By Abby McLachlan
Future-proof your body with the near-century old spine-friendly practice of Pilates.
Pilates is nearly 100 years old, with origins rooted in healing and rehabilitation. It was invented by Joseph Pilates initially to help fellow inmates develop muscle strength at an internment camp on the Isle of Man but now is performed in gyms and boutique studios around the world.
Like yoga, it’s a mind body practice, matching breath to movement, but in yoga, you use the breath to connect the mind and body to a higher consciousness. The mind body connection in Pilates is more functional – using the breath to focus the mind on the present moment and connect with your body. A work-out as opposed to more of a work-in, in yoga.
Pilates is low intensity, low impact, and inclusive. It’s focused on spinal alignment and the tiny muscles that support your musculoskeletal system. A lifetime of poor posture – hunching over your computer or phone, carrying children and heavy bags on one side – can lead the muscles in your back to become weak and strained, leading to joint and disc issues.
Concentrating on strengthening the deep postural muscles, Pilates raises awareness of how one stands and the general alignment of hips, spine, and head. This awareness alone can go a long way to improving posture, but the strength built with highly targeted, specific exercises will support the spinal column, in effect future-proofing your body. As Joseph Pilates himself says:
“If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
The practice also focuses on supporting the muscles around your spine – your core, the glutes, as well as ensuring the other joints are supporting by strong local muscles, reducing the chance of injury and relieving pain, especially back pain.
As well as developing core strength and improving posture, mobility, strength and flexibility, Pilates also helps with recovery from injury and indeed injury prevention. A regular Pilates session can reduce the risk of injury in other sports or activities by strengthening the local muscles around the joints, meaning you are less likely to injure yourself.
It’s a form of exercise that can be done into old age without any negative impact on the body and joints, and helps maintain cognitive ability, balance, bone density as well as spinal health. Plus, it can improve your sex life at any age through the focus on the pelvic floor (plus increased fitness and endurance!). What’s not to love?
The combination of mindful breathing, plus feeling stronger and fitter with better energy levels, is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and self-esteem.
Pilates exercises can be done very simply in a chair, on a mat, or using a range of equipment, from the wunda chair and barrel, through to a reformer machine or a cadillac. Anyone can do the exercises and benefit from them, whatever your age or level of physical fitness, although if you have any injuries or postural issues, or you are pregnant or post-natal, please always seek advice from a qualified Pilates teacher, and ensure you have the sign off from your health professional before starting.
You can start with a mat or chair and some free YouTube sessions at home, or head to one of the many studios offering Pilates. One of the most popular group Pilates classes is offered on a piece of equipment called the reformer. Over the last 15 years or so, the reformer, (a machine comprising platforms and springs and pulleys), which first developed by Pilates himself using modified hospital beds on the Isle of Man internment camp, has become the go-to for boutique studios across the world.
Pilates can be as hard or easy as you want it, and once you have mastered the basic principles and started building strength and endurance, there are some really challenging workouts to have fun with.
ANTI-AGING PILATES WORKOUTS
This strengthens your bum and stretches your lower spine all at once. Think of your spine as a pearl necklace, you must pick your spine up, bone by bone, by curling your pelvis and pressing up with your bum until your body is in a straight-line at the top. Then, melt back down, ribcage first, still squeezing your glutes until you have landed your pelvis. These are great to do just after waking up, when your spine is still relaxed and malleable.
Lay flat on the floor with your arms out wide, palms down. Stabilize your core and bring your legs into tabletop position. Keep your back as flat as you can and twist your hips up and over to one side, then up and over to the other side, keeping your knees together.
Good for building upper and middle back strength and go a long way to reversing the damage modern life extols. Lay on the floor face down, with one hand on top of the other and your forehead on your hands. With your feet together, stretch your head away from your feet and come into a low hover as you inhale. Exhale to lower back down. Try to slide your shoulder blades down to your back pockets and open your collarbones as you lift to engage as many muscles as you can and support your lumbar spine.
We all know exercise is good for us, but it can be hard to motivate yourself to do a grueling HIIT workout at the end of a long day at work. Regular low impact workouts such as Barre and Pilates have been proven to be very effective in the improvement of cardiovascular health and help maintain a healthy metabolism.
Low impact workouts allow the joints to remain safe and stable (which is incredibly important as the body ages) whilst still working on muscular development, endurance, and increasing the heart rate.
Low impact exercise is particularly beneficial for increasing bone density which is vital in preventing osteoporosis. Static lunges are a great way to get a quick-fix workout in; requiring you to focus on the alignment of the shoulders, engaging your abdominal wall, and strengthening your quadriceps and glutes.
The last word should of course be with Joseph Pilates who said: “You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty sessions, and have a completely new body in thirty sessions.”