A medicine ball can work well in a home exercise program.  Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The ancient Persians were onto something. More than 3,000 years ago their wrestlers were using animal bladders filled with sand for strength training. Sixteen hundred years later in Ancient Greece, animal skins filled with sand were used in helping injured people regain mobility. Hippocrates, the father of medicine himself, advised people to use them every day as a way to stay healthy.

Today we call those heavy round objects medicine balls and they are standard pieces of exercise equipment in gyms and fitness centers. But they are also a piece of equipment that can easily and inexpensively be incorporated into your own home workouts.

What is a medicine ball?

Medicine balls are also called exercise balls, med balls or fitness balls. In all cases it’s a weighted ball 14 inches in diameter that is available in weights ranging from 2 pounds to 25 pounds.

Modern medicine balls are made out of vinyl, leather, nylon, rubber or polyurethane. Sand is still used to fill and weight them, though gel is also used.

What can a medicine ball do?

Using a medicine ball in a workout is great for your core, arm and leg strength. Other exercises with a medicine ball can also help your balance and coordination. They can even help improve flexibility.

What can you do with a medicine ball?

There are a number of different exercises you can do with a medicine ball at home, according to Wendy Watkins, a Bangor-based personal trainer and health coach. Among her favorites are the floor and wall slams.

“Of course doing them inside depends on your home,” she said with a laugh. “I live in an old home and would not want to smash a medicine ball onto my floors or into my walls.”

The solution if you don’t have a handy interior brick or concrete wall or floor, she said, is to take it outside.

For a medicine ball floor smash, Watkins said to take hold of the medicine ball with both hands, raise it all the way over your head and then smash it to the ground as hard as you can.

“It’s great for your cardio, body power and it’s fun,” Watkins said. “It’s a great stress reliever and if you are mad at someone you can even picture their face on the ground and smash the ball onto it.”

There is no need to worry about the medicine ball rebounding up and smashing you in the face as they do not bounce much at all.

A wall slam is the same idea as the ground slam, you are just throwing it into a wall in front of you and catching it before it hits the ground.

If you want to get your legs in on the workout, Watkins suggests doing squats with a medicine ball.

“Using both hands hold the medicine ball out in front of your body,” she said. “Keep it out there as you lower and come up from your squats.”

You can also hold a medicine ball the same way as you do leg lunges. Or you can rotate your upper body toward the knee that is extended outward.

“The way the medicine ball’s weight is balanced is different from barbells or dumb bells,” Watkins said. “So you are giving a different kind of challenge to your core and legs.”

Watkins is also a fan of using a medicine ball in an exercise she calls “unloading the dishwasher.”

For that, pretend the ball is on the bottom shelf of your dishwasher and lift it at a 45-degree angle as if you are removing a clean plate and putting it on an upper shelf.

Medicine balls can be used to make body planks even more challenging.

“Once you master a regular plank you can put the medicine ball under one hand while you plank,” Watkins said. “You can do the same thing doing pushups.”

If you have a friend or family member who wants to get in on the action, you can toss a medicine ball back and forth in a game of catch.

How much is enough?

Any kind of movement during the day is good for physical and mental health, according to Watkins.

“Especially these days it helps,” she said. “It reduces stress, helps your immune system and boosts those ‘feel-good’ hormones.”

No matter how much time you devote to working out, Watkins said just do it with intention.

“Tell yourself ‘I am going to spend this many minutes or walk up and down my stairs this many times,” she said. “The important thing is to not burn yourself out and once you can do 20 minutes a day, you will start to notice a difference and become hooked on working out.”

Buying a medicine ball

Depending on weight and materials, medicine balls run between $15 and $75. They are available in the athletic or exercise departments at most large department stores. They are also available online.

The important thing is to get a weight that gives you enough resistance and challenge without hindering your motion. The best part is, once your medicine ball is not enough of a challenge, you can always move up to a greater weight.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.