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The history of the exercise ball

The ‘Swiss’ ball was born in Italy

 

The birth story of the exercise ball, nicknamed the ‘Swiss ball’, has always fascinated me. In 1963, Dr. Susanne Klein-Vogelbach, one of the first physiotherapists to use balls with adults who had orthopedic and postural problems, approached an Italian toy maker’s distributor in Switzerland with an unusual request. She knew the Italian toy maker could make all sorts of rubber duckies, animal toys, and plastic Pinocchios, but could he create a ball large and sturdy enough for adult patients recovering from serious back operations to use it safely?

This toymaker was Aquilino Cosani. In the early 2000s I had the opportunity to go to Italy, meet Cosani, and see with my own eyes where these balls were first made.  The journey to the Cosani factory involved not just an overnight flight from Canada but a five-hour train trip from Florence. It felt for me like a pilgrimage. And here’s why.

 

The intersection of my life with the ‘Swiss’ ball was by accident

 

I was first introduced to balls in 1999 at an aerobic-based workout class at my local Y. That class wiped me out physically and made me pay attention. Exercise classes with balls were not that popular back then, yet I was blown away by the challenges of the mobile surface on core-and-weight exercises and the deep comfort of ball stretches. Nothing in my physical past, the years of dance training, childhood gymnastic competitions, or my extensive Pilates training, had quite prepared me for the astonishing rigours of ball work.

Exercise balls were not part of my Pilates training. In 1997 I was certified by the innovative master teacher Moira Merrithew on pieces of equipment with names like Cadillac and Reformer, Chair and Barrel, apparatus you will find in Pilates studios around the world. I loved learning the science and sense behind the equipment, but when it came to setting up my business I wondered if this was the way I wanted to go. The equipment was expensive, not at all portable, and would limit me to teaching private or semi-private sessions.  Early on I had made a decision that I wanted to teach group Pilates classes.

At the same time, I had identified a need among the students in my mat classes for more weight-bearing and resistance training.  Working out with a ball made me think: maybe I could adapt some of the equipment-based Pilates exercises to the ball so that the user would get some of the same benefits of resistance and weight-bearing. In addition, the ball could expose mat students to some of the repertoire of equipment-based routines.  Even though the ball works on the body differently from a piece of Pilates apparatus, the ball has some definite advantages, not the least being that the mobile surface allows for challenge, balance training and fun (see last week’s blog on the unique edge of the ball for strength training).

The decision to invest in balls transformed my life. The popularity of the classes took off as I could never have predicted. People of all ages appeared to connect with the ball in a way that was not possible with a mat or a machine. Soon I had a successful business and a brand. This is why I was so keen to make the pilgrimage to meet Aquilino Cosani, and to see where the beautiful air-filled balls were first created and manufactured.

 

The backstory of the ball

 

The backstory of the exercise ball is told in Joanne Posner-Mayer’s book, Swiss Ball Applications for Orthopedic and Sports Medicine (1995). In the 1970s, Posner-Mayer, a graduate of the University of Colorado’s School of Physical Therapy, practised for seven years with influential and progressive therapists in Switzerland, including the Czech physiotherapist Frau Maria Kucera and therapists trained by Klein-Vogelbach. According to Posner-Mayer, use of a ball for therapy probably began in the late 1950s, when a Swiss pediatrician Dr. Elsbeth Köng and English physiotherapist Mary Quinton developed programs using beach balls to work with neurologically impaired children and babies. Klein-Vogelbach, who had been influenced by Quinton’s Bobath Method, went on to pioneer ball exercises, theory, and clinical applications of the ball for adults during the 1960s. And it was then that Aquilino Cosani created for her exactly what she needed—a safe and sturdy large ball made of durable vinyl.

Born in 1924 to Italian parents, Cosani was first of eight brothers. His father had relocated to Romania in the early 1920s looking for work to feed his growing family. Eventually they returned to Italy and Aquilino studied to become an engineer. He travelled to Milan and worked at Pirelli—a factory that made overshoes, tires, and other products in rubber. He absorbed as much as he could learn, and thought long and hard about how rubber manufacturing could be improved upon. Then in 1948, he returned to the village of Osoppo in northern Italy. With only the help of a friend, he started to make rubber toys in the basement of his house. Little by little his Pinocchios and duckies multiplied, and in 1963 he had to move his operations to the industrial outskirts of the town as he began to export to other parts of Europe. Soon his brand would become associated with ‘Swiss’ balls, manufactured in Italy, and made for rehabilitation and exercise, not the beach.

I met Mr. Cosani at his white and blue factory, Ledraplastic, located almost at the Slovenian border in northern Italy.  Aquilino Cosani was a very distinguished-looking man dressed in a suit and tie, a far cry from my stereotype of Pinocchio’s shabby, long-haired toy-maker father clad in overalls and an apron. He and his sons welcomed me warmly and took me into an impressive showroom displaying balls of all sizes and colours.

A photo of me in the Ledraplastic showroom in early 2000s

I was shy around Mr. Cosani, but delighted to find out that he spoke French.  There was so much I wanted to ask him, if I could figure out the words. Mr. Cosani became less formal as we started to converse in French (I do not speak the language well, but I can understand it).  His eyes twinkled as he remembered his surprise—no, he said, forty years ago he hadn’t any idea what an adult could do with a ball.  And yet this new venture—manufacturing exercise balls– completely changed his business.

“Do you remember how many adult balls were originally made?” I managed to ask him. He paused for a moment, then said he believed that somewhere between one hundred and two hundred balls were first manufactured and sent off to Switzerland. What concerned him was the consistency of the ball. In the beginning he had used a pungent rubber latex from Asia; he next moved to plastic which was more elastic. Finally, he switched to nontoxic latex free, easy-to-clean vinyl.

It’s funny how when you need to communicate you find the words. “When you fulfilled the first order for the adult balls did you ever imagine what this shipment would mean, that it would be the beginning of something much bigger?”  No, he replied to me in French, with one firm shake of the head. “I did not.”

The intersection of my life with Cosani’s creation was a coincidence, and a lucky one at that.

Combining Pilates and the ball made sense for me, and for many others, and it allowed me to build a brand and a career at home and abroad.  Today the ‘Swiss’ ball has many names: yoga balls, Pilates balls, physio balls, birthing balls are merely a few.  The ball has proved to be not just a fad, but here to stay. It has moved permanently out of the realm of rehabilitation to gain a solid place in the Pilates repertoire. Today many Pilates teachers and personal trainers are using balls instead of the more traditional expensive equipment, and are devising their own applications.

If you’re interested to learn more about the story of the exercise ball, I first wrote about it in Strength Training on the Ball.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: The information and services provided in the blogs, videos, website and classes are provided with the understanding that Colleen Craig is not engaged in rendering legal, medical counselling or other professional services or advice.

We highly recommend that you watch the video first before attempting an exercise. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort.

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