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Pilates and Older Adults: A Gentler, Effective Way to Stay Fit

by Ken Endelman

For the older population keeping fit is essential. But so many forms of exercise can be hard on the bodies of older adults. Many have turned to Pilates sessions at their local clubs as a way to stay in shape while reducing the risk of injury that weight-bearing exercises may cause. With its focus on controlled breathing and quality of movement-not quantity of repetitions-many experts agree that Pilates is one of the best ways for older adults to stay healthy.

"Pilates is perfect for older adults because it does not have the impact on the body that other forms of exercise do, and is not nearly as severe on the joints as most workouts are," says Ellie Herman, owner of several Pilates studios, and a renowned Pilates instructor and author. "It really is a gentle way to exercise. If you're an older adult and haven’t exercised in a while, Pilates is a safe way to restart a workout program."

Most conventional workouts tend to build short, bulky muscles more prone to injury–especially in the body of an older adult. Pilates focuses on building a strong "core"–the deep abdominal muscles along with the muscles closest to the spine. Many of the exercises are performed in reclining or sitting positions, and most are low impact and partially weight-bearing. It also can positively affect postural positions.

"Pilates for older adults, particularly on a Reformer (resistance-based equipment with springs and ropes connected to a sliding padded carriage) is wonderful because it is a relatively light resistance as opposed to some gym equipment, where even the lightest weight on the rack might be too much for them," says Beth Williams, a physical therapist at Dynamic Movement in Reno, Nevada.

Increased Stability and Balance

Pilates centers on movements at the midrange of the body instead of the extremities (arms and legs), where, again, the potential for injury is greater. In contrast with other forms of exercise, Pilates develops the midrange and gradually works toward the endrange, while maintaining complete control around the joints. To the benefit of older adults, Pilates teaches control and stability in a small range of motion, graduating to a larger range of motion as they gain control and confidence.

Increased control and stability is crucial for older adults as it can help them improve much of their functional movement, including balance and posture. "As people get older, they can lose some of their balance and coordination. Pilates increases strength and flexibility in both the core and the legs, which positively affects balance. This, along with basic fitness benefits, can help them reduce the risk of falls," says Herman. "And Pilates is also a good way for older adults to rehab from surgical procedures like a hip replacement or knee surgery."

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An Antidote for Many Ailments

Pilates also helps with a variety of age-related ailments. Arthritis sufferers benefit because the gentle mid-range movements decrease the chance of joints compressing while maintaining the range of motion around them. For sufferers of osteoporosis or stenosis, Pilates can also help. For osteoporosis the simple and standing Pilates leg exercises may increase bone density in both the spine and the hip. For lumbar stenosis there are exercises that can stretch out tight back muscles and strengthen the extensor muscles of the spine to counteract the forces of gravity that can pull people into a hunched position. Be careful, however. Any type of flexion exercise, for example, is not good for someone with osteoporosis. Conversely, any type of extension may cause injury to someone with stenosis. If you have either of these conditions it is important that you make sure your Pilates instructor knows how to modify the exercises so that you do not hurt yourself.

Pilates has also been documented to slow or reverse the effects of debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis. The mid-range motion of the exercises can help people overcome rigidity and become more limber. It can even help with brain traumas like a stroke.

"The sooner people with brain damage or a stroke can start balance exercises with Pilates and get their bodies moving symmetrically, the better they will fare in their overall permanent outcome," says Herman.

Most clubs now offer some type of Pilates program. If you are an older adult and are interested in Pilates, talk to the program director about what kind of Pilates class will best benefit you. Many clubs offer classes geared specifically for the older population. It is also a good idea to consult your doctor before you start a Pilates regimen.

Ken Endelman is Founder and CEO of Balanced Body Inc. Ken began his career as a designer and craftsman of fine custom furniture - a background apparent in every piece of hand-finished equipment the company makes. Since the early 1970s, Ken Endelman has updated Joseph Pilates’ equipment with state-of-the-art engineering, materials and technology, many of which have become industry standards. The company has been awarded twenty-four U.S. patents, with more pending. Balanced Body Inc. continues to actively promote Pilates to the fitness industry, the medical profession and the media. This article was originally seen in Beyond Fitness Magazine.