You may not have considered… #2: Juggling

Juggling for health and exercise and coordination

It’s been a while since I regaled you with reasons to try Ultimate Frisbee – and I hope those of you who needed something did give it a spin (ha) – so I thought I’d hit you with another one. For the people who aren’t big fans of team sports, this one should be a treat.

Not long before Christmas, a good friend of mine introduced me to the work of a movement fanatic and trainer, Keegan Smith. He is most well-known for being the strength and conditioning coach for the Sydney Roosters NRL team the year they won it all, training big names like Sonny Bill Williams. Keegan himself is a beast who can do advanced handbalancing, heavy squats and explosive olympic lifts as well as just plain move fluidly and easily through his environment. He has begun a group he calls Real Movement Project, focused on helping other people to better themselves athletically.

While I would love to eventually be able to do half of what he does – and I’m working on it all, pretty much, in my own small way – one thing in particular struck a chord with me. I saw a video Keegan posted where teammates in an Aussie Football team were having a juggle-off (which I apologise but I can’t find at the moment). He spoke about how juggling was a great thing to try to improve your coordination and have some fun as well as exercising that “learning a new skill” part of your brain. It looked like great craic, and I resolved to give it a shot.

I was lucky enough to receive a set of nice juggling balls from my sister at Christmas, and I have been juggling for at least five minutes and often up to an hour pretty much every day since.

So why should you consider juggling as a facet of your everyday exercise approach?

1. Coordination is an oft-overlooked part of being a well-rounded human being

Most of our training focuses on getting fitter, stronger, losing weight or getting more flexible. These are all valuable qualities, and worth going after, but we neglect in there some of the smaller things needed to actually use these qualities in real life. Have you ever marvelled at a drummer, able to do such different things with the two halves of his or her body, seemingly reaching for different parts of the kit without looking? That power is the power of great coordination over their limbs. You see these same skills in many of the athletes we so idolise.

In juggling you get a great workout for your hand-eye coordination, constantly testing your control, as well as practice at doing different things at different times with different limbs. This goes not only for the catch part of the juggle but also for the throwing, where you need to try to ensure that each throw, with both your good and bad hands, is consistent and therefore predictable. With good coordination suddenly we open ourselves up to a range of activities that may have been closed to us before, and gain a new confidence in our own bodies.

2. You are forced to use your bad hand

As I’ve spoken about before, using the “wrong” hand is a great way to force your brain into some new patterns and give new neural pathways a good workout. In juggling you simply cannot avoid using your “bad” hand (going to drop the quotation marks going forward as they get pretty tiresome – nearly as tiresome as my chronic overuse of dashes and parentheses) and in fact actively work to improve its abilities.

Like in strength training, you don’t want to work on the two halves of your body in an unbalanced way. It’s important that we work to even out our good and bad sides as much as we can, even if total parity is probably unattainable for most except in highly specific endeavours (and hey, why can’t juggling be one of those?). In juggling, with a simple three-ball cascade (what you’re 99% likely to picture every time you picture juggling) your bad hand is both catching and throwing just as much as your good hand, and has to do so with an equivalent level of consistency. It’s a fantastic workout for that weaker side.

3. It takes rhythm, baby!

If you start juggling, you’re going to at some point try doing it while humming the classic circus tune. As you do so, you’re going to find that there’s a reason that tune is such a classic – the rhythm is perfectly suited to a relaxed, smooth juggle. Rhythm is one of things that people claim you either have or you don’t, but I’d be very surprised if somebody could have no rhythm at all, with no hope of improvement. Juggling is both a good way to put that to the test and to improve it.

When juggling, you’re going to have a bad time until you find the rhythm. For each person the rhythm will be different, dependent on how high and how hard they throw the balls. Over time you’ll find yourself able to nod your head, stamp your foot or even wiggle your hips along with the rhythm of your own juggling. Juggling gives you a sense of the rhythm that I’d only felt before in while drumming, or getting very into dancing. You can feel it through your hands and then body in a way that might be new to someone who has previously felt very rhythmically-challenged. If you’ve ever considered yourself such, I’d urge you to give juggling a good go. It’s a feeling everyone should experience.

4. It’s a challenge

As Lisa Simpson says, “I want a challenge, but one I can do!” I think juggling fits the bill perfectly for a learning challenge. It’s possible for anyone to learn some basic juggling movements and tricks, as long as they’re willing to put in the same kind of patience and diligent practice that learning any skill involves.

For me, I find it very similar to learning a musical instrument. With an instrument though, you usually have a long way to go before you are able to play anything you’re particularly proud of. Mary Had A Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle, or the basic 4/4 groove on drums, are a long way from ripping off some Prince licks (seriously Prince is an amazing musician – I know, I was shocked when I found out too) or rocking out Danny Carey-style to Lateralus. By contrast, a couple of hours will get you from zero to a stop-start three ball cascade, something you will probably want to show people. In fact, if you have someone in person to show you and walk you through it or find a YouTube video that resonates with you properly, you might even get there faster. I taught my friend Seph – he of the corned beef fame – to juggle in about twenty-five minutes.

It’s a challenge that grows with you, though, and I think that for an amateur doing it for fun it offers a lifetime of growth potential, while being rewarding all the while. Learning is a massive thing for the human brain – it keeps us young and sharp – and it can be even better when tied to a physical component. Our bodies love to move, after all!

5. It’s surprisingly good exercise

Speaking of which, as well as being a great test of, and way to work on, your hand-eye coordination, juggling is not bad physical exercise. If you keep the pace up as a beginner like myself, dropping balls left right and centre and using the opportunity to get down and pick them up in interesting and novel ways – cossack squats are great, normal squats, lunges, etc – you can easily work up a sweat. Not to mention if you come across some heavier balls you can get a nice bicep pump from the activity. The people in my Las Palmas gym have been amused on more than one occasion watching me try to juggle the small medicine ball things they have in the MMA section of the gym floor.

It’s also a great way to wake your body up and warm-up for a morning (or evening) gym workout, getting you moving in a not-too-taxing way while waking your brain up and putting you in touch with your body and senses.

6. It’s a great stress-reliever and constructive break activity

My new favourite way to take a break while working is to grab my (juggling) balls and throw them around for five minutes. For all the above reasons, it really takes you out of what you were doing in a beneficial way.

Many people take their Pomodoro breaks (or just randomly-taken breaks) as opportunities to check their Reddit, Instagram or Facebook feeds. These activities do offer some respite from tough work problems, but in a way that’s distracting rather than constructive. By getting involved in that stuff you tend to open one or more narrative threads in your brain, loops of thought and investigation that you’ll need to close before you can get over them. An example would be someone famous being mentioned in a Reddit thread, which prompts a Wikipedia check on their name, which prompts reading about their bandmate, then the bandmate’s wife… Before you know it you’ve fallen down a Wiki hole and basically dumped a load of brain resources into something that won’t really help you out.

By contrast, something like juggling has the benefits of the everyday exercise approach while also being a very mindful, absorbing activity. The rhythmic elements and physical agency of it take you away from your thoughts in much the same way as going for a walk does – and in the same way, you can often return from five minutes of juggling break to find that your brain has a new idea for solving the problem you had before your break. You don’t force your brain to run off down these rabbit holes or give it the kind of noisy input that most internet avenues for breaks offer, instead acting almost like a form of meditation, enabling you to stop thinking too much and relax into something sort of mindless.

I realise that this only really works for people who either work from home or have somewhere quiet to go on their breaks (or have extremely understanding colleagues) but it’s a huge plus if you can make it work. It’s honestly made my work days far better. As a bonus, a few five minute breaks per day can add up to quite a lot of practice time over the course of a week!

7. Bonus Video – juggling as meditation and chronic pain soother

I only just found this video while editing this post, but it’s gold. It confirms my feeling that juggling is like a form of moving meditation and all the benefits inherent in that.

Apparently if you have some chronic pain it may even clear that up for you. Thinking about it I might be experiencing this benefit without even having been realising it. My shoulder has been basically fine since Christmas despite having a near three-week layoff from proper training due to a period of illness I just couldn’t shake. Normally, that long without getting proper scapular training in (good form pullups, rows and static holds with an emphasis on scapular function) would have me experiencing some pretty bad right shoulder pain as old dysfunctional movement patterns kicked in again (at least that’s what I think does it), but not this time. The funny part is that only a couple of days ago I was actually thinking about this and wondering what the difference was. I put it down to my daily mobility training at the time, but it’s quite possible that the juggling is also a factor.

Check it out, it’s worth five minutes of your time if you’ve gotten this far.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for a really off-the-beaten-track physical activity, a new skill, something novel to learn or a way to actively relax (and potentially clear up some chronic pain), juggling might be just the ticket.

At the very least, you might find that you have some fun!