing and throw off posture.
It will be most effective if you place the ball against your bare skin, so that your skin can grip the ball more tightly and provide traction. Do this only every other day in order to give your tissue time to remodel itself.
- Position the ball under your abdominals in an area that feels especially tight and restricted.
- Use your hands and feet to slowly pivot your entire body in one direction until you feel a pinch. Stop there, and breathe steadily for 30 to 90 seconds until the pinching feeling dissipates.
- Then pivot a bit more in the same direction, just until you feel pinching again. Stop and breathe until the sensation goes away.
- Repeat the incremental pivoting for as long as the pinching is tolerable.
Note: You might have heard that the vagus nerve is involved in fainting—the kind that’s triggered by things like the sight of blood, for example. Not to worry—this kind of mild exercise is very different from the body’s reactions that can cause fainting.
Learn more about how the kind of abdominal massage provided by rolling on a ball might help manage autoimmune conditions, such as asthma, by reading a guest blog by yoga instructor Meredith Hutten Chamorro on the Yoga Tuneup site.
Meanwhile, if you want to keep your body and mind relaxed, be like old man river and just keep rollin’!