Yoga ball = School chair?

Today’s Star Tribune printed an article out of Pennsylvania, Teachers make move to improve student focus by ditching desk chairs in favor of yoga balls. The shallow article does not include specific references and vaguely refers to nonexperimental research. Do you trust the article?

The research

I took it upon myself to find the research. Oddly enough, I have yet to find any scholarly research that supports the claims made in this news article. The research of Kilbourne (2009), who is mentioned in the article, is unscientific and purely qualitative. For example, students were asked before and after using the exercise balls to rank their perceived level of focus. A self-report measure, really? How about – at a minimum – using a math time table test score????

The ball 

A yoga ball? The stability ball – best known to Americans as a Swiss ball – has origins in physical therapy. Pilates, yoga, and other schools of exercise adopted the tool, incorporating them into workouts. I have a number of friends who are teachers – would you seriously consider replacing your chairs with stability balls on a permanent basis?

Improved focus

This is a hot research topic in my field (sport and exercise psychology). Does exercise improve cognitive processes? Cognitive performance seems to be improved by lower exercise intensities immediately after exercise, but by higher intensities after a period of physical recovery (Pesce, 2012). Further, findings support that with increasing cognitive task difficulty, performance would be worsened by a withdrawal of resources away from the task and towards motor control (Pesce, 2012). In dual-processing tasks – one task will always suffer.

Improved balance & posture

There is no scientific evidence that sitting on a stability ball will improve balance. Based on what exercise physiologists know about the human body and its ability to adapt, an individual may see minimal improvements initially and then nothing moving forward. In fact, as the human body adapts to sitting on a stability chair, posture will not be effected and may even be adversely effected.

Inappropriate generalization

This is a common error of our society – cherry picking information and applying it in ways that are not intended. For example, there is plenty of evidence to support the dose response of exercise (Everhart, 2012; Travlos, 2010). Attention levels and aptitude to learn have been shown to increase following bouts of physical activity.

The bottomline

Research supports improved learning following physical activity. The research specific to concurrent physical activity remains inconclusive. The reports in this article are unfounded and need to be critically assessed before implemented. The proposed benefits, such as improved focus, defy research findings – as well as logic.

One important aspect of school is learning social skills and socially acceptable behaviors. Allowing children to bounce all day? – maybe I am the only one that views this as a way to exacerbate attention disorders. Children need to learn to sit still, as they will need to sit still in life. While children are designed and need to move, it would be more beneficial to get out of the chair on a more consistent basis.

While there may be minimal benefits – there are also significant physiological and biomechanical risks associated with the use of stability balls as chairs.

However, sitting on a ball could reduce the prevalence of leg crossing – which may reduce hip and knee injuries – but this is me making a hypothetical claim (I did not find any research to support this).

References

Everhart, B. (2012). The influence of daily structured physical activity on academic progress of elementary students with intellectual disabilities. Education,133(2), 298-312.

Kilbourne, J. (2009). Sharpening the Mind Through Movement: Using Exercise Balls as Chairs in a University Class. Chronicle Of Kinesiology & Physical Education In Higher Education20(1), 10-15.

Pesce, C. (2012). Shifting the Focus From Quantitative to Qualitative Exercise Characteristics in Exercise and Cognition Research. Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology34(6), 766-786.

Travlos, A. K. (2010). High intensity physical education classes and cognitive performance in eighth-grade students: An applied study. International Journal Of Sport & Exercise Psychology8(3), 302-311.

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3 thoughts on “Yoga ball = School chair?

  1. Stability balls are used with children who have attention issues to help them stay on task. It works. Saying that they need to learn to sit still works for the average (ignoring the past million years of human history where we were constantly moving every day) but there are those who cannot just be forced to sit still. Those with attention issues focus on everything. They can sit and play with toys during a lecture then get up and answer questions and even pass tests based on that information. Sitting on the ball allows for passive activity that takes some of their attention and actually increases attention on the task at hand. T-chairs are another therapeutic tool used to direct focus. A chair with one leg is difficult to sit on and when the student loses focus, he/she will begin to fall over. This brings focus back to the task.
    The old model of cookie cutter education where everyone is treated the same and we expect them all to excel has been found to be wanting and inviable. Having a stability ball sounds like they might have fun…in school…unheard of in the past. This is a new world of education. Models are changing to be more effective and helpful in getting to childrens’ potential, not just trying to get results. Things you and I did when we were in school would be unheard of now. the amount of teasing, the types of things said to others were not only mean, but could get you suspended now. Sitting in the back of the room and not answering is no longer part of the paradigm. Children are increasingly engaged in classrooms, not sitting doing ‘bellwork’ or listening to the teacher talk for an hour.
    Research has shown that engaged students not only learn better but they like to learn. My favorite memories were about projects in school. Being involved in every aspect of the learning helped me to pick up on and actually retain the information.
    I wish more schools would increase the amount of physical activity before the critical subjects. Spark has a lot of information about this http://www.amazon.com/Spark-Revolutionary-Science-Exercise-Brain/dp/0316113506

    • Further, there is research that supports focus improvements associated with being in the attentional position. Using the ball as a tool to shape an attentional position can makes sense. The ball encourages this position, the teacher enforces it. Bouncing…not a component of the attentional position.

      SO, there definitely are some benefits – but this is simply a case of misapplication.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I agree that we need to increase activity – and the Spark book emphasizes aerobic activity – or as I mentioned above the dose response effect. The evidence for this is undeniable. But there is a significant difference between a dose response and a concurrent activity. I would like to see the evidence (peer-reviewed, scientific, scholarly) to support that concurrent activity improves focus of all students within a classroom. Everything that I have seen states conversely.

    Yes, there is evidence that use of a stability ball in a therapeutic setting (and most predominantly effective for lifeskills) can be beneficial – my issue is taking this out of context and overgeneralizing.

    Your example of the child sitting on the one-legged chair – the child falls, looses focus, and regains focus on. The child regains focus on what? Not falling off the chair – a life skill – and THEN possibly the learning task. Beneficial? Yes. Applying to a full classroom of students and telling ourselves and them that focus will improve? Eh!

    Further, I agree that engagement is crucial – but the claim that sitting on a yoga ball will increase focus is incredibly far fetched. Nor will it actually improve fitness, balance, posture, etc. Can it add fun to the learning experience – perhaps. Does it have a therapeutic benefit to some – yes. But if every classroom suddenly has balls in place of chairs – and we tell ourselves and our students that this will increase focus – when test scores and other measurements do not actually improve, do we blame the ball?

    Using a ball as a chair more than likely most benefits the individual providing the stimulus (the ball as a chair). The individual can feel good for having done something to ‘improve’ performance. When really, the research supports dose response and improvements following bouts of exercise. So how about we take 10 minutes of every hour to do calisthenics or a game that brings us to our feet?

    I am not saying that there are no benefits to using the ball – there is a time and a place. And implemented appropriately they can work wonders. My issue is with improper application and acknowledgement of research.

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