Get the most out of your birthing ball

Birthing balls are hugely popular with pregnant women, but many of them just aren’t used to their full potential. Instead of actually exercising with the ball, too many women leave theirs waiting until they go into labour. Now Supernanny’s fitness expert, Mark Hibbitts, explains just how to get the best out of your birthing ball!

The chances are that if you're pregnant, you either have, or are planning to buy a birthing ball. If so that's fantastic, and there are several reasons why most midwives recommend them during pregnancy.

Sitting on a ball will give you support while forcing you to use good posture. This will be welcome relief for your back, especially during the later stages of pregnancy. Balls have also been used to encourage baby to turn into the correct position, and can often help to make labour more comfortable for the mother to be.

Because of this it's now usual for hospital maternity units to carry a stock of birth balls, although not usually enough for a busy night on the labour ward!

This is all great news, but what's happened to the benefits of actually exercising with the ball? That seems to be something no one in the baby industry, least of all the people buying the balls, knows about. I think this is a real shame, because these balls are one of the best things around for exercising during pregnancy, and also for getting your figure and strength back after the birth.

Why are they so good? Because when you exercise on the ball, you have an unstable base, and that's totally different to exercising on the floor or a bench, both of which are firm and stable.

The instability of the ball makes your body, and your core muscles in particular, work harder to keep you balanced, and in time these muscles will become stronger and stronger resulting in fewer injuries and less back pain. Also during pregnancy your centre of gravity is shifting on a daily basis, so that improvement in balance becomes very important.

Even when pregnant there are lots of exercises you can perform safely on a ball. Once you've been given the go ahead by your doctor (there are several contra-indications to pregnancy exercise, so you should always check with your doctor first), your workout should include exercises for your upper and lower body, your core and your pelvic floor, and also (as mentioned above) for your balance.

Before you start exercising you must learn to activate your transverse abdominus muscles (TVA). These are deep muscles that comprise part of your 'core', and learning to control and strengthen them is necessary to help maintain good posture, alleviate back pain, and prevent injury. To find your TVA, lie on your back and put your fingertips inside your hip bones. If you cough, you’ll feel the muscles beneath your fingers twitch. That’s your TVA. To contract the TVA take a deep breath in, and then breathe out and at the same time pull your belly button in towards your spine. Those of you who've done any pilates will have done this before, and will have heard of the term 'navel to spine' many times.

When you've got the hang of this, try holding it for ten seconds while continuing to breathe. It will be tricky at first but once you've learned to 'fire and sustain' the TVA you will be able to switch it on any time you exercise, lift baby, or do anything else that requires effort.

On a serious note, if you want to use a ball during pregnancy you should always buy the 'anti-burst' variety. Some midwives I've spoken with have told me about cheaper, supermarket brand balls bursting like balloons during labour, and that doesn't bear thinking about. If punctured, an anti-burst ball will deflate slowly and not go pop. It's also important that you perform the exercises correctly in order to avoid injury, so get qualified instruction whenever you can. A quality product like The Miracle Box inclues a good anti-burst ball with detailed teaching instructions. I’ll also be recommending some exercises for you to try out with your ball next month! 

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Mark Hibbits and Newborn Fitness are experts in specially designed exercise programmes and sensible nutritional advice for pregnant women and new mothers.

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