It all, probably, started with the ancient Egyptians around 2,000 B.C., as evidenced by a wall painting in the 15th Beni Hassan tomb depicting groups of women jugglers juggling and passing balls. Some 1,500 years later the Greeks – and again it was popular with women – took to juggling as a form of R&R. Until their Empire fell, the Romans liked to juggle with weapons and shields, the Aztecs had a go (priests juggled balls to predict the future) and in the ancient East shamans juggled in the name of their spirits and to ward off danger.
Europe in the Middle Ages saw harlequins, jesters and jongleurs performing for Royalty and peasant alike, then, from the turn of the 19th century, entertainers juggling with balls and sticks became a regular attraction at variety shows and when the circus rolled in to town. More recently, over the past couple of decades, the art has been strongly revived, re-popularised through street theatre and by companies such as Cirque du Soleil.
So, we’re familiar with juggling as entertainment but what about juggling as a fitness workout? For all-round wellbeing it’s hard to beat: this is goal-based, no-impact aerobic exercise which, for added value, sharpens the mind, improves coordination and de-stresses. Anyone at any age and with any level of fitness can learn to juggle; few can hope to achieve the thirteen ball flash, but that’s not the point.
The point is, juggling is probably the ultimate portable workout – it can be practised pretty much anywhere, and two or three little beanbag-style thud balls or pyramids (from around $3 each) are the only equipment required. And you can throw those balls in the air for a minute or an hour, indoors or out, so time (or the lack of it) need never be an issue. Then there’s the genuine fun-factor – exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise, fine tuning for body and mind with real entertainment value.
An hour’s juggling can burn up to 280 calories, around the same amount as one hour’s walking. It’s aerobic and thus a sound cardiovascular workout. Standing correctly – feet slightly apart, legs relaxed, knees slightly bent – and engaging your core muscles helps to up the exercise factor, strengthening core and leg muscles and toning the body in general. Juggling helps keep arms, wrists and shoulders mobile and supple – ideal for loosening up between spells at the keyboard.
Any activity is better than none and when time’s too tight to go to the gym or when we’re just not in the mood for our regular run or whatever, throw in a bout (even a few minutes) of juggling instead and we can, still, do ourselves a favour.
Because juggling is gentle exercise which puts no stress on joints it’s ideal for anyone with limited mobility – you can even juggle sitting down – and it can be a useful starting point for anyone long-steeped in a sedentary lifestyle but who would like to build towards a more active one.
For online juggling tutorials and to find juggling clubs in your area, check out the links at the end of this feature.
A couple of minutes spent releasing your inner harlequin is the perfect distraction from unwelcome cravings for food, alcohol or cigarettes. Concentration is fixed on the task in hand, eyes and hands are occupied and, lo, the craving is usurped by a feel-good juggle. What’s more, alongside the shift in mindset, that aerobic/cardio element delivers an energy boost. Keep a set of juggling balls to hand in the desk drawer and we have a healthy antidote to the afternoon slump.
And when it all gets too overwhelming, juggling is a quick fix when we need to concentrate and clear the mind. Refreshed and with clarity restored we are able to return to the task in hand. Nagging worries? The same principal applies: keeping your eye on the ball is a great escape.
Juggle regularly and hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills and body-balance will, as you might expect, improve over time and with practice – all are essential elements in overall fitness and functional wellbeing. Incidentally, with regard to such skills, those who consider themselves uncoordinated or clumsy have all the more to gain, so, butterfingers, don’t be put off. Athletes from tennis players to boxers include juggling in their training in order to optimise their coordination, peripheral vision and visual reaction times.
Research published in Nature magazine (2004) found that juggling increased the grey matter in the two areas of the brain involved with visual and motor activity. Though it seems to be a case of use it or loose it because after three months of no juggling the volunteers’ enhanced grey matter had decreased.
Notwithstanding, learning to juggle requires intense focus and, therefore, regularly practising the art helps sharpen the brain and boosts our ability to concentrate – qualities that can give us an edge in all aspects of life. There is also evidence that developing faster visual reaction times can increase reading speed and accuracy and enhance the ability to think logically.
Share a laugh
Age, experience, ability and fitness levels are no barrier, the whole family, a bunch of friends, workmates, and so on can get juggle-fit together. Clown around, have a laugh, share new moves, learn new skills and work out? That’s wellbeing on a (spinning) plate.
Online tutorials and juggling clubs
World Juggling Day is on 15th June
Written by Ruth Tongue
Driemeyer, J, Boyke, J, Gaser, C, Buchel, C & May, A. Changes in Gray Matter Induced by Learning- Revisited. PLoS ONE. 2008; 3(7): e2669